After two months of strictly embargoed silence, I am delighted to able to say that I have been announced as a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker for 2015. This means that over the next year and beyond, I, and nine other scholars from universities and institutions around the UK, will have chance to make programmes for Radio 3’s The Essay and Free Thinking based on our research and to contribute to panel discussions and other BBC events, expertise permitting.
I’m particularly pleased I’m to be made an NGT because I’ve always been a firm believer in the importance of public engagement and knowledge exchange. I have sought to work with local communities throughout my academic career to date, either through public-facing exhibitions or seminar series, or working with local cinemas and arts centres, so it’s an exciting prospect to step this up from the local to the national. It has always seemed to me that engaging the public, in addition to the scholarly community, is a responsibility of the modern academic, perhaps even more so in an era where the humanities are scrutinised (rightly or wrongly, depending on your viewpoint) increasingly in terms of their perceived ‘value’. Public engagement is something that not only shows the multiple and varied ways in which humanities and arts research enrich people’s lives, but reveals the deep interest and intellectual curiosity on the part of the general public in the research and scholarship undertaken in higher education. The days of ‘town and gown’ aren’t over of course, but one hopes that the more academics do to share their research with their local communities might mean those days of division are at least numbered.
The NGT scheme seemed the ideal way for me to pursue this passion further, especially as it offers the opportunity to speak to such a broad audience. I’m confident that my work on colonial medicine and the Anglo-Indian novel lends itself to a public audience and captures the imagination, especially my current pursuit of research into the uses and abuses of alcohol. Alcohol not only has a fascinating history (in both a domestic and colonial Indian context) but is something that’s immediately relatable to our contemporary moment, and it’s that connection between past and present that I hope will make it engaging to the general public when my programme is broadcast.
My experience of being part of the New Generations in Medical Humanities programme will also be of great help – the exposure to various projects and different ways of working at institutions across the country has been particularly useful in developing the way I think about public engagement and how I view my own work within medical humanities. I have never necessarily considered myself a traditional academic. When I say that I am happiest working across the boundaries of discipline and department, and see a value in the kinds of discussion that can occur between researchers, professionals and the general public, I imagine that my fellow New Generations in Medical Humanities group members will agree with me; though we are all coming from different angles, our openness to alternate approaches and perspectives that comes with interdisciplinary is what joins us together, and makes us responsive and reflective researchers.
Of course, the next 12 months won’t be without particular challenges. Striking the right balance between academic rigour and accessibility is a tricky prospect; as researchers, we spend a long part of our lives learning to write in a particular way, but one that is not always the most engaging to an intelligent but non-specialist audience. So I’m mindful of getting the tone and the voice right as I sit down in the next week or so to write my first broadcast piece. I’m aware too that the NGT scheme has received criticism in the past for supposedly ‘dumbing down’ academic research, so I’m looking forward to proving to the sceptics that public-facing work can retain its critical edge, and that it can be simultaneously entertaining and intellectually valid. Plus, honestly, if those same critics had seen the amazing quality of the candidates at my workshop and heard their fascinating work, they’d have cause to think again.
Would I recommend that other people apply? Most definitely. If you, like me, enjoy the challenge of public engagement then the NGT scheme is certainly for you. The application itself is a short one (the ability to be concise is another of the scheme’s challenges) and I met some great people during the workshop. Presenting my research in front of experienced BBC producers was a little daunting of course, but it was also a really fun day, and apart from perhaps one or two people who took it (and themselves) a little too seriously there wasn’t ever really a sense of competition but rather an atmosphere of mutual interest and encouragement among the participants. If you need any more encouragement then the trip to Broadcasting House was also pretty awesome. Ultimately, being part of the NGT scheme promises to be a great opportunity for an early career researcher like me to bring my research to a national audience, as well as to pursue something I am passionate about. And as for scheme’s detractors, I say turn on, tune in and don’t touch that dial – you might have cause to think again.