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.