23 January 2015
Written by Hetta Howes, currently writing a PhD on the subject of water and religious imagery in medieval devotional texts by and for women at the School of English and Drama, Queen Mary University of London
On Saturday 18th October 2014, forty postgraduate students and early career researchers from various disciplines gave up half of their weekend to travel to Queen Mary and participate in our colloquium, ‘Research into the Medieval and Early Modern: Navigating Issues of Engagement.’ Some only had to walk down the road, others got up at 5am with the shipping forecast to travel from farther afield. Some were just starting out in postgraduate study, others came armed with their doctorates and questions about what might come next. Some were self-confessed cynics of ‘public engagement’, others were eager to learn how to transform their hard labour into a palatable radio programme, or article for the Times Literary Supplement. All were either medievalists or early modernists and therefore working in a field which can be particularly difficult to translate into ‘layman’s’ terms. The Middle Ages were a long time ago, the word ‘medieval’ is frequently synonymous with ‘antiquated’ (or worse) in modern day English and the culture of the times can seem strange and unusual to those of us living in the twenty-first century.
We had concerns when putting the colloquium together that our event, the brainchild of Lydia Zeldenrust and Professor Miri Rubin, would be met with trepidation. Elusive terms like ‘impact’ make English and History students come out in a rash; for many ‘public engagement’ has become a tick-box on an academic CV, nothing more. Some of the scholars we initially approached were concerned that with such a focus on public engagement the colloquium would lack academic heft, or that we might encourage participants to ‘dumb down’ their research in order to make it more accessible. Although we the organisers are all interested in finding new ways of communicating our research with the public and view public engagement as a positive aspect of academic life (when done right) we are also well aware that our viewpoint is not universal. However, we were adamant from the start that our event wouldn’t just cheerlead public engagement. We wanted to offer a space for researchers to share methods, explore possibilities and receive practical hands-on advice but also for them to air concerns, to discuss possible pitfalls and anxieties. We started advertising the colloquium a good couple of months before we even had a finalised programme, to test the waters (and, on a completely practical level, to help us decide what size room we might need). We couldn’t have been more shocked when our event sold out within the first week of its advertisement. The event was a hit!
This cemented our long-held view that public engagement is an area of academic life which many students want to get involved with, but where there is not much practical advice or space for discussion on offer (particularly in the fields of medieval and early modern study). Our colloquium was not a typical one, as many of the participants pointed out to me. As well as papers from respected academics, such as Adrian Armstrong, who spoke about his experience putting together an exhibition, we also heard from a radio producer, the literary editor from the TLS, a postdoctoral researcher from the Globe and an artist. We even managed to sneak an interpretive dance in through the backdoor: Clare Whistler, Leverhulme Artist in Residence for the School of History (2013-14) performed a piece inspired by her discussion with historians at Queen Mary. Fellow speaker Will Tosh from the Globe described her dance in one of his live tweets as ‘exquisite.’ It was this alternative approach, the special mix of academia and art, which generated such a positive response from participants.
What was most rewarding about organising this colloquium was that it ended up with a life of its own: we invited the speakers, booked the room, applied for the funding and made the name badges. However, once the participants and presenters were all in the same room the event became theirs rather than ours, which is exactly as it should be. Their worries, their examples of engagement, their thoughts and ideas were raised, considered, celebrated. Having to call discussion to an end when the day finished was a wrench, but thanks to social media (and a generous wine reception from the School of History) conversations could and did continue.
Of course, a one-day colloquium can only do so much and go so far. In many ways it felt like we had only chipped away at the tip of an iceberg – discussion could easily have been extended into a week-long conference and perhaps in the future it will be. However, myself, Lydia and Ella could all go home at the end of a (long, and tiring) but ultimately fruitful and exciting day to read tweets from participants who were telling their followers how much they’d enjoyed the colloquium, how much they’d learned, and how much they’d appreciated the opportunity to chat with academics, artists and media professionals alike.
Event organisers: Lydia Zeldenrust (PhD Candidate, School of English and Drama), Ella Kilgallon (School of History) and Hetta Howes (School of English and Drama). The organisers would like to thank the School of English and Drama and the School of History for their generous funding of this event.
The Centre for Public Engagement offers advice, training and support to those interested in public engagement. If you are interested in organising an activity or project that involves those outside the University, or want to learn more about ‘Impact’ and how to involve others with your research, please get in touch or come along to one of our public engagement advice surgeries.
By Hetta Howes
School of English and Drama