Megan Henesy

“This AHRC-funded Contemporary Women’s Writing Skills Development Programme (CWWSkills) is a series of six workshops, to be held between August 2013 and July 2014. The programme is designed to enable UK-based postgraduate research students and early-career researchers who work in the field of contemporary women’s writing to develop an entrepreneurial approach to their research.”

This month saw the fourth in the series of the CWW skills Development Workshops take place at the University of Brighton.  The theme of the workshop was ‘Creating New Audiences for Contemporary Women’s Writing’, and saw experts in the field discuss their experiences within public engagement and give advice on how best to approach it.

The day kicked off with Professor Clare Hanson from University of Southampton discussing her experiences of interdisciplinary research in a talk entitled ‘Using Expertise in Contemporary Women’s Writing to Engage With Science and Medicine’.  Her work on eugenics and on the history of pregnancy has required her to engage with the medical community on a number of occasions, but in her opinion the impact of this interdisciplinary work is arguably strongest in conferences that allow discussions between experts in different fields and the public.

Prof. Hanson explained that taking your research to an audience as part of the ‘impact agenda’ is a two way process; the audience can shine a different light on your work with questions and observations as well as learning from what you have to say.  It’s not about delivering your work to an audience; it’s about starting a conversation.  Interdisciplinary study is where people from different fields work in parallel, and in the case of Prof. Hanson’s work it is in the fields of literature and science.  Within a field your contacts can vary; in Prof. Hanson’s case she worked with biomedical researchers, clinicians, midwives and obstetricians as well as the public.  When we approach experts in other fields we have to remember that we are asking for favours by requesting their time and expertise; our work may be impactful by providing a perspective that they might not have thought of, but we are still essentially asking them ‘do you want to hear what I have to say?’.

Prof. Hanson described how she has used contemporary women’s writing to discuss the issue of anxiety during pregnancy, such as Rachel Cusk’s memoir ‘A Life’s Work’ and ‘The Birth of Love’ by Joanna Kavenna, and Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ to discuss issues of motherhood.  These texts were used as prompts to make medical professionals think about pregnancy and motherhood from a subjective point of view.

The AHRC funded knowledge exchange – Beyond The Gene – allowed for scientists, clinicians and representatives from the humanities to explore kinship and relationships in relation to epigenetics; adoption memoirs such as Jackie Kay’s ‘Red Dust Road’ allowed for scientists to be engaged with the subjective view of the genetic models of inheritance and the lack of ties between adoptive parents and children.  The exchange encouraged different views to be debated – Prof. Hanson noted that the emotional investment of advocates of epigenetics versus genetic inheritance was surprising; and the fact that members of the public were more interested in questions related to inherited disease gave the organisers an insight into what is important to different groups of people.

Science and culture events are quite prolific, but interdisciplinary study can work in a variety of fields so it is worth researching events that already occur which you can become part of, or if there isn’t one then consider starting one up yourself.  For AHRC funding opportunities see their website.  Consider how your work fits in to wider cultural agendas and contexts, where you can hold conferences to encourage debate and free people’s imagination, and how you can use literature to encourage subjects to be considered from a subjective perspective.

The second session of the day was a workshop on ‘Public Engagement and Impact’ lead by Professor Gina Wisker of University of Brighton, Professor Lucie Armitt of University of Lincoln, and Emma Young of University of Salford.

Prof. Armitt began the workshop by discussing how to get to grips with ‘impact’ and what it means.  Impact now makes up 20% of the final assessment for the REF. Prof. Armitt recommended looking at the results of a pilot study by HEFCE which provides examples of how impact can be implemented in literature through case studies from several higher education institutions. It is important that the quality of research comes first; a project you have in mind way work well as ‘public engagement’ but actually have little ‘impact’, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing.  It is also worth noting the link between cause and effect; HEFCE defines impact as coming after research, but sometimes it can be the other way around.  HEFCE values collective impact over individual impact, so this is where media such as TV and radio can be used to create impact; but it must have reach and significance.  Queen Mary, University of London has been involved in a long running series on radio 4 – this is a perfect example of how the scope of ‘impact’ needs to be viewed as more than just one event, it can be an on-going process.

