June 18, 2013 by Amy Ryall
Richard Finn is a PhD candidate in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. His research is in the field of Comics Studies and this year, he has undertaken a public engagement project as part of his involvement in the Practical Public Engagement module, linked to the University’s Doctoral Development Programme. Finn exhibited his project as a work in progress at a recent Faculty of Arts and Humanities event which aimed to showcase public engagement activity to the wider University and beyond. Here, he recounts his experience of explaining his project to that audience and engaging in discussion about it.
On 5 June, I previewed some of the output of a public engagement project, undertaken as part of the PPE seminar series, at the event This is Arts Enterprise: a showcase of collaborative projects Before I get onto my experience at the Showcase, I’ll explain a bit about the project, how it’s developed and what I’ve learned from it.
For some months now, I’ve been working in collaboration with local and regional artists on putting together an anthology of original artworks exploring themes of self-publication and accessible multimedia either reflexively or through reflections on the city of Sheffield and its culture. After relaxing my initial conviction to limit contributions to strictly formalist discussions of comics theory (turns out, unsurprisingly, other people aren’t as thrilled by this prospect as I am), we negotiated the broader remit described above.
This resulted in a loose mission statement, an eclectic range of submissions and a surprising thematic unity that I’m now in the process of teasing out by pulling together the artists’ submissions into an edited volume. It’ll be entitled A Sheffield Metazine and should be dropping in the next month or so, so watch this space for future announcements!
Through this process of collaboration and co-authoring, I’ve realised the importance of identifying basic commonalities between mine and my co-participants motivations. They turned out, broadly speaking, to be: freedom of expression and stylistic liberty through self-publication and the complex expressive potential of superficially simplistic, reductive and accessible media (cartoons, comics, caricature).
The lesson I’ve learnt from this process, in terms of encouraging engagement with my own research, can be summarised as follows: lose the detail (interesting to self- and institutionally-professed experts); maintain the ethos (interesting to experts-by-experience). This practice of generalising away from the specifics of research is not only valuable as a strategy for enabling wider engagement, it also feeds back into integral research processes such as self-evaluation, reflection, conclusion and projection.
Returning to the Showcase, then, I found that presenting the preliminary outcomes of the project required a further iteration of the process described above and provided very similar benefits. As with the design and development of the project itself, discussions with members of the public and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities were highly negotiated and centred on shared points of interest in my narrative of the process and in the content or style of the artists’ works.
While the project itself had been based on a shared interest, the challenge with a more general audience was to find common points of interest beyond artistic practices, composition and theories of communication.
As a result, I had lively and engaging discussions about a variety of themes highlighted by my work:
Shun Li’s illustration, below, gave rise to a discussion on the nature of narrative across non-verbal, non-sequential modalities.
The cultural status of comics and the shocking almost-season-finale of Game of Thrones was highlighted by Stef Bradley’s cartoon:
Marco Brunello’s contribution allowed the liberations and limitations associated with self-publication to be addressed:
And both Liam Fryer (top) and Emily Wilkes dealt with the demise of castle market and provoked a debate on the aesthetics of Sheffield’s brutalist architectural heritage.
During the course of the evening, I was forced to come to terms with the shameful admission of my lack of familiarity with the opus of Lady Gaga in a discussion of this illustration by He Xu.
These diverse discussions again enlightened my understanding of my own research positions and their broader relevance to other people’s interests, which I hope was reflected in the experience of those I talked with.
Venturing out of my own little corner, the Showcase itself was a fantastic opportunity to see the full range of public engagement with research that’s going on in the faculty. As I was exhibiting, I was somewhat pushed for time, but managed to take in neighbouring displays from fellow PhD students Lucy Brown (Objects of Love: The Material Culture of Marriage), Ellie Bird (The Art of Cookery), Janine Bradbury (We are Here) and Bridie Moore (Passages Theatre) all of which were interesting not only as examples of practical engagement, but especially in terms of the research, content, and achievements they were showcasing. Some of the staff-led initiatives run across departments in the faculty, such as Kate Pahl, Richard Steadman-Jones and Johan Siebers’s ‘Communicating Wisdom’ project, were particularly inspiring and have motivated me to consider the possibilities of interdisciplinary collaboration and building ongoing reflective practice into any future projects that I undertake.