Anyone for a delicious slice of pineapple upside-down cake?

Pineapple upside down cake

Dr Ornette D Clennon, an NCCPE Public Engagement Ambassador and Visiting Enterprise Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University, indulges us with a cake metaphor as he shares his visions of a new academic practice where public and community engagement actually form the embedded backbone of our teaching and research.

How interesting that this retro cake seems to remain a perennial favourite or is it just me? Well, it does bring back childhood memories of Sunday lunches with the whole family with the obligatory chicken and rice’n’peas. For me, the image of the upside-down pineapple cake grows with significance, as it symbolises memories of the weekly coming together of my family; the back bone of my feeling of belonging to my wider community. During the week, this family and community networking would carry on ‘unseen’, rooted in the mundanity of the everyday, a sort of background whirring of connections and community-building activities. Then on Sunday, these family and community connections would ‘suddenly (re-)appear’, where the background whirring of community and familial activity would be foregrounded around our family dining table with the pineapple upside-down cake taking pride of place in the centre of the table: my family and community networks reminding me of the glistening pineapples and cherries embedded within the bottom of the cake suddenly becoming the proud adornments of its top with a nimble flip of the cake tin, expertly executed by my gran.

This nostalgic view of my childhood favourite lulls me into a vision of a new academic practice where public and community engagement actually form the embedded backbone of our teaching and research; if you like, the background “whirring” of unseen activity where long term (non-project focussed) transformational relationships and partnerships are formed and developed as a matter of course. However, in my vision of this new academic practice, these embedded unseen activities are regularly honoured and showcased as essential outputs in future REFs, as bona fide elements of the taxonony of research that are regularly revealed with this nimble flip of re-positioning. I believe that universities are notoriously poor at accessing the quiet and ‘unseen’ back channels of informal community networks. This means that the knowledge we say that we are co-creating with our community partners, is mostly just a result of us working with “official” community fora or representatives, who often do not actually represent the real grassroots groups or individuals we would really want to work with.

To push the upside-down cake metaphor, a little, we often find ourselves working with a model of community engagement where the pineapples and cherries are placed on the top of the cake after the baking, a mere (but still tasty) cake decoration. However, what we still have yet to fully appreciate is that if we, as academics can successfully find ways of (and the time for) accessing the background whirring of connections and community-building activities, it is then we will be able to co-create truly novel, innovative and inherently useful knowledge with embedded long term social agency (er, research, by a more traditional name!). This will take some substantial remodelling of how we currently fund this type of third stream activity so that it does not fall prey to the dreaded time-specific research project that only gathers knowledge and is rarely reciprocal for its subjects but is funded and properly time-allocated as an embedded everyday part of an academic’s workload.  As an aside, even participatory research projects fall prey to time specificity, as we don’t fully appreciate that when our research project has ended and whilst we are waiting for the next funding call, communities carry on evolving and relationship dynamics on the ground carry on changing subtly in ways we don’t fully understand, making us scratch our heads at why we are often unable to create sustained beneficial ‘outcomes’ with our community partners.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, all of this would comprise a renaissance of a “scholarship of engagement” and would be embedded at the bottom of everything we do, as academics across all disciplines. In this way, my vision of a future university would be entirely populated by academics from all disciplines whose interdisciplinary work would mundanely produce social agency, where the co-creation of new and novel knowledge with communities would be an everyday whirring of academic activity instead of the sometimes frantic ‘screeching’ construction of add-on Impact Case studies that we all have to endure.

Hmmmm. All this thinking about cake is making me peckish. I think I’ll ask my gran for her recipe for her pineapple upside-down cake, now!

What is your metaphor for the future engaged university? Share your views by leaving a comment below.

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