Engage 2014 wrap up

Engage 2014

Just under two weeks on from Engage 2014 and Sophie Duncan, Deputy Director of the NCCPE, reflects on the event and some of the interesting questions that arose.

It is hard to believe that just under two weeks ago we were half way through delivering our annual Engage conference. With over 300 delegates joining us over the two days, and a range of workshops, storytelling sessions, encounters, posters, presentations and plenaries, there was lots to do, but also plenty of opportunities to catch up with old friends and make new ones.

So here are some things that it left me thinking about.

  • Is collaboration always better than informing?
    • The NCCPE came up with a simple typology of engagement some time ago that suggested there were three main purposes engagement served: inspiring & informing, consulting and collaborating. Collaboration, by its nature, is often a long term investment of resources for all involved, but creates a really fertile ground for long term change and impact. This was explored in our ‘Embedding impact analysis into research’ project and report. However, all universities also engage with a view to inspire and inform others, trying to ensure that ideas and inspiration arising from their research are circulating widely in the world beyond academia.

    • So how do we ensure that this kind of engagement too is of a high quality? Mohit Bakaya reflected on the audience research done by the BBC which suggests many do want the opportunity to engage with well-crafted, intellectually challenging content, and how challenging it is to keep up with audience expectations in this regard. Can researchers learn from the BBC? I think so – I think we need to constantly alert to new and dynamic ways of sharing our work and that this needs to be part of the engagement landscape a university commits to. It shouldn’t be the main focus, but it should be part of the ecosystem.
  • To what extent is there a middle way for researchers wanting to be academically credible and useful to society?
    • Eleanora Belfiore believed that this was possible as she described walking a middle ground between being a credible academic and being a useful one, a path that was challenging. It made me think of the blog Rick Holliman wrote about Engaged Futures where he describes engaged researchers as being the norm rather than the exception. Could this happen? One of my favourite quotes from Eleanora was when reflecting on how challenging it can be to do engaged research ‘Ele, Ele.Ele – you could have been in a library!’. But despite this temptation to retreat from the more difficult experiences she shared of attempting to bring scholarly work to bear on policy development, she concludes ‘I still think it is definitely worth it……. Research is too important to go into a scholarly journal to die’.

    • Describing impact as a particularly violent metaphor where academics hit people over the head with their research, Eleanora went on to describe her concern that the perceived impact of her work will be used as a proxy for its value. She forensically unpacked some of the contractions and paradoxes in navigating this territory. Her whole presentation will be available here on the website soon, well worth a listen if you are interested in the future of cultural value and in the challenges of engaged practice.
  • Is creating space to talk as important as the outputs?
    • Some delegates joined us for our fourth Engaged Practice Learning Exchange (or EPLE for short) on the 2nd December, which provided a space to reflect and share engaged practice. Much of the event was about sharing our perspectives, experiences, and stories of engaged work we were involved in. I had the delight of hearing patient involvement described in a rendition of the Christmas Carol – the first Noel – with the memorable refrain ‘Engage, Engage, It’s the right thing to do. Involving your patients in all that you do’. A timely reminder that engagement is a key part of the whole research cycle from setting questions to sharing results!

    • We spent the afternoon exploring how we might find other ways to share engaged practice across disciplines, sectors, participants and purposes, and critically reflect on the value of different approaches. Initial feedback suggests participants found this a really useful segue into Engage, and a great space to think. It struck me that meeting together was just as important as any formal collective outputs, but I wondered whether people would come to an event without the promise of these? When working at the BBC I managed People’s War where people with memories of WW2 were asked to share their stories in an online archive. The evaluation suggested that people took part because it was great fun, but the promise of contributing to the archive legitimised their involvement.
  • What can we learn from those outside of HE about engagement?
    • This year’s Engage included many engagement experts from outside of HE, from Opera North to the Museum of London. I didn’t make many of the workshops (somehow organising a conference means that you always should be somewhere else!), however, I did make it to the Museum of London workshop where I was brought face to face with a burned brick from the fire of London, from a house in Pudding Lane. It made me feel quite emotional and remember the power of artefacts to engage. It wasn’t the main point of the session, which explored the development of a content strategy to help the Museum work with its different audience groups, but it was a useful hook to keep the workshop in my mind.
  • Can a conference be both fun and serious? And what’s the right balance?
    • On reflecting on the conference, story teller and VC of Aberystwyth University April McMahon described the fine balance between having fun, and the serious business that engagement is. As she made her remarks I wondered to what extent did we manage this in our conference? It felt like I had had loads of fun, I’d sat around a camp fire whilst creating a model of my imagination; danced a science ceilidh with enthusiastic others (you know who you are...); I’d written a post card to the future; and had dinner in Narnia (complete with snow). However, I had also been involved in some critical reflection on the role of universities in society: Robina’s reflections on the wild woman and the raven (look out for this on our conference pages in due course); the skills of engagement brokers; the impact of the REF; and the needs and expectations of organisations seeking to work with universities. Clearly it is up to delegates to decide about the right balance, but this year was all about engaging with curiosity, so I think we got it right, and if I heard her right, I think April agreed!
  • Have we moved beyond evangelism?
    • The Engaged Futures report was soft launched at Engage, and will be launched formally in January. In it we reflect on the need to move beyond evangelism to a more reflective discussion about the role and quality of engagement practice within the academy. Whilst this clearly came out of the consultation involving over 200 people from inside and outside HE, stories at Engage reflected that there is still much ground to cover, and that for some, making an evidenced case for engagement is still really important within their institution. There was optimism that the REF case studies might throw light on the value of engagement to impact, but concern that there is still more rhetoric than high quality engagement in lots of HEIs across the UK.

Now for something completely different...

The conference was both an opportunity to celebrate, and interrogate engagement and was only possible because of the contributions of our workshop leaders, story tellers, presenters, engagement animators etc. Next year we will need to explore what an engaged conference could look like that focusses on other areas of the engagement landscape. We have already had a wonderful suggestion by Sarah Banks for a more reflective conference – with walking workshops (something I have longed to do), silence and reflective spaces. Do tell us what you think, and don’t forget to fill in your evaluation!

What do you think of the questions arising from Engage 2014? What were the most interesting points to you? What would you like to see at Engage 2015? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. 

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