Out of the comfort zone

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TV and radio history presenters often find themselves discussing subjects quite some distance from their specialist research. This can be contentious in the academic sphere, where colleagues often ask why a specialist hasn’t been commissioned, and it’s something I’ve been reflecting on as I approach the second anniversary of becoming a BBC New Generation Thinker. Very often, I’m finding that broadcasting has closer links to teaching than to research, despite the fact that the NGT scheme highlights the link with the latter.

Wonderful though your work may be, the fact is that a focused piece of academic research probably won’t make for more than a couple of radio or TV programmes. My most recent book, for example, was the basis for a Radio 3 Essay, an appearance on Radio 4’s Start the Week and a short BBC Arts film. I’ve drawn on sections of the research in other places too, but there’s only so far one project will take you.

However, I do enjoy broadcasting and, as you can see from my media page, since those early pieces I’ve broadcast on a much wider range of topics. I’ve reviewed art exhibitions – one directly connected to my research on early modern Italy, one not. I’ve done one radio Essay drawing on material from a new research project, and one about my family history. The latter isn’t in my research area, but it does connect to a topic – the representation of imperial history – that I teach on a second year heritage module. And my criterion for what I’m happy to do tends now to be: “does this connect to my teaching?” rather than “does this relate to my research?”

A step beyond again is presenting. This month I’m presenting two programmes for Radio 3: a Sunday Feature and an edition of Free Thinking, which we’re recording at the Hay Festival. The Sunday Feature is part of Radio 3’s Monteverdi 450 season and focuses on the women who worked with the composer. We’re in early seventeenth-century Italy, which is within my teaching interests, but dealing extensively with music, which isn’t really. However, in this format my job is to use my knowledge of the period to pose thoughtful questions to the experts, rather than to be the expert myself.

Free Thinking – a discussion on women’s voices in the classical world – is even further away from my research interests. I guess the academic parallel there is being chair of a round table at a departmental seminar, where my job is to make sure the guests have an interesting conversation that the audience can follow. (As a side note, I’m also learning a lot by reading books that in a more conventional academic world wouldn’t be a priority.)

When I started out doing media work as an academic, I tended to think of it in relation to research impact and the demands of the REF. The more I do, the more I think that’s a very narrow way of looking at it. Perhaps we should focus instead on the long-term benefits to research from thinking about topics outside one’s discipline, and the synergies with teaching besides.

 

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2017: New Year, new projects

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2017 will feature some family history

Happy New Year! (You can insert the obligatory “wasn’t 2016 awful” line here.) I’m now a year and four months into working at Swansea University and have some big new projects for the coming year. (And, below, a few thoughts on managing workload and the REF.)

More Radio 3 Essays: In January you’ll be able to hear some very early findings from my new research project on the history of handguns as part of a Radio 3 Essay series on gun culture. And in March there’s a very new historical departure for me: I’ll be at the Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead with an Essay about my grandparents, who were missionaries in Dhaka and Kolkata from the 1940s to the 60s. This is some way out of my historical comfort zone, but I have done a fair bit of teaching on public perceptions of Britain’s imperial past. A few years into lecturing I’m finding new topics emerging from the teaching side of the job.

New research: There will be more research on that handguns project, which focuses on Italy c. 1500-1550, with a first paper at the Renaissance Society of America conference this spring. And some (more) grant applications in the hope of getting funding for the archive research I really need to do to get this up and running in a bigger way. Fingers crossed. I also have a couple of outstanding articles/chapters from previous projects to write up.

Fiction: For a while now I’ve been playing at writing a novel that’s a spin-off from The Black Prince of Florence. I’m going to finish it in 2017. I have no idea whether it’ll be publishable quality but the process is raising some interesting methodological issues for me about writing history so at the very least I’m hoping for a theory article.

Non-fiction: Yes. I hope to have news about a new non-fiction book project soon… and various other things that are at different stages of development… stay tuned…

Lectures: Besides those for my students, I have public lectures coming up at the British School at Rome (January), in Swansea (March) and in Leeds (September). I list these on my Talks & Events page, so keep an eye out there for details.

Is this an unfeasible workload? I agree it’s an ambitious one. But I’m not planning to finish all the big projects in 2017. And in the past few years I’ve got a lot better at breaking down larger writing tasks into tiny pieces. If I write 200 words a day every day for a year, for example (the equivalent of ten or eleven tweets a day), that’s a full draft (73,000 words) of an academic monograph. And with a 200-word daily target on a project it’s also possible to get ahead of the game by writing more some days, which is psychologically a lot more comforting than setting higher targets and then stressing about getting behind.

Academics reading this post may be wondering about how this pattern of work connects to the demands of the REF. One of the consequences of the huge uncertainty about the rules at the moment (to port or not to port, how many outputs per person, will impact be less linked to outputs, etc.) is that it’s basically impossible to plan. So I decided to stop worrying and work on things that interest me, which is probably, to be honest, the best route to turning out good publications.