By Dr Luna Dolezal, Department of Philosophy and Centre for Medical Humanities, Durham University.

Photograph: the Wellcome Institute Library, 1983

Photograph: the Wellcome Institute Library, 1983

The New Generations in Medical Humanities cohort recently visited the Wellcome Trust in London. This three-day visit kicked off with a day dedicated to Public Engagement and hearing about Wellcome Trust’s various initiatives in this direction. Dedicated to helping academics reach beyond the confines of their institutions in order to inform, consult and collaborate with the public, the Wellcome Trust offers many generous funding initiatives for public engagement. As an avid collector of medical artefacts and the founder of the Historical Medical Museum Henry Wellcome’s ethos guides the work that is done in the Wellcome Trust in this respect. Indeed, the Wellcome’s recently renovated exhibition space reflects their on-going commitment to engaging the public, and the cohort’s visit to the Institute of Sexology Exhibition made evident not only their enthusiasm for public engagement, but also the high quality and calibre of their efforts.

Public engagement is on the radar for most UK-based academics as a result of the recent focus on ‘impact’ in the REF. Impact, in the context of the REF, is defined as “as an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia.” Measuring impact is of course fraught with difficulties and the concern is that academics are engaging in activities that take them outside of traditional academic settings as an exercise in REF-box-checking, rather than as a meaningful way to enrich their own research and research questions. Social media and the internet are, of course, easy ways to connect with the public and academics are encouraged to tweet, blog and use Facebook as a means to get their work ‘out there.’ The effectiveness of this sort activity is open to question, and it becomes easy to feel skeptical about some ‘public engagement’ efforts when serious metrics that measure an individual’s or research institute’s ‘impact’ include things such as the number of ‘likes’ they have on Facebook or the number of mentions they have on Twitter (as is the case for a high profile institute that I recently collaborated with).

However, despite recent criticism on the REF’s impact agenda, it seems fair to say that public engagement is an intrinsically good thing for academics to be involved in, especially in the context of medical humanities, a discipline that has at its core a concern with the people and practices that shape ordinary communities and universal questions regarding health, well-being and care. It seems important that academic research within the field of medical humanities is not confined within the walls of the academy and where applicable, the knowledge that is generated by academic researchers is shared with professionals, clinicians, practitioners, artists and lay people.

But over and beyond this, public engagement should not be a one-way street. As our workshop in the Wellcome Trust made clear, there is an important distinction to be made between ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’. While impact is modelled on a traditional pedagogical model, with an expert disseminating information uni-directionally to a broader public, engagement implies a participative mode, where there is collaboration and, as a result, the co-creation of knowledge, or in other words, a mutual transfer and exchange that is enriching for both parties.

At our workshop in the Wellcome Trust, the idea of ‘engagement’ was illustrated wonderfully by the work of Roger Kneebone, a current Wellcome Trust Public Engagement fellow, surgeon and academic at the Faculty of Medicine in Imperial College London. Roger’s current work focuses on the theory and practice of engagement. In particular, he is interested in collaborative problem solving through participation.

In the context of considering the practice of surgery—a domain that involves skill, craft and performance—Roger devised an event called ‘Thread Management’. This one-day workshop brought together a diverse group of individuals whose professional work involves, in part, the management of threads and knots, whether they are the sutures of a surgeon, the yarn of a knitter or the line of a fisherman, among others. The workshop involved an unstructured series of conversations and reflections on the properties of materials and the embodied skills and practices of diverse practitioners. Through reflecting on commonalities and differences, aspects of the practice of surgery were illuminated.

To the delight of the cohort, Roger recreated a similar event in our afternoon workshop, this time focusing on the parallels between magic and surgery. Bringing together two professional magicians and two surgeons in order to reflect on the themes of technical skill, embodied mastery, performance and secrecy, we watched as this conversation unfolded and meandered through a wide range of topics. Watching this exchange made it evident how this sort of ‘engagement’ practice is not only mutually enriching for both academics and non-academics, but also left me wondering why this sort of interdisciplinary exchange is not already central to academic practice.





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