Prof. Armitt recommended looking at ‘Ref advice note 1’ by Patrick Dunleavy for advice on how to approach ‘impact’.  Consider that it has to have an audit trail; how will you evidence that your project or event has impact?

Prof. Wisker continued the workshop by considering why impact matters, and in the simplest term it is because it is in the REF.  She explained that curriculum can be used as a vehicle for change, and literature is a way to discuss that change.  If something matters, we need opportunities to engage with it through local communities, organizations, professions and social justice.  Prof. Wisker advised sticking up value statements to get people talking, and engaging in community narratives.

Prof. Wisker explained that we need to embed schemes into the curriculum which allow for students to become empowered, skilled and enabled in creating impact.  Making resources accessible online and sharing between institutions can bring about change on a larger scale; working in unison with institutions in other countries such as Gambia can help make changes in the way we do things become embedded.

Emma Young finished the workshop by discussing her experiences in organising events which create an impact on the local community.  She gave examples of when things have gone wrong, like organising for books to be donated by the World Book Night for an event which actually never arrived, and how important it is to pitch the event at the right level to encourage people to get involved.  If you want the public to participate you have to bring in humour and make it about personal experiences; the Writing Lives Salford project allowed for people to use writing as a way of self-reflection, which in turn helped with wellbeing as well as helping to unite the community.  It is also important to think of what people need in order to get involved – do you need to arrange a child care area to allow mothers to come along?  Is there good public transport to the venue?

Emma’s overall advice was to not be daunted; your research will be relevant in some way.  Emma is an ambassador for the National Co-ordinating centre of Public Engagement and recommended the website for tips and guides on how to get started in planning your own event.

The third session of the day was presented by Professor Sarah Churchwell of University of East Anglia titled ‘Engaging with Newspaper, Television and Radio Audiences’. Prof. Churchwell has extensive experience with the media, having been on political panel shows such as Question Time, written for various newspapers, been interviewed on radio 4 and she is currently on the judging panel for the Booker Prize.

Prof. Churchwell started by telling us that if we want to engage through the media, our research needs to be presented in an informal way. We either need to think about popular ideas seriously or serious ideas in a popular way.  The concept of public engagement can be a difficult one as some academics see it as ‘dumbing down’ which is insulting to everyone; by suggesting that the public need ideas dumbed down suggests that they are dumb, and saying that you, the academic, are writing in a dumb way suggests that your work has no true worth. This perception has historically caused problems for those who wish to engage with the public within their department, but thanks to the impact agenda it is now seen as a valuable component of academia.

The idea that your work is smarter if it is unpopular is a myth.  The trick in translating your work into an engaging format is to change theoretical language into ‘normal speaking’, the ideas can remain complex if the delivery is relaxed and inviting. Prof. Churchwell insisted that we need to engage where we can, the humanities are under threat and we need to go out ‘onto the battlefield’ and demonstrate our relevance.  We need to go out and ‘perform intellect’.

Prof. Churchwell advised that to be effective we need to know who our audience is.  Imagine you are addressing a well-educated generalist, someone who has an education but is not an expert in your field and therefore who you know more than in this particular area.  A trick is to aim it at a particular friend or relative who you imagine would watch/read/listen to your article/show.  In truth, this approach is the same as lecturing, so you could also visualize undergraduate students and aim the presentation at their level.

