Encounters at Engage 2018

Lisa Whittaker, Research Engagement Officer at Tenovus Cancer Care, reflects on her time at the NCCPE’s 2018 Engage Conference in Edinburgh.

I could only attend the first day of the conference this year but it certainly gave me enough to think about. This was my 3rd Engage and was definitely my favourite year so far for lots of reasons. I grew up about 40 mins from Edinburgh so it was really nice to be back ‘home’ but I mostly enjoyed the conference because after several years of trial and error ‘doing public engagement’ I felt able to contribute what I’ve learned and also learn from others so I can continue improving my work further. I’d like to highlight the following 3 things - the warm welcome and sense of inclusivity at the conference, the importance of emotional engagement and my very first Encounter!

A warm welcome

As a Public Engagement Professional in a voluntary organisation I often feel like a bit of a lone wolf, both within my organisation and in the wider public engagement field. This has definitely changed recently as I’ve joined the new PEP network and I also felt much more included in the conference this year compared to previous years which was fantastic. Universities are not the only ones trying to engage the public and it is good to see a broader more inclusive approach being taken. This was reflected in the range of speakers and in my invite to host a table discussion and share a story of navigating change. Instead of lingering around the periphery of the conference (often due to my own inexperience and lack of confidence earlier in my career) I felt very much in the thick of it.

Emotion, rigour and discipline

Although it was probably a case of preaching to the converted it was very reassuring to hear the importance of quality public engagement being discussed. Several speakers talked about the need to embed public engagement in the research process and said ‘as long as it is an add-on or an extra, public engagement will never be as successful as when it is embedded’. Hopefully we have moved beyond public engagement being seen as the fun part or something only students and early career researchers should bother with (but I fear this is not always the case). I completely agree that we should treat our public engagement practices just as rigorously as we do our research. Line managers should encourage staff to develop their public engagement activities and follow good practice principles (it was great to discuss these and I look forward to seeing the final framework next year).

There was also a lot of discussion about emotional engagement. This is something I have considered frequently in relation to my work in sharing cancer research, a highly emotive and sensitive area. Although I’m still unclear of the most effective way to measure emotional engagement I do think it’s so important to consider. The ability to make people think by provocation rather than by instruction is a skill which I’m still trying to master. It was helpful to be encouraged to think about what has given me ‘all the feels’ in the past and use this in my public engagement work. For me, it’s definitely about making connections, making things meaningful and relevant to the audience.

Unexpected Encounters

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when my application to contribute to a session was rejected and I was offered the chance to take part in the Poster and Encounters Party instead. I thought an Encounter seemed like a consolation prize. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There was a buzz in the room when everyone was busily setting up their encounters and I was torn between setting up my own Science and Shopping in Virtual Reality activity and having a nosey at what everyone else was doing, there was such a brilliant mix of posters and activities.

The encounter very much felt a bit like being at work, but the difference was I was showcasing a new resource in a lovely environment with a very supportive and inquisitive audience (and to top it all off one of the organisers kindly brought me a glass of fizz, thanks again Steph). I got some really useful feedback and lots of great ideas and things to look into further. I would describe the Poster and Encounters Party as ‘engagement in action’ - I thoroughly enjoyed it and would choose an encounter over a more traditional presentation any day.

I'm really interested in other people’s experiences of the conference, particularly day 2, what were your highlights? What did you find useful to take back into your own public engagement work?

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