Categorising ‘Public Engagement’

Mary-Clare Hallsworth, Public Engagement Manager at Birkbeck, University of London outlines the College’s approach to categorising public engagement for the inaugural Public Engagement Awards.

Recently at Birkbeck we ran our first ever Public Engagement Awards. The aim of the awards is to showcase and reward the great public engagement with research that goes on in our College. Thankfully there is plenty of it to reward so we didn’t need to overcome that particular challenge but instead we needed to make sure that the breadth of engagement practice was well represented and colleagues felt there was a category that they could apply for.  A lot of thought went into what our award categories should look like. There is quite a variety of models out there for categorising and dividing up public engagement. You can group PE by who is doing it, who it is being ‘done to’ (!), who is involved, reasons for the engagement or methods used – this is even before we start arguing over the nuances of the various definitions for public engagement (what should/shouldn’t be included?!).

Personally I like to avoid defining public engagement as a ‘thing’ altogether and prefer to think of it as an ethos – an underpinning way of conducting yourself and your research. This breaks the need to ask things like ‘does a blog count as public engagement?’; the answer to this is always ‘depends how you use it’, which is an irritating response. Instead, thinking of public engagement as an ethos enables us to think about the plethora of methods available as tools and choose the ones most useful and relevant to both the research and the community involved.

Bearing in mind then that we are trying to promote an ethos, not a tick-box ‘thing’ we looked at options for dividing the categories for our awards: by School/Department, by career level, by levels of involvement/influence in PE, and by engagement ‘type’.  We decided that, however we divided them, the final categories should adhere to certain principles. They must:

  • Reward the engagement work and not just individuals
  • Allow academics and researchers from every School/subject area to be able to apply
  • Be open and fair to all career levels
  • Showcase and reward the full spectrum of engagement activity at Birkbeck

To narrow down potential categories we looked at awards run by Queen Mary, University of London, University College London (check out their experiences!),  Oxford University and, of course, the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). We also looked at definitions of public engagement from RCUK, the Wellcome Trust, NCCPE and various categorisation of public engagement within reports, the most enlightening being:  Reviewing Public Engagement in REF 2014 by NCCPE, The State of Play Report commissioned by Wellcome and RCUK and the Factors Affecting Public Engagement by UK researchers.

Because the language we use about what we really mean by public engagement is not universal and differs significantly by discipline we also had to take into account the language we used to describe each of the categories (full category descriptions at the end).

After all this we ended up with the following categories:

  • PhD and Early Career Researcher Award
  • Communicating Research
  • Collaboration
  • Engaged Practice
  • Transforming Culture or Public Life

On the whole I think these worked well. We did receive a good number and range of applications from all the Schools in the College for all of the categories. There were noticeable gaps though. Applications to the Engaged Practice category were a little low for my liking. Additionally, pockets of some departments were completely missed. Our Geography department, for example, does some great work which I would put firmly in the ‘Engaged Practice’ category but there was not a geographer in sight. We clearly didn’t get the messaging and language right for them – definitely something to think about for next year!

Categories – Full Descriptions

  • Communicating Research

This award recognised excellence in communicating research projects and ideas through stimulating or innovative activities. These activities aimed to: Inspire wonder, curiosity and learning; challenge conventional wisdom or provoke scrutiny and debate amongst their targeted publics. Classic forms of communication may have been used for this work including talks, workshops and media work (such as contributing or creating TV, film or radio content, appearing as a ‘talking head’ in factual programming), as well as publishing articles in non-scholarly outlets. Innovative use of websites and social media for communication were also considered in this category.

Applicants were asked to note the distinction between activities which are ‘publicly available’ as opposed to communicating to the public. Publicly available activities are scholarly activities such as conference talks or lectures that are made available to the public rather than those specifically designed for a particular non-academic audience. Publicly available activities did not fall within the remit of these awards.

  • Collaboration

This award recognised engagement based on an active collaboration and a two-way relationship with an external partner(s). Collaborators might have included museums, charities, schools, individuals and artists, arts organisations or social enterprises who work with the researcher/s to reach their public/s. Collaborations in this category often resulted in the development of new pieces of work, exhibitions, performances or resources. This type of engagement usually looks to prompt new ideas and ways of working, build skills/ knowledge on both sides of the collaboration, whilst providing publics with access to research and opportunities to get involved.

With these types of projects the true engagement could be said to be with the collaborator rather than the public, although the outputs of the collaboration often add an additional level of engagement with a wider public.

