The idea of public engagement is daunting for any researcher. However, organising a public engagement project can be hugely beneficial to PhD students and ECRs. Dr Alice Eden shares her experiences with her project ‘Enchanted Community’ and the benefits this has had for her research.
You will have probably heard the word ‘impact’ since starting your PhD. This has been defined by the Higher Education Funding Council for England 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’. Universities are increasingly concerned with providing impact on the world around us, which can be gained through public engagement projects and their continuing afterlives – evident in blog posts like this, comments, retweets, shares, open access articles and all other relationships and interactions following your initial work.
In 2017 I designed and co-delivered the collaborative art project Enchanted Community working with a local artist and five external partners in Coventry and Leamington Spa. The project benefitted from generous funding by the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick where I held an Early Career Fellowship. You can find further details including all events on the project website: Enchanted Community. I found the project to be a crash course in public engagement: we engaged with a range of audiences and worked in a number of venues including schools outreach, a women’s centre, library exhibition and public talk in an art gallery. Attendance for the six project events reached up to 39,032 people, far exceeding estimates made during the planning stage. I would like to explore this experience of public engagement in a series of blog posts starting with this one. In these posts I consider why public engagement is important and what PhD students might gain from these experiences.
During the Enchanted Community project, we aimed to provide impact in various ways. In conducting workshops and talks for the public, we encouraged participants in the local community to think about academic research in new ways: to consider ideas from research and possible applications in everyday life. The activities were based on the ‘forgotten’ British artist Frederick Cayley Robinson (1862-1927) who worked 1880-1920s. The artist is the subject of one chapter in my forthcoming book Spirituality and Feminism in Modern British Art and Culture. Through this case study we facilitated juxtapositions: bridges, meetings, shared pathways between scholarship and the everyday. Comments from participants at events affirmed these rich exchanges, interactions and connections.
So, returning to the key question: why have a go at public engagement and what might be the benefits? Public engagement and impact are areas of ongoing interest for PhD students and Early Career Researchers.
Developing understandings of, and some experience organising, public engagement activities will enhance your academic CV. Considering impact from an early stage in projects and embedding impact statements into funding applications will help develop your professional experience and profile as an ECR. You will be building foundations for your academic career. I found that my impact project had a very positive impact on my research, sharpening critical questions and perspectives, pushing me to consider different audiences and pathways forward. It also increased my confidence and concerns for best practise. I hope this post will encourage you to organise an event yourself.
Alice Eden is an Early Career academic and Associate Tutor in the History of Art department, University of Warwick. In 2016-2017 Alice was an Early Career Fellow at the IAS, University of Warwick. Her primary interest is modern British cultural history, spiritualties and feminisms, with expertise in Victorian and Edwardian art history. She has a background in administration, education and management. Alice can be contacted via email and followed on twitter at @Alice_Eden4.