My Dan Brown moment

The impact agenda came roaring to unruly life for a self-confessed shy bookworm when his work on Plato's 'musical code' drew the attention of the international media. Jay Kennedy tells the tale

November 4, 2010

What happens when serious scholarship meets the 24-hour news cycle? Who wins when a philosopher is dragged blinking out of the rare-book library into a blazing blogosphere? More importantly, what can a first-timer's account of his Lucky Jim-style adventures with the media tell us about impact and how to get more of it?

This summer, the University of Manchester issued a semi-sensationalised press release about my claim that there are musical patterns in the works of Plato, on the day it appeared in Apeiron, a leading journal for ancient philosophy. This made the news sections in The Guardian, the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and on the BBC's website. Within hours, headlines spread from the US to China and across scores of news websites. Interviews were broadcast in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The level of coverage was highly unusual for a story on humanities research, and ignited an online furore over the broader implications for the funding debate. As one incensed classicist put it: "At the end of the day what is worrying is not so much the contents of Kennedy's argument but the chance of this becoming a benchmark of impact activity."

The shy bookworm at the centre of all this was completely unprepared for his 15 seconds of fame. Michael Worboys, director of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, suggested the press release, and I thought it might catch the attention of a few scholars.

Three days after the press release, I was wading through hundreds of emails when I clicked on what appeared to be either a practical joke or every academic's dream. The William Morris talent agency in Beverly Hills had approached me on behalf of a "client" who had seen my "amazing research" and was "interested in developing a feature film using elements of the research to tell a story".

So it was, the Sunday after that fateful press release, that I found myself in my least shabby blazer, sitting in the restaurant of Manchester's Lowry Hotel, better known as a gathering place for models and Manchester United players. My Hollywood contact had flown in from Los Angeles for a power lunch.

Tara fit the part: tall, thirtyish, great almond eyes and a swish summer suit in flowing pastels that said money.

But I'd done my homework on Google. This mover and shaker was not just another empty-headed follower of Hollywood trends. She was educated. A book written by her father had won a Pulitzer prize. Don't be nervous, I told myself, it would be like talking to a colleague. But I had forgotten how Californian Californians can be.

Her opener, as a waiter filled our glasses, was: "Hey, my boss imports this water from Europe. It's perfectly balanced to match the pH of the human body!"

She handled script development and was currently working on the next instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean series. A rising Hollywood star who was just completing a film with Russell Crowe wanted to secure the film rights to my story.

"What story?" I asked. "Do you want me to write something?"

"No," she replied, "we want the rights to your academic article."

"But it's full of ancient Greek!" I spluttered.

Tara was very good at the Hollywood lovey-dovey treatment. Even I had heard of the names she was dropping, and my "brilliant research" was destined to be a permanent contribution to knowledge.

"Well," I said as we finished. "I've never said anything like this before, but I guess your people will have to talk to my people."

She was back in LA on Tuesday, and soon after that she FedExed my kids two large boxes of Pirates of the Caribbean toys and books, and posters signed by the stars.

The next Thursday night I was alone in a small, darkened room fiddling with my bulky headphones. Late-shift BBC workers outside the soundproofed studio leaped up in ecstatic pantomimes at every World Cup goal scored or blocked. Radio 3's Night Waves programme had thrust my scholarly paper into the hands of M.M. McCabe, a leading Plato scholar, just an hour earlier. Our exchange had been allotted six minutes.

I began with a conciliatory "well, other scholars will have to debate and verify my claims...", but McCabe came in fighting. Before I knew it, presenter Rana Mitter in London was asking her whether my paper would revolutionise the field, and McCabe fired back a spirited "No!" just as we were ushered off the air.

All my evidence and arguments, years of research honed in academic lectures and circulated drafts, the judgements of reviewers: all stood condemned. The earphones went dead and I sat there in silence.

Then it was down to London to discuss making a documentary. A film producer invited me to her club near Soho Square.