  • Engaged Practice

This award recognised research that has participation and involvement of publics as a core approach to the creation of research. Projects in this category could be described as community engagement, participatory research, co-production of knowledge or socially engaged practice amongst many labels. This type of research works directly with a community of place/interest in order to: empower the subjects of the research; use dialogue and deliberation to influence the research; build networks; develop skills or improve the health and well-being of those involved. This form of engagement often takes years to establish relationships enabling publics to share their knowledge and expertise and can often contribute to issue-based awareness, support activism or take a ground up approach to policy change.

  • Transforming Culture or Public Life

This award recognised research engagement activities which aim to stimulate change within our culture and society. These projects tend to work ‘behind the scenes’ to influence organisations, professional groups or policy makers. Activities were designed to: inform decision making; encouraged scrutiny and debate; galvanise change and influence the behaviours and practices of organisations or groups who work in the public realm.

Common strategies for affecting influence might include: commissioning artworks/film/theatre; input/creation of think-tanks and advisory groups; workshops for professional groups and policy makers; collaborating with businesses/communities to provide a service or influence a change in practice.

Note: Collaborations within this category tend not to produce single new pieces of work but rather change the way in which a group/organisation approaches work.

  • PhD and Early Career Researcher Award

The Early Career Award recognised the public engagement work of doctoral students or early career researchers (ie Post-Docs in their first two years in post). This included projects where the applicant has spearheaded a project or contributed significantly to a larger project.

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Arts Week 2018: The Corners

Lynsey Ford, an alumna of Birkbeck, discusses an Arts Week event looking at architecture and pedestrians with photographer Chris Dorley Brown. 

Documentary photographer and filmmaker Chris Dorley-Brown visited Birkbeck Arts Week at The School of Arts on Friday 18 May to discuss his 30-year career as a freelancer. The talk coincided with the release of his new publication entitled The Corners by Hoxton Mini Press, which examines his photography between 2009-2017 across East London street corners, industrial buildings, landscapes and architecture.

Initially trained as a silkscreen printer and print finisher, Chris branched out as a freelancer in 1984. Living and working in the East End for over 20 years, Chris began his media career working as a camera assistant for Red Saunders studio. His comprehensive slide show of his street photography at Birkbeck discussed his initial work building a photographic archive with the London Borough of Hackney.

Chris quickly started to develop his own digital techniques to create narratives; working with multiple exposures taken over an hour, Chris’s images have used around 100 shots taken at different times. These shots have been constructed to resemble one definitive image creating a surreal, dreamlike narrative of the urban landscape. The stillness, composition and colour of all his images adopt the look and feel of an oil painting. Notable shots include a police evacuation where the police sealed off the streets after the discovery of a bomb from World War 2. A boy is seen in disbelief holding an apple near the sealed off area, whilst a faceless young lady, oblivious to potential danger, cannot help but investigate, walking towards the tape. Other images perfectly capture the cynicism of city life, from the street voyeur, a homeless man, who emerges from the hidden corner of a local high street, facing off at an unseen Chris behind the lens. Old pedestrians ‘collide’ with the younger generation of cyclists across the traffic junction emphasising at the inevitable ‘changing face’ of the landscape. Chris also revisited his photography capturing ‘Drivers in the 1980s’. The slideshow perfectly expressed the conflicting emotions of Londoners, from a spaced-out businessman alone in his thoughts inside a red double-decker bus, to the visibly frustrated faces of motorists, caught between shots and the intermittent traffic lights during rush hour.

The talk provided a nostalgic look at London life and Dorley-Brown’s work is a great testimony to a skilled media professional who perfectly captures the history and architecture of the East End.

Further material from Chris’s career can be obtained through the public collections of The Museum of London and The George Eastman Museums.

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The 2018 Geography fieldtrip: spectacular landscapes and sun kissed beaches

Dr Sue Brooks discusses the Department of Geography Annual field trip to Mallorca where the group researched the Mediterranean climate, tourism and agriculture.

Farewell from the 2018 Mallorca field trip

What is there not to like about the Mallorca field trip? Let’s start with the Mallorcan landscapes, dating back to the Triassic and Jurassic geological periods (@250-150 million years ago) when warm sub-tropical seas allowed the deposition of sediments, shelly fragments and bones, all to be uplifted in the Alpine Orogeny, beginning 65 million years ago and still active today. The result is the landscape of the Trumantura National Park an area of amazing relief, geology and challenging transportation. It contains one of the most hair-raising drives in Europe, accessing Cap de Formentor, but that did not deter our coach driver, who took on the hairpin bends, steep ravines and determined cyclists in a calm and composed manner to get us to the Cap. Next was a trip to the golden sands of Formentor Beach and an ice cream, quickly followed by the wonderful market town of Pollenca, where we were rewarded by the view of Es Pla (central plain) and the rooftops of Pollenca after climbing the Calvery Steps. The final journey took us to the Monastery at Lluc for another ice cream, and then back to Santa Ponsa via the strategically important reservoirs of Gorg Blau and Cubert, constructed in the 1970s to help with water supply across the island.

