October 17, 2013 by Amy Ryall
Kate Geller is a student on the MA in Public Humanities. She also works part-time at the University of Sheffield, in Research and Innovation Services. Here she writes on the validation of research and the challenges that the question of worth can present across the university.
The first session of the module Understanding Public Engagement began with a discussion on our own understandings of public engagement, what it is, why it is useful as well as challenges it may face. The group is a vibrant mix of PhD and MA students with varied backgrounds; it was extremely interesting hearing the types of research the PhD students were undertaking. The range varied from the Mexican drug war, to Coal Miners readings of the Bible to the modern role of classical music. One of the important purposes of public engagement we noted was its role in validation of research and as a way to receive feedback – which may be rather intimidating for researchers! Public engagement as a two-way system, the university reaching out but also the public reaching in, key to the ‘Civic University’ role of The University of Sheffield.
Finding ways to apply research is something I have come across every day in the last year. My non-student-self works in Higher Education with a very different public engagement focus – the relationship between universities and small to medium-sized enterprises. My focus in this role is on science and engineering. The PhD students my working life has brought me into contact with work almost exclusively with semiconductors, the basis of much of the technology we have become accustomed to as part of modern life. For these researchers it is very easy to validate their work, they produce a product, one which is applicable, used in everyday life and extremely valuable outside of academia. For example the computer, phone or tablet from which you are reading this relies on semiconductors, as does all your computerised technology.
However when we move into the arts and humanities it seems there is a grey area, how can we verify the worth of an idea or a piece of music? How can we judge in numbers the worth of something so personal as poetry? How do we deal with research which may be highly confrontational, which may explore the basis of a community or a personal belief system, which may question how we understand the world around us or our history? This research is certainly equally as valuable both to the university and to the public, this research is the basis of how we understand society and how we understand each other. Those out there with an interest or an appreciation know this already; however public engagement should reach beyond those groups and should also make us look internally.
As a university do we recognise this equality of worth or value of research across all our faculties? I don’t think there is one unified answer but as it becomes desirable for Higher Education institutions to develop a ‘third mission’ – one which encompasses a relationship with the public, this question is going to be central.