Seriously fresh

A new breed of scholars is expanding the academy by turning music festivals, Lego and puppets into objects and tools of study. Hannah Fearn reports from 'out there'

February 5, 2009

Those who have attended music festivals recently might have encountered the new generation of academics without even realising it. Not on a stage, but behind the scenes and among the festivalgoers.

Rebekka Kill, senior lecturer in creativity, enterprise and engagement at Leeds Metropolitan University, is many things - a DJ, a club promoter and a fanzine writer. But she is also an academic whose work spans her novel areas of interest. She is one of a new generation of researchers expanding the academy's boundaries.

Her research revolves around music festivals and contemporary performance art. She has launched a new undergraduate degree in art and performance and has developed pioneering partnerships between the university and major cultural organisations including Festival Republic, the company behind the annual Reading and Leeds music festivals. She is breaking new theoretical ground.

"You couldn't find much published material on that area," Kill says. "It's extremely interdisciplinary. It's about being highly reactive. We need to think about ways that research and curriculum can react quickly. Historically, they (academics) don't react that quickly. It's about being able to respond to issues in the community in professional contexts fairly rapidly."

Kill's work is engaging new groups, not least because her subject matter allows her to work directly with an untapped youthful audience.

"If I were making art or making performance, the kind of audiences I would be accessing would be pretty small," Kill says. "At music festivals, we're looking at potential audiences in five figures. In terms of the age range, particularly at a festival such as Leeds Festival, it is a very young audience. They are the target market for our undergraduate courses."

Kill initially led a "double life", keeping her academic and outside interests separate. When she finally revealed her expertise in the music and club industry to her colleagues and began to build it into her academic work, she was surprised to find them so receptive.

"I think on the whole it has been really well received. Sometimes when I do events or projects, the academic underpinning may not be clear to some people, but I'm really open and talk to people about it. Because it has got an underpinning in research and curriculum development, we're giving it academic credibility."

Kill is not alone in pushing academia's frontiers. Even within the research-intensive Russell Group universities, academics are delving into novel subject areas and taking their work to a wider community.

Vanessa Toulmin (above) runs the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield. Having been brought up in a fairground family that had a history of showmanship (her aunt danced at the Moulin Rouge), she is passionate about her subject.

While writing her PhD on the history of travelling showpeople and their impact on early film, Toulmin collected an enviable number of images and resources on the subject. The archive was established at the university in 1994 to house these. But Toulmin is no librarian; although she does not teach student classes, her outreach work produces regular shows bringing street and fair artists to audiences across the North of England.

Toulmin was recently appointed to a professorship with a personal chair in early film and popular entertainment, and her oversubscribed inaugural lecture featured sword swallowers. She believes that academics who work solely in the lecture theatre are turning their backs on a tradition of intellectuals taking knowledge to the people.

"My inspiration as an academic has always been people such as T.? H. Huxley, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens - those people who went out and did lectures to three or four thousand people," she says. "We think of it (Victorian society) as an era of them and us, but it wasn't. It was an era of learning and of social mobility. Lectures were always public.

"There has always been this idea that academics don't engage, but we always have. They made (their work) interesting. Some of my earliest reading was Dickens' lecture tours. I always thought that was fantastic," she says.

Toulmin has curated events such as the annual Fright Night Hallowe'en celebrations in Sheffield and a series of variety shows in Blackpool's major palaces. In many ways, the work she has been doing was a harbinger of today's trend for outreach in higher education, and her expertise is now in demand.

"I was encouraged to think about knowledge transfer and to be engaged with the community, but I'd been doing that for five years," she says. "With knowledge transfer and public engagement, it's not about research. You're not going out and interviewing; you're entertaining them and educating. Some of my colleagues don't understand the difference. I often get emails from people asking me for advice."

It is not just extra funding for knowledge transfer that is cultivating this new generation of academics, it is an understanding of how innovative approaches to research and teaching can benefit all of higher education.

Matthew Isaac Cohen, senior lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, is an expert in Indonesian puppetry. He is originally from the US and gained a Fulbright award to spend five years training as a puppeteer in South Asia before taking up his first full-time academic post. "I have a very unusual background," he admits. " I am very much a product of the international postdoctoral system."

Cohen's unique expertise is now in demand in Western academe; his experience is virtually unrivalled and his research is of interest across many disciplines. He, too, is focused on outreach, and can teach other academics how media such as puppetry can assist in teaching.

