Above: a session on women’s magazines for the local council (image © Brian Wood)
On Saturday, I spent a happy few hours out of the rain in the impressive Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (if you’ve never been, go! Lots of great art works, a beautiful building and not so large as to be overwhelming). I went specifically to visit the Community Gallery, a room given over to exhibitions by local organisations. I’m on the Steering Group for a project about the experiences of Birmingham Quakers in World War One and we are fortunate enough to be taking over this space for three months at the beginning of next year, so I wanted to check it out.
Going there made me reflect on the various history projects and initiatives that I am involved with or have taken part in locally recently. Following the publication of my article in WI Life, my own Institute invited me to give a talk on women’s lives in the 1950s, which I did back in March. I’ve written on here about the new ‘Ask an Expert’ scheme at a local high school and over recent weeks, I’ve also submitted some course outlines to the Adult Learning Services team at my county council. I will be running these courses for the council in the autumn, having been appointed as a Sessional Tutor for them.
What links these disparate activities together is my sense that they would be both interesting activities for me to take part in and provide an opportunity to share my research with a wider audience. I guess this is impact or outreach or whatever the latest buzz word is, although those labels are not foremost on my mind. I just hope that I can help people to better understand how their lives, and their own personal histories, relate to broader histories. This is not a grand ambition. It feels very different, very removed, from the great pieces I’ve read recently about sharing research with a wider audience. I’m not having to wrestle with journalists who might misrepresent what I say or not even credit me at all. I’m not having to worry about how to distill my argument into a media friendly soundbite, although sharing through presentations and workshops etc raise their own issues around pitch, level of detail etc. My sharing may lack glamour and excitement (sitting in a drafty village hall is not the same as waiting in the green room for Women’s Hour!) but it brings it own rewards. Sometimes these are monetary; pay rates or speakers’ expenses may not be huge, but there is often something and it helps to make one feel valued in a field where often free labour is the norm. More often, the reward comes from direct interaction with a public who are interested, fascinated, intrigued by what we do. They ask questions that challenge and push us, making us approach our work in different ways. They can also be more forthcoming with the kind of feedback that we long for but rarely receive…A few weeks after my first session on women’s magazines for the council, I bumped into one of the participants and she told me that since then she had thought about what we’d discussed every time she picked up a publication. She still enjoyed reading them but it changed the way that she thought about them. Oh how I wanted to weep on her shoulder! It felt like my mission as an academic was complete. I can’t count the effect or enumerate how it altered her, but we both came away from the interaction richer for it. I hope that many more similar opportunities to make a difference lie ahead as more opportunities to share come my way. I’d also encourage other scholars to think broadly about how they can reach out beyond university walls. Chances to share our work don’t start and end with TV production companies.