Dr Martin Glynn, of Birmingham City University, has pioneered the use of spoken word, jazz, hip hop, and reggae theatrics to communicate and disseminate research data. He explains why
‘It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it; that’s what gets results,’ sang Ella Fitzgerald back in 1939. She had a point. At a time when researchers are increasingly being called upon to demonstrate increased ‘reach’ and ‘impact’ in relation to their work, discovering fresh, innovative, and creative approaches to dissemination of important messages, ideas and visions, contained within the data itself has become an important consideration.
While studying the literature on research dissemination, I discovered a significant history relating to ‘data visualisation’. It’s a technique used in academic and corporate circles to present data in visual formats to explore and identify difficult concepts, emerging new patterns or complex connections contained within statistical data.
Looking for a breakthrough
At the same time books on research methods revealed that scant attention had been paid to ‘performance driven’ approaches to research dissemination that involved the symbiotic relationship between ‘spoken word’, ‘music’ and ‘storytelling’. On reflection, I acknowledged the legacy of progressive scholars past and present, inside and outside of the academy, who, at certain historical junctures, had wrestled with similar concerns as myself.
Emerging in the late 1980s and early 1990s from working within the applied theatre movement under the mentorship of Professor James Thompson (University of Manchester), I moved from representing the stories of black offenders using drama and performance, to tackling social/racial justice issues within criminal justice using performance techniques to explore new ways to present research. I was also supported by a sadly departed friend and colleague Dr Vinette (Vinny) Cross, who encouraged my desire to present research creatively. But I needed a breakthrough.
‘Academic exclusion zone’
Growing tired of the biased thinking and negative assumptions that attempted to define and control what the parameters of my work should be, how it should be measured, and more important how it should be disseminated, I took a pragmatic decision. That any future trajectory of my research would not be watered down or subjected to unfair ‘institutional expectations’ or elitist ‘peer review protocols’. I also knew I had to confront the resistance of the so-called ‘traditionalists’ who, by and large, saw my experimentation around research dissemination as the basis for asserting an academic exclusion zone designed to prolong my scholarly marginalisation.
Symbolically, it felt like I was being treated this way for no other reason than it posed a threat to the natural order that traditionally excluded creative approaches to research dissemination. So, I continued to adapt my research into performance and, after several exhausting years, moved beyond the development phase of ‘data verbalisation’ where I began to ‘speak’ my research, exploiting my other passion, music.
The birth of the ‘data verbalisation lab’
In 2016, a small development grant from Birmingham City University enabled a pilot of the ‘data verbalisation lab’. This was a space for colleagues, students, and community members interested in experimenting with data. At the course’s conclusion I was approached by one the attendees, Birmingham-based music producer Richard Campbell (aka Natural & Secret)who offered to help me adapt some of my research. The outcome was ‘Silenced’, a jazz hip-hop fusion that became the first ‘data verbalisation’ story.
The reception in the research communities I worked with was overwhelming. Appreciation from around the world gathered momentum, a book deal from a major publisher (Routledge: Speaking Data and Telling Stories) came to fruition, combined with a rush of inquiries from progressive academics. Yet, there was a ‘tumbleweed silence’ from some quarters of the ‘mainstream’ academic world, peer review journals, and academic silos.
At that time, it didn’t have a name, was raw, and felt more like ‘experimentation with purpose’ than a viable method. And how could I ‘speak to power’, if the mechanism to do so (my research) had no voice?
This cumulative outcome laid the foundation for ‘data verbalisation’– using performance techniques to communicate and disseminate research. Whereas data visualisation presents research visually and ethno-drama presents research theatrically, data verbalisation ‘speaks’ data. Please walk with me on this journey of discovery.
Dr Martin Glynnis a lecturer in criminology at Birmingham City University, and poetry and children’s book author who has also written for BBC1’s Casualty and Radio 4 (drama). His most recent publication is Speaking Data and Telling Stories: data verbalization for researchers.