"(Puppetry) has enormous potential and has been known to have this for a long time." He says that people who have a hard time standing up in public to present something can find using puppets helps "because it's indirect communication". This can also help to engage students who are reserved in a group teaching environment.

"People design their careers in different ways. For me, the great pleasure in the position I have found myself involves lecturing across many different media and involves improvisation," Cohen says. "That's the challenge in this generation, to think across those different kinds of experiences or brands.

"That's not limited to the classroom, and it's certainly not limited to the written word. It involves thinking about the very broadest public possible: from the children to critics, to the average person off the street and the average student signing up for a university course in a rather white, middle-class university," he continues.

For Ken Hyland, director for the Centre for Academic and Professional Literacies at the Institute of Education, these academics are the faces of a new type of university career.

"Academics now seem more concerned about the relevance of what they research to local contexts and the need to disseminate findings more widely," he explains. "There is a push factor here because research funders now require findings to get as wide a distribution as possible, so academics are forced to think about the accessibility and varied audiences rather more than before. It is not only driven by funding, though. I guess the celebrity culture and the attraction of fame beyond the library may have something to do with it.

"Few academics are household names, but they do seem to be showing up quite regularly on everything from Radio 4's Today programme to Radio 5 Live. Some seem to make a habit of it, and are actually pretty good."

Hyland says that academics are changing to suit their audiences. He cites the "insatiable demand" for popular science, creating a culture in which even tabloid newspapers are keen to carry stories about science and scientific discovery. Nevertheless, Hyland is reluctant to herald the birth of a new kind of academic structure.

"Maybe it is also a question of fashion - there are still plenty of anthropologists living in huts on Melanesian islands, but they don't seem to attract as much attention as they did in the 1930s. New topics and new dissemination practices are great for the professional and the visibility of academics in the wider world, but I don't know if I'd bet my shirt on them changing the way academia works."

But at the University of Westminster, David Gauntlett's bold research appears, at least in part, to prove Hyland wrong. He is a professor of communications, but his work borders on sociology and his methods dispense with traditional protocols. Gauntlett uses drawing, painting and modelling to communicate with his research participants. He asks his subjects to make Lego models to represent their own identities or to illustrate what might make a better world.

"In the social sciences, methodology - while sounding like a boring topic - is the very heart of how we know anything or can say anything about the social world, and therefore is absolutely crucial," he claims. "I am exploring new research methods because the traditional ones - such as interviews or focus groups - are entirely what you'd expect traditional academics to come up with, since they are likely to be literate, articulate and comfortable with the spoken word. But many research subjects are not necessarily going to be able to formulate brilliant responses to sociologists' questions on the spot."

He believes that although all people are able to reflect thoughtfully on their own lives, it is not until they are approached with indirect or creative research methods that many are able to communicate their ideas to academics. "When they've made a 3D representation of their feelings or ideas, then they have something concrete to explain and discuss, which means conversation flows much more easily," he says.

Gauntlett also eschews the traditional infrastructure of the academy, publishing independently and online rather than waiting for an established academic journal to accept and then edit an article.

"I don't really bother with journal articles. I think for my generation it seems ridiculous that you would wait a year or more to have somebody send you annoying comments and agree that if you make the specified changes and change your writing style to be more boring, there is a chance your little thing will be published by them two more years later," he says. "One of the ways in which my generation does things differently is that we have academically grown up with the internet, and doing everything electronically just seems natural and best. This may sound like a simple choice of form - paper or email - but in fact it has substantial implications for the pace of academic life because putting an article online yourself is massively quicker than the traditional publication process. It also gives you a much more interactive relationship with your readers, and indeed a much bigger audience."

There is a novelty factor that gives the creative ways that many young academics are exploring uncharted territories a sense of radicalism. And yet, as their work and methods begin to enter the language of academia, they seem also a continuation of a long tradition of scholarship.

"The history of academic life is that when new areas open up, very quickly after that there follows some way of formalising that in professional terms, by journals or by departments. Stuff that's 'out there' now becomes more formal and institutionalised," says Hugh Lauder, professor of education and political economy at the University of Bath. "It depends on the degree to which there is an acceptance that there need to be new ways of thinking about making a living and the relationship with academe."

Yet for Robin Canniford, an anthropologist at the University of Exeter who follows communities of surfers around the world, being branded a new generation or a maverick generation of researchers is a compliment.

"Creativity and maverick spirit is something we need to foster, not only in research but also in our students," he says. "I've never been much good at following the crowd, that's what directed me into academia in the first place."

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