April 1, 2013 by Amy Ryall
To what extent should public engagement always be linked to research? It’s a question that comes up time and time again when we talk about the value of public engagement activity, both for researchers and for external partners. This blogpost is by Gary Rivett, a Postdoc Research Associate in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. Gary convenes the Stories of Activism in Sheffield 1960-present oral history and archiving project. This led to his recent involvement in an event at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield, discussing The Battle for Orgreave, a film about the infamous Miners’ Strike clash between miners and the police around the village of Orgreave in 1984. You can watch the film on You Tube
In a reflection on the event, Gary addresses the crucial question of the point of public engagement and the importance of academics responding to the world outside of the university, rather than always trying to direct it.
On Saturday 23 March, at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield, I sat and listened to the stories of Arthur Critchlow and Barbara Jackson, as they answered questions after the screening of Yvette Vanson’s powerful and evocative documentary The Battle for Orgreave (1985). I was there as a member of the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Peace History, which co-organised the event with the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign as part of the Labour and Activism series. Poignant, and at times saddening, the afternoon ended on a high note of hope and positivity and made me think about the purpose of public engagement and what it means.
Arthur was a miner, present at Orgreave on 18 June 1984, as police officers confronted picketers on the fields and streets around the coking plant: it was one of the high points of the Miners’ Strike. Arthur was brutally beaten by police officers—the solicitor who visited him, Gareth Pierce, was unsure if he was going to make it—and arrested on charges of riot. He did make it, and went to trial. He was acquitted of all charges along with 11 other defendants when the trial collapsed due to severe and inexcusable problems with police evidence. Arthur appears in the film. He recounts his terrible and painful ordeal in what is arguably one of its most moving moments. Arthur shared the harrowing and emasculating experiences that surrounded his being charged—a story not in the documentary. He was speaking publicly for the first time since he appeared in that film, nearly thirty years ago.
Barbara Jackson, formerly of Sheffield Women Against Pit Closures, and now involved with the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, talked passionately of the ongoing struggles to bring police officers to account for their tactics and actions against the picketers. Unrelenting in her anger and her drive to get justice for the miners, Barbara informed us of the campaign’s aims and strategies. With Arthur, she made clear that the battle and the film—which had not been broadcast since its original airing on Channel 4 in 1985—should not be forgotten. They are too important for the history of late-twentieth-century Britain, how it should be understood and the resonances that remain in the communities affected by pit closures, government policy, and police brutality. Showing the film reminded us all why it was important for a public enquiry into the events at Orgreave.
It was unlike any public engagement event I have ever encountered. It left me wondering how to talk about this event under the ‘public engagement’ rubric. Concepts that are supposed to describe the purpose and outcome of these types of events, such as ‘knowledge transfer’, ‘knowledge exchange’ or ‘impact’, are, frankly, inappropriate. Sheffield University’s public engagement agenda places great emphasis on all activities being research-led. Our engagement should aim to disseminate our research to a wide range of audiences, to enrich their appreciation of the past and its relevance to their lives today. While on the face of it, the film showing achieved that, it was not directly linked with my research, or any research currently being undertaken within the Centre for Peace History.
When taken together, the film showing of Battle for Orgreave and subsequent panel discussion, in my view, actually indicated the potential of public engagement when it is not directly tied to research dissemination. Of course, to a large extent our research interests and questions led us to create this event. I could say something about how my interests in how people have, historically, fought for recognition, justice and dignity are relevant. But that would be to miss the point: there was something more important going on here. An opportunity was opened up for people to tell powerful stories that will contribute to their fight and struggle for sorely needed justice.
As important as public lectures, exhibitions, or working with partners in the arts and culture sector can be, it is equally important that our research acts as a means, and is part of a process, that facilitates and create spaces for meaningful, constructive, and ongoing collaboration with communities. It might be hard to define a specific outcome, or count how many people were involved (110 people if you want to know: a sell out, with people turned away). The result might be unpredictable and intangible.
A broader question lurks here: what are our responsibilities as citizen academics? In our rush to fulfil a research-led impact agenda, driven by the REF, have we properly confronted this issue? Are we too willing to make assumptions about what the ‘public’ wants or might benefit from? Sheffield is not unique in this regard. It is systemic across higher education institutions. Public engagement, as it is currently understood and performed, can run the risk of entrenching already existing divisions between universities and the public: between experts and non-experts. Focusing the bulk of our attention on creating ‘outputs’ that disseminate our research, without actually identifying—with local partners—what people might need from universities, one potential, and, to my mind, unsavoury, outcome is likely: university paternalism.
The Battle for Orgreave film showing demonstrated that an alternative model is possible