I’ve just been at an event on external engagement in the arts and humanities at the University of York, one of a series supported by the British Academy. As is usual for events that bring academics together to discuss ‘public engagement’, discomfort was expressed with the term itself. Both ‘public’ and ‘engagement’ are problematic (as, indeed, is ‘external’, which harks back to ‘extramural’ and thus divides the world into the insiders and the outsiders).
But what was interesting was that none of the early-career academics and PhD students (who provided the most thought-provoking speakers) raised the issue. Working with and for all kinds of people was just what they did as researchers. They needed to be creative in making connections between their initial research interests and those of partner organisations. They had to be flexible as collaborations developed in unexpected ways. They learned a lot about the nature of their own expertise and the contribution of others’. And they did so by doing it – getting ‘out there’ (presumably without worrying too much about whether ‘out there’ was an inherently and prohibitively problematic formulation).
We do need to inspect the language we use. Words reveal, but also conceal. An essential aspect of academic enquiry is being critical and self-conscious (I quite like Thomas Cooper’s ‘duty of discontent’). But we shouldn’t let that process of examination be an end in itself – I’ve made the same argument about the endless problem of defining public history. We need to do. We need to try things out, to make connections and follow leads (some of which are bound to be blind alleys and diversions). We need to meet people, find mutual interests and build networks, even though we may have no idea how these will turn into anything. Engagement is a pretty good word to capture all of this energising, entrepreneurial, messy, frustrating, rewarding and so completely human activity of making meaning of life.
NB the image is the first one that comes up when you type “external engagement” into google images. It’s quite fitting in a way as one of the approaches the speakers were critiquing was one like this i.e. the university justs ‘hands over’ or transfers its knowledge to the external partner, rather than getting involved in a genuine collaboration.