To mark the launch of our call for applications for the first SAS/Senate House Library Public Engagement Innovators Scheme, we asked some staff from across the School about their experiences of public engagement and how it has influenced their research and professional practice. In this third post Judith Townend, Director of the Centre for Law and Information Policy at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies answers our questions about her experiences engaging the public.
- Could you tell us a little bit about who you are and the research that you do/your role in SAS?
I am director of the recently launched Centre for Law and Information Policy at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS), part of the School of Advanced Study (SAS). Our area of interest is ‘information law and policy’, or put another way, law and policy as it relates to the control and flow of information and data in society. The Centre has quite a broad title, but we plan to specialise in certain areas that affect the wider public’s, as much as academics’ and lawyers’, everyday activity: data protection, misuse of private information and freedom of information, for example.
Also, and this has a particular relevance to public engagement, we are interested in the way that specifically legal information is communicated to the public: through the courts and parliament, in private practice, by media and legal information organisations. The way that information about law reaches the public is quite haphazard: through a piecemeal system of communication that is heavily reliant on a number of third parties, many commercial. There are lots of things that could be done to improve public understanding and awareness about law.
- What public engagement activities have you been involved with in the School?
The new Centre has only just officially launched, but it’s already been quite busy. In November 2014, shortly after I joined the School, I organised the Humanity of Judging event at the Supreme Court, part of the Being Human festival. The idea was to give the public an insight into the courts process with a free guided tour of the court (normally there is a small fee), and hear about the human side of judging from an expert panel of three legal academics and a Deputy High Court Judge, chaired by a Justice of the Supreme Court.
I also took part in the Human Library during the festival in which we discussed our specialist interests with members of the public in the wonderful Senate House Library, although I think I learned as much from them as they learned from me about their experiences and views of social media and the law. Most recently we launched the Centre with two public events in February.
- Why do you think it is important for researchers to get involved in public engagement?
It makes no sense to me to keep public research away from the public: how can that be justified, especially when it is publicly funded? And on a topic such as law, which is relevant to every member of society, it seems to me imperative that legal academics help digest and explain law to a wide audience – through public events, media contributions, open access journals and blogs. Of course, private interviews, writing for specialist audiences and closed roundtables have their place, as a valuable part of academic research, but I’m glad to see an increasing emphasis on engaging the public in the arts and humanities (including law) – not least through the Being Human festival!
- What have been the three most challenging experiences while undertaking public engagement activities?
Number one, without a doubt: is calculating attendance numbers. When it’s a free event, it is likely that a significant proportion will drop out (of course I have also been guilty of this on occasion!). Number two: pitching the tone and level appropriately. I thought our launch speaker, Timothy Pitt-Payne QC got it spot on with his talk asking ‘Does privacy matter?’, giving enough context to keep a mixed audience engaged, while not boring the specialists in the field. Number three: cost and time. There’s no such thing as a free lunch – someone’s got to pay, and events organisation takes up a lot of time. Even if you don’t offer refreshments, ensuring a good diversity of speakers could be expensive (providing travel for those outside London, paying a fee to freelancers, for example).
- What have been the three most rewarding things that you’ve taken from public engagement?
One: I really enjoy the buzz of putting on a lively event and the interaction with attendees. Two: the pre and post-event conversations via email and social media, and swapping of information, which enriches research. Three: I especially enjoy seeing public contributions shape academic and media debate. While there are some undesirable aspects to digital communication that present specific legal and ethical challenges, the internet also makes academia far more democratic and accessible. It means that narratives can be challenged and new information unearthed. The digital conversation around the UK Human Rights blog is a great example of this, involving a range of participants and improving public understanding of incredibly important but complex legal topics.
- Do you think that getting involved in public engagement has helped your research? If so, how?
I have always tried to take a fairly open approach to my research and as a result so many useful people have got in touch, with helpful comments, interesting invitations and suggestions for working together. So far my experience of academia has been far from the lonely experience I was warned about before starting my PhD. Proponents of ‘open’ journalism have long recognised that sharing the journalistic process as well as the product can yield rich social rewards (not necessarily economic!); I think academics can learn something from this.
Now Read on:
A video of the launch lecture for the Centre for Law & Information Policy by Timothy Pitt-Payne QC on ‘Does privacy matter? Is available here. A report from the Humanity of Judging event for the Being Human festival is available in a previous post on SAS Blogs. The Centre for Law and Information Policy’s blog is available here, and you can follow the centre on Twitter @infolawcentre.