I’m a gluttonous reader of popular science (though completely unable to count up my own points at Scrabble). What I draw from reading Gould, Dawkins, Wiseman, Singh, Feynman, Bakker or Winston is difficult to explain. It is not really the satisfaction of being able to learn more facts about a domain which seems particularly hermetic to my resolutely non-scientific brain – it is more the truly pleasurable impression that I am slotting jigsaw puzzle pieces into a vast, never-complete ‘map’ of the human in the world. It’s not about accumulating knowledge – it’s about the joy of knowing that this knowledge exists, and learning how and why.
I believe that academics have a responsibility to share their research and their knowledge with as wide an audience as possible, and especially with people who are not remotely interested in it. If we don’t believe that our thoughts and ideas can benefit everyone, why are we doing what we are doing? It is extremely rewarding, not on a personal level but on a ‘disciplinary’ level, if that makes sense, to see someone’s face light up when you’ve explained to them what exactly your field of study entails, in terms that make sense to them. You see that jigsaw puzzle piece slot into place. And very often, because you’re bathed in a world of like-minded people who understand you immediately when you talk about ‘post-Foucauldian criticism’, you don’t realise how truly alien and wonderful these concepts can be to people who know nothing about them. You only notice it, I think, when someone from a completely different discipline tells you about their subject. Then you become that person who goes from knowing nothing to thinking about that nothing they didn’t know they didn’t know about. And then you go – ‘wait! I also have a story for you…’
A few months ago I was explaining my research to my mother, and it suddenly clicked – she said ‘So THAT’S what you’re doing! That sounds really interesting! I’d never thought of that before!’ I realised I felt almost shocked: what, mother? You mean you haven’t been sharing my brain for the past three years? (You know when you’re walking silently with someone, and following your own trail of thought you ask a question like ‘But why would she do something like that??’ which makes absolutely no sense to your baffled companion? That kind of impression.)
Scientists are doing much, much better than us Arts & Humanities scholars at outreach. There are countless wonderful books, TV programmes, podcasts, films, radio shows about science; scientists also go to schools a lot and talk about their works. A&H researchers seem to be finding outreach activities more difficult. Obviously we can’t demonstrate the beauty of a Shakespeare sonnet by creating a geyser out of a bottle of Diet Coke and a tube of Mentos. But it’s not because our strategies aren’t as explosive that we can’t make an impression on people.
Recently I was selected for the Rising Stars course at Cambridge, which aims at helping students set up and carry out an outreach activity. I ended up in a group of twelve people with all kinds of completely different interests – from lung cancer to the history of Naples through to electronical engineering. The course allows us to develop communication skills which we academics generally lack, to understand what our audience needs, to know where to find help, etc. And then we are left to do our outreach project. Mine is a project which I’d had in mind for a long time: a non-academic podcast on children’s literature with an analytical part and a publishing-based part, in collaboration with my friend and ex-fellow-MPhil-student Lauren.
Setting up this project was surprisingly difficult. It’s not only the technical side of it – website coding joy! microphone settings happiness! – but also the considerations to be taken into account. Who is our audience? Idealistically, I’d say ‘everyone who isn’t an academic in children’s literature’. Realistically, that’s not the case. We’re guessing that we’ll get mostly parents, teachers and aspiring children’s authors in our listenership. What do they want to hear about? We carried out a survey that yielded fabulous replies… but dauntingly diverse! Some people want to hear about the books they read when they were little – others, about the books children read now – others, about how to write for children – others want to hear book reviews. We’re trying to accommodate as many of these requests as we can – as reasonably as possible.
We’re at the very first stage right now, with our first episode recorded and edited. It was much harder than you might think – it’s very hard to be at the same time spontaneous and prepared, to say interesting things without making them obscure… This first episode is really a practice run – as an avid listener of podcasts, I can tell what’s wrong with it, but practice makes perfect and I’m sure we’ll get better at it as we go along. You can find it on our blog http://kidyounotpodcast.com , alongside the blog itself, which we intend as an interactive platform which will complement the podcast. Please share it with NON-academics – that’s the audience we want! Please let us know what you think about it, too. Being completely new to this, we’re on a learning curve.
I wish universities would normalise outreach, make it an expectation rather than an exception. What Lauren and I are discovering is that outreach isn’t only reaching out to people, it’s also reaching out of ourselves and into a completely different way of thinking about what we’re doing. I’m sure we’d soon shed the awkwardness of being out of our usual environment, and get good at it, helping ourselves and others in the process.