Many researchers don’t want to do public engagement. Few consider it part of their core mission, many consider it a waste of their time. As for higher education institutions, they send out a mixed message: yes, please do it, but do it in your own time.
The problem is that public engagement is perceived as taking valuable time away from research, which is already compressed by teaching and administration. It also requires a considerable amount of preparation and even training to deliver effectively. So even when engaging with the public is unavoidable, because it has been worked into the dreaded “impact” section of a grant application, it is either done begrudgingly or palmed off to junior colleagues on the basis that it is all good experience for them.
However, for early career researchers, such duties are often even less welcome than for their senior colleagues. Indeed, on top of meeting faculty expectations for the research excellence framework (REF), and soon the teaching excellence framework (TEF), they have the added joy of being on short-term or fixed-term contracts and having to meet ever-changing requirements in order to land a permanent position.
In the current climate, in what is a highly competitive field, publishing a string of traditional research outputs such as journal articles is seen as a surer route to landing a permanent lectureship.
Add on to this that quite a number will have family commitments, and so can’t give up their evenings to talk about how everyone should read Roland Barthes, Victor Hugo or Charles Paul de Kock. Quite apart from the fact that you would rather some academics stayed locked up in their cupboard offices and musty archives than engage in conversation with anyone in the outside world.
Viewed in such a way, public engagement like something definitely to be avoided.
Despite this, there are many benefits to be gained from positively engaging with cross-sector publics, both on a personal and institutional level, and particularly for ECRs. For one, it is truly refreshing to be able to address large and diverse audiences on topics close to one’s research interest, rather than a smattering of a few crusty specialists at conference parallel sessions.
And just because people haven’t written three books on post-Kantian aesthetics or Schopenhauer’s theories of untranslatability, that doesn't mean they don’t have anything to contribute to your topic.
In much the same way that interdisciplinary research projects open hitherto unimagined avenues for research, generalist conversations at public events can provide new perspectives and shift your perception of a subject. Talking at literary festivals, appearing in the media and writing blog posts forces you to express your ideas with added clarity.
You learn that making a valid point or providing astute criticism does not imply using convoluted sentence structures and deliberately obtuse vocabulary.
I am fortunate to work at an institution that takes public engagement seriously. For one, it curates a national festival of the humanities. Public engagement is seen as a natural extension of research promotion and facilitation duties: seminars and conferences are intended to be open events that attract specialists and non-specialists alike.
But public engagement is valuable to all institutions. It can only be beneficiary to have staff engage with publics beyond the staff and students enrolled on their courses. It helps promote the researcher, the department and the university thereby ensuring future recruitment.
With the move to making more research available on open access it also encourages people to visit institutional repositories and staff pages.
Higher education is changing as a sector. More than ever it seems that brand image and visibility are seen as important by senior management at universities and research centres. Engaging with the public both heightens visibility and reinforces brand image.
But more than that, it ensures that universities are places that radiate learning and that researchers are also teachers and public intellectuals. And it is for these reasons that research promotion and public engagement should be the new imperatives for Early-Career Researchers.
Dominic Glynn is a lecturer in French studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.
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