In Marin Weller’s (@mweller) excellent book The Digital Scholar he quotes HEFCE’s definition of public engagement.
‘Public engagement’ involves specialists in higher education listening to, developing their understanding of, and interacting with non-specialists.
He then goes on to list examples of how engagement is often realised ‘authoring a general interest book’ or ‘ broadcasting, where an academic is used to present a television or radio programme or used as an expert in discussion programmes’ (p.77) before examining what digital practices can add to this.
What I found telling was this discord between HEFCE’s vision of a dialogic interaction in comparison with the monologue of information delivered through broadcast and publication. Elsewhere I have argued that re imagining reality TV and programmes such as the wire could offer useful models but this book has got me really thinking: do any of these really begin to address the need to engagement to actually engage!
Weller makes a good case for how Web 2.0 can make this happen but all of his talk is centred around talk of outputs, of audiences of sharing this things to engage with communities. I read a newspaper, but I engage with the debates surrounding is content in other places, around the dinner table, on Twitter or on Facebook. Maybe if we want to truly engage publics, we need to reconsider the primary concerns. Yes, access and delivery are important considerations in maki academic work availed to wider audiences but maybe the key to engagement is paying closer attention to the mechanisms of hooking them in, of beginning to open up those dialogues.
I propose that for research to be engaging for an individual, it needs three elements:
1) Relevance – to the individual’s life, interests or experiences. Not all research will interest everyone but where it hopes to engage a group of individuals, researchers need to be aware of the “So what?” question. Spell out to that audience why they need to understand what it is you have researched and how it can enrich their view of the world
2) Accessibility– it needs to be available for them to find and written in a way they can understand. This may not be the same for all publics, but the production method shouldn’t just be dictated by disciplinary standards, but by the needs of the audience that is to be engaged with.
3) Dialogue – we shouldn’t be waiting until a project is done and dusted before the engagement starts, it should be an active part of the process. The input of those who engage with the research and their reflections on it should be seen as a useful tool. If engagement is a two way process, it is more likely to become valuable to those who become engaged.
Some researchers already do this well on twitter, and several academic projects are beginning to work to this model. In my mind, the one which has got closest so far is the CelebYouth project on young people’s aspirations and I’d highly recommend checking out their blog or twitter (@CelebYouthUK) to see how they have taken up the challenge.
Weller, M. (2011) The Digital Scholar, London, Bloomsbury