Jessica Sage, one of the founders of We the Humanities (or are we going with Overlady as a title?), has written this blog for us on her fascinating new job. It raises all sorts of interesting questions regarding the relationship between research and outreach. I'm hoping for an extended debate in the comments section as well as on Twitter.
In September I took up a Research Associateship at Newcastle University (UK) with a difference: funded by the AHRC this post has been created as part of the Knowledge Transfer Partnership, a British scheme designed to help ‘businesses to improve their competitiveness and productivity through the better use of knowledge, technology and skills that reside within the UK knowledge base’. If you’re wondering what this has to do with the humanities, you’re not alone: this KTP associateship is the first in the field of English Literature and is also unusual in pairing with an arts charity: KTPs are much more commonly found within technology companies.
This KTP post is a collaboration between Newcastle University and Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Literature, and is based at their archive in Gateshead, in North East England. My remit, broadly, is to develop adult audiences but the form this takes is a work in progress, informed by the needs of Seven Stories, my academic interests and by Newcastle’s School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics. My current to do list includes two literature reviews, close analysis of a semi-unpublished poetry holding, the development of training sessions for staff on the recent Michael Morpurgo acquisition, and writing a work-in-progress paper for the university’s Children’s Literature Unit Graduate Group. I’m also bandying around ideas for an academic conference and sketching out a journal article on twentieth century pastoral children’s literature, drawn from some of the Seven Stories archive.
My role, then, is as a researcher with public engagement front and centre rather than as something that’s developed after a piece of research has been completed. It presents a new model of postdoctoral training and research as well as throwing up theoretical and practical issues that I’m still working through. If, like me, your critical approach argues that you cannot anticipate or secure the ways in which readers produce meanings from texts, how can you negotiate a desire for a wider reach of your research with the problems of measuring this? What implications might there be from undertaking academic research in a non-academic setting on both the research agenda and thework produced? And in an audit-heavy academic culture might partner organisations become, as the REF 2014 findings put it, ‘used’ by HE institutions?
Even having to consider these kinds of questions has been refreshing. ‘Academic research’ means different things between sectors and within organisations and I’ve found myself rethinking and explaining ideas and methodologies that I’ve previously taken for granted. It’s not entirely dissimilar to being involved in an interdisciplinary workshop – both in terms of how stimulating it is and in being somewhat outside of your comfort zone.
The KTP role follows the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s definition of PE as ‘a two-way process’ so I’m also benefitting from a generous training and travel budget and an onus on developing the career opportunities of the RA. I can also draw on the supervisory, mentoring and training structures of both the university and Seven Stories and there is an expectation that I will pursue my own priorities within this as well as those of the partner organisation.
I wanted to share my very early thoughts about this post and what the implications might be for how we consider postdoctoral training and research in the selfish hope that there might be other researchers in the We the Humanities community who’ve held similar posts and who might therefore be able to share their learning with me. I’m also interested to hear what people think about a position like this: does it strike you as an exciting development in the postdoctoral jobs market or a worrying slope towards research-lite? To what extent can the humanities inform the cultural sector and/or business and is this our responsibility or missing the point? If your work is outside of academia what benefits would you want a partnership like this to bring to you?
If you’ve got any thoughts on any of this I’d love to hear them, either by commenting below, through Twitter (@academicjess), or by emailing me on Jessica [dot] Sage [at] Newcastle [dot] ac [dot] uk.