by Jonathan Downie
Recently, I attended the Engaging Research Day at Heriot-Watt University. Not only did I get to take home a nice certificate and hear Graham Turner scoop first place (I’ll beat him next year) but I got to hear stories of how academics of all stripes are going out and interacting with the public. The big theme was this: people are interested in your work; go find them.
Let’s be clear. We all know that other academics should be interested in our work. That’s why we carefully select journals, cite strategically and invite guest speakers. That’s nice but even if every university in the world adopted aggressive recruitment policies, academia would still account for a tiny fraction of the population of the world. Outside of that tiny circle, there is a whole world full of people who are just desperate to see what we are up to (and what their taxes are being spent on). Reaching them, however, takes creativity.
Here’s a neat little story. As well as doing research, I also work as a freelance conference interpreter. What makes freelancing challenging (and rewarding) is that there is absolutely no one who is going to get clients for you. You need to get them yourself.
In an effort to go get some clients, I started writing some posts on LinkedIn Pulse aimed squarely at the clients I was trying to get. For the first time, I was giving away free tips on how to source and work with interpreters. I did my best to write convincingly about the need to work with qualified professionals and how clear communication can help them work more effectively.
All pretty basic stuff. In fact, almost any other interpreter in the world could have written those posts. The weird thing is, a cursory look around LinkedIn showed that no one had. The effects of those posts would surprise even me. While they haven’t exactly gone viral, they have been picked up by experts in the events industry and one has even been reposted on a new and growing hub for events managers.
Suddenly, those basic issues are becoming talking points and clients are talking about their experiences with interpreters. While it seems to be common to argue that clients don’t know much about interpreting, my tiny attempts at opening dialogue seem to be showing that they do.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how something similar might work in research. Take Graham’s award-winning public engagement work, for example. How many Scottish politicians would have been thinking about BSL and the Deaf community until work started on the BSL Bill? How many more people have now become interested in politics, sign language and research as a result of that one project?
Journals are great but real change takes place off campus: in boardrooms, classrooms, city centres, debating chambers and on the streets. Advancing human knowledge is wonderful but surely using those advances to improve the human condition – in even the smallest ways – is even better.
We need to stop hiding our research. Every day, academics uncover new knowledge, make new connections, open new possibilities. Every town has people who need that knowledge and those advances and would love to experience those new possibilities.
And there is one, quite unexpected consequence of making our work visible to the world. The more people know about our work, the better our work gets. Writing about interpreting for clients has made me adjust how I see my own work. Discussing my PhD with practising interpreters has made me go back and rethink my conclusions. There really is no better use for research than using it to help make a difference.
How will you engage?