So this, I thought, is where television dons are born. It was a scene straight out of Oscar Wilde: a shadowy room all in burgundy, a bar in the corner with mirrors and crystal, and stylish bohemians lounging on plush furniture.

Two long gin and tonics had been spent working out "the linear narrative arc" and "visuals" when the moment came. She wanted me to present the show.

"I'm no Brian Cox," I demurred.

"Believe me," she said, "there are times when I first meet an academic and think 'Oh my God, what are we going to do with that?' - but this was no such case."

This dumpy, middle-aged academic suddenly glowed with a new sense of my on-screen charisma.

I am not sure that the university administrators who encourage outreach realise how much the out reaches back in. My mailbox was crammed with claims that I had stolen someone's work, that I had not acknowledged their priority, and that if I would just read the attached dense and incomprehensible essay I would see it was all there already.

I also received all kinds of packages. One handsome, self-published paperback began with a plausible discussion of recent Plato scholarship. The second chapter veered off into an account of an attempted seduction by the author's Classics tutor in the 1970s, and the whole concluded with a lengthy, carefully referenced demonstration that Plato used the word "soul" as a symbol for "anus".

Some sweet moments do stand out from those two furious months. After I appeared on NPR's All Things Considered, America's near-equivalent to Radio 4's Today programme, my 80-year-old aunt called from Texas.

"Well, Jay! I was out back gardening with the kitchen radio turned up loud. Suddenly I stood up and said 'Jay's come to visit! Jay's come to visit!', but it was you on the radio! Well, I've telephoned the whole family."

But the real alchemy of all this popular outreach was that it created new links between scholars. Researchers in other disciplines from all over the world wrote to me to share their own, related publications. In the UK, three Classics departments and the classicists' annual conference invited me to give lectures. An academic publisher saw the press reports and agreed to rush out a scholarly monograph with more evidence to back up my claims.

Important blogs for scholars, including the Leiter Reports for philosophers and RogueClassicism for classicists, have been hosting online debates about my work. According to Google Analytics, my university web page with copies of my scholarly papers has been visited some 30,000 times.

So far there has been little backlash. There was a hint of disdain at all the publicity from one of my academic idols, but otherwise, colleagues are most interested in learning how my research came to attract so much publicity, and are generally as ignorant as I was about the whole process.

In reality, I had been part of a well-oiled media operation. I had no idea that lurking in the bowels of the administration building was an army whose daily job was to transmute scholarship into news coverage, all in the name of "raising the profile of the university".

The Media Relations Office had initially shown no interest in my research; they said that no one was interested in Plato or his use of symbolism. It was only after I mentioned that friends had jokingly connected my work to a popular novel called The Da Vinci Code that ears perked up and the army quick-marched into action.

I was taken under Mikaela Sitford's wing. In her previous professional incarnation, she was the journalist who broke the Harold Shipman mass-murder story. "Thanks for bringing us this story," she said. "This will really fly. Usually we get stories about new molecules."

At the end of each month, Media Relations calculates how much free publicity they get for the university. They convert column inches and broadcast minutes into an "effective media spend". Together with reports about some research on parasitic gut worms, my story made July my faculty's best month ever.

During this entire roller-coaster ride I have felt nothing but out of my depth. The irony is that I am an old-fashioned scholar who dreams only of contributing my small brick to the edifice of knowledge, and who thinks that philosophy is the most precious thing we have.

So who wins? What does this episode contribute to the debate raging over the invasion of the university by market values? It is unclear to me that outreach actually benefits the millions titillated by a stream of fleeting, exotic reports from the front lines of research. And those who extol the new regime of outreach have little sense, I think, of how desperate serious researchers are for time.

Outreach is instead aimed at producing publicity, a hard currency that administrators can use to compete in the market for resources and students. It is a symptom of the dominance of the sciences, which need to fund their expensive laboratories and can plausibly connect their research to economic benefits measured in dollars and pounds. In the long run, market values are incompatible with the values that drive the humanities.

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