This UK’s National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE)’s Engage conference is now in its 8th year, this year it took place on Thursday 29th and Friday 30th November. The conference has previously taken place in NCCPE’s home city of Bristol, but this year the team ventured north, inviting an incredible line up of researchers, public engagement professionals, funders, and leaders from universities, third sector organisations and industry, from around the world to Edinburgh to discuss topics related to the theme ‘facing the future’.
Luckily for me, Edinburgh is a lot closer to home (and cheaper to get to!) than Bristol, so this year I got to go to Engage for the first time. I always find that during conferences I take lots of notes; usually coming home with pages of barely coherent scribbles linked by arrows, highlighted with stars and emphasised by varying degrees of underlining. In order to preserve at least some of the thoughts I’ve had, I like to translate those scribbles into blog posts. Selfishly, this provides my scribbles with a more structured home, meaning that I can return to them in the future, but given the topic, I figured that this time my thoughts might actually be of use to other people.
I only managed to attend the first half of day 1 and the second half of day 2 (I was rushing about flying to London and back for the Times Higher Education Awards in between), but hopefully my thoughts can still be of use to people that did not make it to Engage themselves, or people that were at the conference and fancy hearing another perspective.
This post is going to cover the first plenary of the conference, which was titled ‘Challenge to change’ – later in the week I’ll be publishing follow up posts from the conference that cover topics such as ‘navigating change’, ‘facing the future’ and ‘transforming engagement’. Normally I wouldn’t go into so much detail about specific sessions, but this conference really fits with the topic of my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship, so I need to make sure I have a decent record of what happened!
The conference opened with a thought-provoking plenary featuring talks from Ruth Gill and Xerxes Mazda from the National Museums of Scotland, and Rajesh Tandon, chair of Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), and co-UNESCO Chair for Community-based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education.
The trio of talks challenged conference attendees to think differently about engagement, with Ruth Gill and Xerxes Mazda explaining that the need to learn is no longer biological, but philosophical; ‘we learn when we feel it is relevant to us’. That feeling might be as stark as learning something that physically forces the air out of you, or it could be something that makes you smile as it triggers a memory – the semantics of the feeling are important, it’s simply about making people feel something; it’s about meaning-making.
As public engagement practitioners, it’s important that we focus our attention on tapping into emotional responses and creating a level of escapism for audiences. As a researcher, until now that has only been on the periphery of my aims for effective engagement; usually I’m all about trying to create a fun environment where people can learn, but after the plenary I realised that as a member of the public attending events, the ones I remember made me feel something. It’s weird that when I’m in researcher mode I seem to cease thinking like a normal member of the public. Glad to be made aware of that though, and hopefully keeping the emotional response in mind will help me to diversify the engagement activities I am involved with – ‘fun’ and ‘educational’ events definitely do have their place, but I’d like to create engagement opportunities that are more complex. Trials are a complex area with lots of different perspectives and challenges, and I’d like to engage people by mirroring that in my activities and events.
Rajesh Tandon then gave an inspirational and motivating talk about his experience working with PRIA to empower excluded members of the community through capacity building, knowledge building and policy advocacy. I didn’t leave Rajesh’s talk with practical tips on how to improve the way that I engage with the public; that wasn’t the purpose of the talk. I left with a refreshed sense of purpose. He made a clear link between engagement and social justice; highlighting that universities and other higher education institutions have a moral obligation to ‘step up to the plate’ to support their local communities and tackle the sustainable development goals set by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. He explained that there are nearly 1 million higher education institutes globally, with 10 million teachers in them teaching 220 million full time students; and highlighted the need for us to ‘speak truth to power’.
This was a bit of a weird session for me – incredibly thought-provoking, engaging and interesting, but I am still left unsure of my own thoughts on whether I agree with what he was saying. I agree that universities and higher education institutes have a moral duty to the public; the institutions (and researchers) that are funded by public taxes should be working to engage the public with what they are going, and I think it’s important that the culture of research changes to embed public engagement (and involvement, but that’s another conversation) into every aspect of the institution. That said, I’m uncertain about the accusatory language used. This may be as a result of my inexperience and naivety, but I think that higher education institutions are generally trying to do good. Of course there are barriers and issues that may prevent things from doing good all the time, but I don’t picture there being two distinct sides at play here; one full of ‘the goodies’ – enthusiastic and engaging people wanting to invest in communities and the other full of ‘the baddies’ – leaders, people just out to make money and tear society apart in the process. Fundamentally, I think it’s very easy for those of us not in high powered leadership positions to think that universities could do more; but we can never know the whole story, and I would like to think that there are people at universities (at least in Aberdeen!) that are pushing to engage with local communities to share the important work that is being done within them.
On that rather serious note, I’m going to leave things here. My head is still buzzing with ideas from Engage, and I’ll be back later this week with details of brilliant public engagement practices where people are navigating change like experts, and sharing their experience to help the rest of us do the same.