To mark the launch our new Public Engagement Innovators Scheme, which offers small grants to fund public engagement activities within the School and the Senate House Libraries – this post reflects on the importance of integrating public engagement into the School’s mission to ‘promote and support research in the humanities’.
As we all know, the School of Advanced Study is an institution that exists to ‘to promote and facilitate research in the humanities’. But what does that mean in practice? Of course the School hosts a fantastic range of often free and public lectures, seminars and symposia. It supports research networks with an international reach, and looks after some of the most important collections in the world in its various libraries. There’s a lot going on.
But what about public engagement with all that activity? The School hosts a huge amount of conferences and seminars, many of which are ‘open to all’, but do ‘the public’ actually come to these? Maybe some do, but are they really ‘engaging’? The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s (NCCPE) defines engagement in the following terms:
Public engagement describes the many ways in which higher education institutions and their staff and students can connect and share their work with the public. Done well, it generates mutual benefit, with all parties learning from each other through sharing knowledge, expertise and skills. In the process, it can build trust, understanding and collaboration, and increase the sector’s relevance to, and impact on, civil society.
In other words, engagement should be a two-way street, with opportunities for both academic experts and non-academic audiences to learn from one another. Indeed if it is done well public engagement should draw such distinctions into question.
Changing the Culture
In late 2014 the School signed the NCCPE’s Manifesto for Public Engagement. In doing so it committed to making public engagement a core part of its mission to support and promote research in the humanities. Perhaps it is no coincidence that in the same year SAS took the lead in initiating Being Human, the UK’s first national festival of the humanities.
Being Human offers a national forum for public engagement with humanities research. In its first year it saw over 160 free events taking place across the country, hosted by well over 100 universities, cultural and community organisations. From a programme of events in the festival ‘hub’ in Senate House to activities in places as remote as the Orkney Isles in the Outer Hebrides, the festival was a wonderful demonstration of SAS working in its national role. It showed how well placed the School is to influence culture-change in public engagement in the humanities not only in relation to its own academic activities and collections but also in a much broader register.
The Innovators Scheme
Since I started working in SAS in 2013 I have seen lots of projects which have found creative ways to engage non-academic audiences. These have ranged from parkour on the roof of Senate House for the Bloomsbury Festival – to an event which explored multi-disciplinary approaches to bees in human culture (including a trip to the honeybees on the roof of IALS). There has been a ‘Human Library’ event up in the Senate House Library, in which instead of taking down a book from the shelf people got to engage with academics for a one-on-one lecture.
The new Public Engagement Innovators Scheme is designed to provide some resources for students, staff and fellows within the School and Senate House Libraries to run their own public engagement activities. As its name suggests, it is designed to encourage new ideas in this field and provide a way for people to experiment with what does and doesn’t work. The call, which offers a limited number grants of up to £2k to fund engagement activities, launches today. It offers opportunities to provide programming for either of the School’s two main outlets for public engagement activity: the Bloomsbury Festival (22-25 October) and the Being Human festival of the humanities (12-22 November). Have a read and get involved!
Read more about Public Engagement at the School of Advanced Study here.