An engaged approach to exploring interdisciplinary engagement

Oxford University's newly appointed Fellows in Public Engagement with Research explore how we might embed interdisciplinary public engagement approaches within our higher education institutions, and the opportunities, questions and challenges this raises.
Image credit: Ian Wallman

An engaged approach to exploring interdisciplinary engagement

Interdisciplinarity has slowly but steadily percolated the language and practice of academia. That research should incorporate some level of overlap or collaboration with colleagues in other fields is not just desirable, but often expected. This has undoubtedly enriched academic research and provided new perspectives and more holistic understanding of topics traditionally studied in isolation.

When it comes to engaging with the public in higher education institutions though, public engagement (PE) often relates to a specific topic or discipline. One explanation might be that public engagement tends to be structured around departmental or divisions structures. This may be both due to convenience (as these are well defined structures within universities) and funding opportunities (which are traditionally awarded to individual research groups or departments). A positive development is the increasing number of central PE teams, who do excellent work coordinating PE across institutions, and fostering collaboration and interactions.

Why are we interested in interdisciplinary public engagement with research (PER)?

At the University of Oxford, where we are based, there are formalised structures that cross subject areas. Whilst not unique to Oxford, the collegiate system is unusual in  preceeding  the concept of the department. Colleges are communities that provide a teaching, pastoral and social structure (as well as a physical space) for students and academics across the spectrum of disciplines, from the humanities to science and mathematics. Students and academics are both affiliated with a department and with a college.

In our experience, public engagement is not traditionally seen as part of the life or mission of colleges. No doubt discussions between students and academics on public engagement take place, but PE support and opportunities are generally seen as something that is the responsibility of departments, thereby focusing on specific disciplines.

We have recently been appointed Fellows in Public Engagement with Research at Reuben College, the newest college in Oxford. Still in its embryonic stages, Reuben is re-thinking the role of the college, with the ambitious aim of promoting interdisciplinary research that addresses 21st century challenges focused on four areas: AI and machine learning, environmental sustainability, cellular life and ethics and values. Public engagement is embedded at the core of Reuben College’s mission, demonstrated in part by our election as Fellows, with the same status and influence as the academic fellows.

This is an exciting opportunity for us, but also a challenge. As colleges do not normally “do” public engagement, we have no blueprint to follow. How can public engagement at a college add value in the context of the existing PE structures in a university? One answer could be to focus on the interdisciplinary flavour of public engagement enabled through a college perspective.

What does interdisciplinary PER mean in practice?

This is an exciting focal point, but one open to many interpretations. Different roles and opportunities can lead to very different experiences. One of us has primarily worked in a departmental setting, so encountered few opportunities to promote interdisciplinary PER beyond one, very entertaining, comedy night on the topic of iron. The other works at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and hence is regularly involved in organising exhibitions and events that bring researchers, collections and exhibits together from across the university and beyond. Conversations with colleagues from within and outside Oxford have raised more questions than answers. What are the differences between inter-, multi- and trans-disciplinary PER? What are the pluses and minuses of these various approaches, and can they be steps in a path to PE that provides deeper explorations of a topic? What are the best examples of interdisciplinary PER? What are the challenges and the benefits, for the publics, researchers and PE professionals? And what are the structural and funding incentives that can encourage this specific flavour of public engagement?

Join us in an exploration of this topic!

We are not the first to think about these questions, but we are interested in learning and sharing with others to explore them. We have therefore joined forces with the NCCPE to invite you to join us in an exploration and reflection on what is interdisciplinary public engagement, but also what it could or should be. We actively seek diverse and varied perspectives, so we don’t want to be too prescriptive on what is within or outside scope. However, we do want to focus the discussion on inter-disciplinary PE, rather than PE that focuses on interdisciplinary research.

Our first step in this exploration is to gather views, perspectives and opinions. We have put together this form as a conduit to share your thoughts on this topic. At the end of the form you will have the opportunity to sign up for an exploratory workshop, which we will be running jointly with the NCCPE on the 14th of April. The thoughts and reflections shared via the form will inform our topics of discussion for the workshop, and will be shared in a summary document. We hope that as a community we can use this as an opportunity to take stock on what is our understanding of interdisciplinary PER, and where we would like to take it next.

Share your thoughts here

By Catarina Vicente and Janet Stott
Fellows in Public Engagement with Research at Reuben College, Oxford


I'm a fellow of Warwick's new Institute of Public Engagement, and many of the thoughts contained in this blog resonate strongly with me. As someone who entered the field of engagement through REF-based impact work, I always felt pulled to the emphasise how my research (which sat, by implication, within my field of German Studies) delivered benefits to non-academic constituencies. Whilst I sought to foreground the interdisciplinary nature of my work, in my case study write-up I felt the pull back towards subject specificity. It was the nature of the REF framework that seemed to dictate this. Now I'm interested in how P.E practices can become more interdisciplinary and flow back into and help re-shape impact work by demonstrating the necessary and beneficially interdisciplinary nature of engagement generally. I'm also passionate about co-production, both the co-production of research and its dissemination through P.E. But co-production, as I use it, doesn't just mean working with other academics across traditional disciplinary boundaries. For me, it also involves working with stakeholders, communities and non-academic interlocutors to help envisage and deliver research and engagement. How can we engage if we do not factor into our work the voices of those with whom we wish to engage? I'd be happy to collaborate and engage in discussions, and my contribution would lie precisely there, at the intersection of interdisciplinary and collaborative work more generally.

Hi James
Your words warm up my ambitions with hope for the active steps in PE of the Ivory Tower.
Looking forward to start a conversation - See you in the workshop

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