Students were engaged in learning about tourism, agriculture and water supply set within the context of the natural landscapes. One task was producing an isohyet map to show the spatial distribution of rainfall across the island while at the same time discovering that the Mediterranean climate presents some considerable challenges through its temporal distribution of rainfall and the mismatch to tourism demand. There was plenty of time for group work with projects on Santa Ponsa beach and in the ephemeral torrents that are so typical of the island.

Hard work in progress back at the hotel

Project hand in was set for 5pm on the last day and everyone worked very hard to meet this deadline, before a relaxing evening with some travelling to Magaluf to join the fun there. Some students decided to stay on for a holiday and to fully appreciate the diverse and spectacular landscapes of the island. Thank you to all our students for your hard work, dedication and exemplary behaviour on the field-trip. We look forward to welcoming next year’s cohort for another wonderful experience.

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Arts Week 2018: Wrestling with Words

Louisa Ackermann, Communications Officer at Birkbeck, reports on Arts Week event Wrestling with Words, a conversation between Toby Litt and Wes Brown which explored writing, fighting and being a man. 

What do we mean when we talk about masculinity? Is it an authentic sense of self, an identity, or is it a performance, carefully crafted and skillfully executed? On Friday 18 May, Toby Litt and Wes Brown joined in conversation to discuss their lives as writers and wrestlers, and how they have questioned what it is to be a man through these dual occupations.

Both have a family background of wrestling: Wes’s father was a pro-wrestler, meaning the scripted type performed in WWE, where characters are outlandish and outcomes are predetermined; while Toby’s great-great-grandfather was William Litt, a Cumberland wrestler who reigned undefeated and took home over 200 prize belts during his nineteenth-century career.

Toby, a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck and author of Wrestliana opened the event with a reading from his book, which he was inspired to write in an effort to find out more about his ancestor and the fascinating life he led. William had written his own book, also called Wrestliana, which Toby used during his research process while learning to wrestle himself in a sports hall in Carlisle.

He recounted his thought process and his growing anxieties as he geared up for his first fight:

“All the way up, on the train, I read and reread the practical bits of Wrestliana and thought about how – in five hours, then four hours, then three – I could be riding in an ambulance.

“I knew fairly certainly which injuries I feared most. I’d constructed a sliding scale.

“At the very top, there was quadriplegia – a broken neck and me in a wheelchair, unable to hug my children, scanning websites for advances in robot exoskeletons. Then there was the fractured lower vertebra, keeping me away from my desk, perhaps forever. There was the ruptured knee ligament. In the days before, I had started to notice how many of the men I saw were limping as they walked. I started to walk with an imaginary limp myself, because I thought a knee injury the likeliest. I flashed forward to the serious painkiller addiction that would follow. Next, there was the broken collarbone and the dislocated shoulder. By the time I got this far down the list, I was staring to bargain. ‘Okay,’ I thought, ‘I’d settle for that.’ Badly strained wrist, yes, that would be fine – as long as it was the non-writing hand. Can we make it the left wrist?”

But much to his surprise, he not only emerged without injury but won the match, and was free to continue on his research journey asking questions about competition, success and modern-day masculinity. Indeed, it was clear that for both speakers wrestling had become something which both informed and was informed by their perceptions of their own masculinity. Wes described a struggle to feel sufficiently manly while growing up as a sensitive boy in a working-class community, where many of the men worked in manual jobs, and found that wrestling was a way to assert a type of manhood on his own terms.

Wes followed in his father’s footsteps by going into pro-wrestling, which he describes as a form of drag. “It’s men pretending to be men,” he said, “it’s a performance of masculinity. ‘Being a man’ can be cartoonish and amusing, but it can also be dangerous. There’s a macho hierarchy in wrestling, but it’s all made up…. it’s a way to be macho and be a man, without having to actually be macho and be a man.”

Asked whether his parallel careers of wrestling and writing had informed each other, he said that “both are a form of storytelling, but I don’t think wrestling has taught me anything about writing whatsoever. What it has done is give me something to write about.”

Wrestliana by Toby Litt is available from Galley Beggar Press.

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