Pic – Blue plaque badges distributed by Dr Debbie Maxwell at ‘Public Engagement as Method in the Arts & Humanities.
Public Engagement as Method in the Arts and Humanities – University of Sheffield, 5 July 2016
Last week I took part in a one-day symposium at the University of Sheffield on Public Engagement as Method in the Arts and Humanities. The day offered a welcome opportunity for both academics and practitioners involved in public engagement to reflect on how engaging with ‘the experiential, embodied, communal and dispersed nature of knowledge changes the role of the researcher’. In other words the symposium invited discussion on how engaging with the public influences and shapes what it means to be a researcher in the arts and humanities.
The discussion throughout the day was very rich indeed. There were fascinating presentations from Casey Strine (Sheffield) Sarah Pogoda (Sheffield), Jen Grove (Exeter), Tony Graves (De Montfort) and Debbie Maxwell (York) – all people who are helping to re-think (often through practice) what it means to be an engaged researcher. Debbie Maxwell’s alternative ‘blue plaques’ (pictured above) provided some inspirational messages for the day.
My own contribution to the symposium – a ten-minute provocation on operating in a hybrid role somewhere between researcher and public engagement manager, is reproduced below.
The Divided Self: forging identities in the academic hinterland
My name is Michael Eades and I work at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. I have a slightly unusual, hybrid role there, as is probably summed up in my slightly unusual job title: ‘Cultural Contexts Research Fellow & Public Engagement manager’. I am a researcher, but the majority of my professional role is in public engagement. At the moment I am therefore balancing my own research with a more managerial role coordinating public engagement activity for SAS and running Being Human, the UK’s national festival of the humanities.
The best of both worlds in some ways, and a very privileged placed to be. At the same time though this is sometimes a tricky hinterland to navigate.
In this short talk I want to offer some provocations on the benefits, and the tensions, of inhabiting a hybrid researcher/engagement role. Increasingly a ‘portfolio career’ is the expected norm, rather than the exception, for those embarking on an academic career. This expectation reflects a broader shift in attitudes towards work, research and creativity across the sector, across society and indeed on the level of subjectivity itself.
Of course this talk is highly subjective, but hopefully not solipsistic. I am using my own personal experience as a reference point– but I think and hope that this will reflect the experiences of others at a relatively early stage of their academic careers.
I want to use this talk to open up some of the following questions:
- Are efforts to embed ‘portfolio’ models of working within academic training (e.g. collaborative doctoral awards) a productive development – or do they devalue academic training?
- Are academic identities by their very nature plural, contingent?
- Should they be expected to be so?
- Are ‘we’ (both academics and professional staff) going to have to just get used to a certain amount of slippage and ambiguity in our roles? If so, how might we better adapt our professional identities to cope with this?
My pathway to public engagement
The first thing to say is that I am a big believer in public engagement – and have found my explorations of this particular pathway to have been some of the most rewarding parts of my career to date.
My move towards public engagement was driven partly by frustrations with my PhD and the context within which I was doing it, partly by worries about getting a job, and – something that I want to stress – partly by the theoretical conclusions of my thesis itself. I spent four years at the University of Nottingham researching ideas of artistic community – which led to the conclusion that I needed to go out and, to a certain extent, practice what I preached.
This led me to do quite a bit of moonlighting around my PhD, organising events and outreach projects, and also undertaking an internship through the University of Nottingham’s graduate School that allowed me to work with some community arts charities and organisations in Nottingham.
Since submitting my PhD in 2012 I have been trying to develop a new model of working and a new approach to research – one that actually embodies some of the conclusions of my thesis and which draws upon some of the traditions that I explored within that work – for example the Mass-Observation movement of the 1930s, the Bloomsbury group, and certain strands of socially engaged art and research practice of the 1950s and 1960s.
This thinking has informed the two major projects that I have completed post-PhD.
The first of these, ‘Bloomsbury Festival in a Box: engaging socially isolated people with dementia’ was a nine-month AHRC-funded research project working with a community festival and with people living alone with memory problems in Bloomsbury and Camden.
The second was on a much larger scale: setting up and running the Being Human festival of the humanities, which we established in 2014 and which is coming into its third year soon now in November.
Festivals large and small, you might say. Both of these projects were directly inspired by research undertaken during my thesis, and I view them as attempts to enact the modes of engaged research, curatorship and artistic practice that I had researched in my thesis.
Research Practice – narratives of consolation
So, the past few years have been partly serendipitous and partly, as I see it, an evolution of conclusions reached through research.
One of the things that I have found interesting and helpful over the past few years is that I’ve begun to actively shape a narrative of the type of practitioner that I want to be. This is a process of academic identity forming that I think is actually very important for anyone working in academia or in the academic hinterland.
For me, this has involved a thinking and working back to my art school days and a re-casting of my work as a form or research practice. What I mean by that is that I think of what I do increasingly in project based terms – accepting different types of outputs from those (a festival, an exhibition, an article, etc.) – in a way that blurs the line between the two sides of what I do. This is the glue that holds together the ‘divided self’.
This process of identity forming is very important, I think, for anyone working in academia or in the academic hinterland. We need to question and interrogate, and re-configure, the kinds of practitioners that we want to be – take ownership of those identities rather than simply adapting ourselves to pre-determined roles. Public engagement – which is still on the margins of ‘legitimate’ academic activity – can provide a very important catalyst for this process.
So, I am quite happy with my hybrid identity, and my split personality. I feel like it reflects long standing beliefs and, importantly, has grown directly from my research.
The danger though is of course that what I have constructed – and what we are all encouraged to construct – is a conciliatory narrative that flatters vanity whilst also adapting us perfectly to a precarious and sometimes exploitative job market. Does all this flexibility soften us up as easy prey? Are we being prepared for jobs that don’t exist?
The current climate does offer a fair amount of freedom and flexibility to do this, but of course that freedom and flexibility also comes at a cost. Precarity is the flip-side of freedom, and is always ready to adapt itself to flatter academic vanity and self-delusion.
In conclusion, I think that the blurred boundaries and open doors currently on offer in the academic hinterland are a good thing. I think that collaborative doctoral awards, graduate schools etc. are a good thing too insofar as they give us the keys to some of those doors.
The hinterland itself is no bad thing, I think. What we need to make sure of though is that firm ground exists on either side of it, and that we are able to move between positions of stability, not constant precarity.