I applied for the AHRC-TORCH Public Engagement Summer School as soon as I saw it advertised. I’d been thinking about the ways in which university students and academics can get involved in local and wider communities for a while. Before starting my DPhil, I spent a couple of months teaching at a university in Bangladesh: the Asian University for Women’s core aim is to foster human and economic development through the promotion of higher education for women. When I got here and attended the Humanities Division’s Developing Learning and Teaching programme, I wrote a teaching portfolio that explored the extent to which there’s space in the tutorial system to encourage an active commitment to social change. And this year, I’m involved with the Oxford Writing Project, which has students deliver creative writing sessions in a local primary school. As I started to appreciate just how much I was (and am) learning from these experiences, I tried to see what it was that linked them all together. Was it something to do with ‘public engagement’? Did ‘public engagement’ offer another way of bringing interested members of the academic community into contact with interested members of the wider community?
So I found it particularly helpful to sit down at the first session of the Summer School and have a chat about some of the most basic questions: What is ‘public engagement’? What does it look like? Who is the ‘public’? The public, we agreed, is really everyone who opts in – everyone who could potentially be curious about, or interested in, our research. It isn’t about putting people into boxes. Public engagement, meanwhile, could bring together a huge range of skills: blogging, working with the media (print, TV, radio), podcasting, and making use of Twitter and the Digital Humanities. In Oxford, fascinating and successful public engagement projects cover everything from schools outreach programmes to collaborative work with charities, museums and theatres. We were lucky enough to tour the Museum of the History of Science and hear about the ways in which the team captures its visitors’ imaginations.
I’ve begun to understand that our own future projects can involve elements of any – or indeed all – of these things. The first couple of days of the Summer School have left me buzzing with new perspectives and ideas. It’s about figuring out how to communicate in a different way. (It’s been helpful to crystallise the ideas in my thesis and to think about how it could speak to modern audiences). It’s about being creative, wacky, and true to your interests: the message over the past couple of days has been hugely liberating. And it’s about starting conversations. It’s been wonderful to imagine the intellectual dialogues public engagement projects could open up, and to meet other Humanities students who have been asking the same questions as I have.
By Ushashi Dasgupta