In order to progress, gain a reputation and meet the right people, you need to say yes to most work offered, but for integrity you will have to say no to some things. You can’t afford to be choosy but you do also have to work out your aim and your own ‘brand’; why are you doing this? If it is to bring critical thinking back into the conversation then write for Comment is Free, you won’t get paid but it is good exposure.  If you are doing it for money then you need to accept that you may have to write polarized pieces for papers like the Daily Mail as they pay more than other papers, pieces that may even contradict your own view. Have a sense of professional identity and be aware that the media tends to look for drama and can therefore twist what you say or ask you to take a particular stance.  Her advice is to be a Trojan horse: agree to represent an extreme opinion and when you get in there, say what you want to say.

Prof. Churchwell advised on how to approach writing cross-over books, using as an example her own work on Marilyn Monroe.  If the books have scholarly originality then they can potentially be used in the REF; it is just being scholarly in a populist way.  Consider again who your audience is; if you only want students and academics to read your work then write an academic book, but if you want it to be popular then you have to find a new angle to approach the research from in order to widen the potential audience.  To get started demonstrate your writing through blogs and opinion for papers like The Guardian.

Her final piece of advice related to social media interaction: if you put yourself out there you have to toughen up, because trolls are everywhere. Prof. Churchwell suggested Mary Beard as an example of someone who engages with every single troll, but her advice is to just not read below the line as it will upset you and undermine your confidence.

The final workshop of the day was on ‘Interviewing Authors’ and was led by Dr. Kate Aughterson of University of Brighton.  The workshop began with us choosing a dead author who we would love to interview given the chance, and what we would ask them.  This parlour game made us realize that many of the questions we wanted to ask were personal rather than literary, and as Dr Aughterson observed, this interest in the personal tends to form the subject matter of many books written on dead authors.  This leads to the question, to what extent is gossip and personal information valid to the research of authors?  It also encouraged us to consider what the purpose is of an interview with a writer, what do we hope to achieve by interviewing an author, especially one who we are personally researching?

Dr Aughterson discussed the two categories that author interviews generally fit in: field work (with pre-set questions, ethical considerations and with the aim to use the content in the interviewer’s writing) and public interview with an audience.  These forms of interview have distinct differences in the agenda of the interviewer and the point of the interview overall; they can also vary in the topics which the author is willing to discuss, especially if they are only there because they have a new book out.  Dr Aughterson gave the following advice on what to keep in mind if you have decided to interview and author:

–       Check your university’s ethic guidelines and processes before you approach an author – remember you are representing your university and so any faux-pas you make will reflect on your institution also.  The guidelines tend to promote the rights and dignity of the participants and clarify how the institution expects you to arrange the interviews in relation to legal contracts, remuneration and so on.

–       Transparency – be up front with the author about your aims for the interview and the end purpose of your research.  Be honest about whether you will be paying them, and whether you are being paid by a third party (such as a magazine or paper) for interviewing them.  They will probably ask to approve the interview before it is published or submitted as part of your study, so agree this before the interview takes place.

–       Get consent in advance – find out what subjects are completely out-of-bounds and what are fine to talk about.  Use continuous consent through the interview on subjects that you are not sure of, for example querying ‘are you ok if I ask about…’ gives them the chance to say yes or no without the situation becoming awkward.  Use your intuition – most writers won’t want to discuss private matters but if the conversation leads to that point, they may be happy to continue the discussion if it is dealt with delicately and respectfully.

–       Confidentiality – respect the author’s privacy; they have the right to say that something is off the record and that it can’t be used or published.  Err on the side of caution to make the process easier for everyone involved; send the author sample questions before the interview so that they can be prepared and to reduce nervousness on both sides, and get the university on your side by following the rules so that you have their support if something goes wrong.

Overall the day was as positive and enlightening as the previous CWW Skills Workshops, and we look forward to the final two in July.

Megan Henesy is a PhD student at the University of Southampton studying English Literature, and she has previously completed a BA degree in Fine Art at The Arts Institute Bournemouth, and a Masters in Classical Studies through The Open University.  Her main area of research is contemporary women’s writing, in particular the work of Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel and Ali Smith.