The New Generation Thinkers scheme is an annual competition run jointly by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and BBC Radio 3 to give ten early career researchers from across the arts and humanities the chance to get their research onto broadcast media. Dr Naomi Paxton (below right), cultural engagement fellow at the School of Advanced Study, was one of the ten winners in the 2014 competition.
If you’re already blogging about your research and are active on social media, particularly Twitter, you’ll know how effective and stimulating getting it ‘out there’ can be – not only in terms of clarifying ideas and broadening appeal, but also for raising your profile and making connections with other researchers and the public.
My doctoral research explored the work of the Actresses’ Franchise League, the theatre ‘wing’ of the suffrage movement. Having trained and worked as a professional actor before and during my PhD, interacting with a wider audience beyond the academy has always been my instinctive response to the research, as well as a pleasure. And public engagement through an opening up of archival resources, particularly play texts, is and has been a key part of helping to develop my ideas and confidence.
I hope that my work not only offers a re-evaluation of the work of feminist theatre professionals in the suffrage movement and in the Edwardian theatre industry, but contributes to as well as complements and extends broader discussions around gender inequality in more recent histories of the 20th and 21st-century theatre industry.
I applied to be a New Generation Thinker (NGT) in 2014 because as a regular listener to BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 3, it’s clear how effective radio is as a medium through which ideas can be directly introduced into and discussed in people’s homes, cars and lives. At the audition stage, we were told more about what media organisations like the BBC want from early career academics, shown examples of best practice and encouraged to think of new ways of framing our research in order to share it with non-specialist audiences. It was thrilling to be picked as one of the ten.
My year as a New Generation Thinker gave me the opportunity to learn by doing. I spoke at the Hay Festival, the Latitude Festival, the BBC 3’s Free Thinking Festival at the Sage, Gateshead and of course on the radio. I also made a short film with BBC Arts as a showcase for future presenting work – another challenge and learning curve that was a lot of fun. The opportunities in the NGT scheme are fantastic – as long as you respond well to pressure and find tight deadlines galvanising rather than terrifying.
The Free Thinking producers were great to work with – patient, thoughtful and very supportive. It’s hard to reframe and pare down detailed research. You need to think of different ways of talking about topics, themes and ideas that will make them accessible to a non-academic audience, and to learn to see your research from the outside in.
We were given media training by the AHRC, which certainly helped to give me a more pragmatic approach than the rather idealistic one I had started the process with. I wanted my research to bring to life the performative propaganda of the suffrage movement and challenge ideas about the ‘canon’ of 20th-century British theatre as well as pervasive negative stereotypes of suffragist women. I’ve learned to get in quick, speak with humour, stick to my ‘top line’ and try to not always use language that might alienate the audience and obscure my meaning.
All too frequently a 45-minute in depth preparatory conversation with an interested producer will result in a 6 minute live interview with a presenter in which detail, context and complexity can’t properly be explored or even introduced. Frustrating although that is, I suppose the journey through the process is about being prepared to let go of the minutiae of PhD research, to see the potential in a bigger picture and to reach out to those who don’t yet know they are interested in your topic.
It’s also about the wider networks of people you meet, and of being a good person to work with – so the off air stuff is just as important as the on air. It was an inspiring, challenging and exciting year. I’m very grateful to have been a part of it and to have brought my research to a wider audience. Hopefully that’s something I can continue to do in the future.
Dr Naomi Paxton is cultural engagement fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London where she works with the Being Human festival team. Her research interests include: theatre professionals in the suffrage movement in the UK and US before and after WW1; performative presentations of feminism and political activism, past and present; cultural histories of political and feminist theatre in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; actor training, especially physical theatre and movement based practices; applied theatre practice and puppetry with non-verbal/autistic/institutionalised participants.