Staring down the barrel of my first year report and its looming deadlines, I watched my life flash before my eyes. Somewhere among the bad haircuts of my teens and the taste of that hideous blancmange we made in 2013, I found myself asking – how did I get here? What cruel twist of fate meant that I am now writing a PhD within a field I didn’t know throughout most of my school career really existed? I managed to trace back the cyclone of my Classical education to the dainty flaps of three butterflies’ wings in particular: a marvellously inspiring teacher; a series of really groovy TV documentaries; and the odd ‘outreach’ lecture from the universities at Leeds and Manchester.
Outreach – there we go. Public engagement. Impact agenda. Words we throw around so much they either make you green and nauseous, or you’re just completely numb to them by now. This is a subject I’m particularly passionate about, but I know it’s an enthusiasm that isn’t shared by all my colleagues. ‘Outreach? Oh yeah, that’s a thing you do, isn’t it? Have fun with that, I’ll be over here reading Thucydides.’ Surely sharing our work shouldn’t just be an optional extra, but something we all do as routine? I’d like to reflect here on public engagement and Classics in the media, in light of some conversations I’ve had with people over the past couple of weeks.
Over the past year I’ve been co-convening a little lunchtime discussion group for Aegean Archaeology. Our final and ‘fun’ session of this academic year (oh yeah, we know how to part-ay) was on ‘Aegean Archaeology in the Media’ – but much of the discussion could be applied to Classics in general. At the start of the debate, we discussed in particular two opinion pieces, one from the Conversation in March 2016, and the other from the Guardian in December 2015. The first argued that alongside writing books and journal articles, making more ‘accessible’ content like video clips or blog posts (ta-da!) should be standard for academics – and that institutions should provide better training and incentives in these directions. The latter was of the opposite opinion: that academics should just focus on research, we should stop trying to artificially tailor what we do for ‘impact’, and that the ‘real world’ will pick up what it actually wants and leave the rest. So that’s the red and the blue corner, now – fight!
This was the basis for a really interesting conversation, which threw up some important questions. If we are to disseminate our research to a wider audience, do we also have a duty to entertain? Think about your standard whizzy Classics or Archaeology TV documentary: if you cut out the dramatic music, the wistful panning towards the sunset, and the incongruous shots of tourists eating ice cream, you could probably replace each three minutes of footage with a single sentence in an academic lecture – but they’re damn fun to watch! If you want your work to be seen, does it need an inbuilt performance aspect? Ok, granted, not everyone wants to stand in front of a camera and talk about their work (nor should they) – but how would you personally feel if a paid presenter/performer talked about your research for an hour? Would you risk feeling misrepresented? How would you feel if they got all of the credit for your ideas?
And yes: TV documentaries can often be snubbed by more ‘serious’ academics, but we can’t forget the good that they achieve. They give a way into the world of the ivory tower, a middle-ground between some of the more obscure academic discoveries and the ‘so what’ we might dare to ask. And don’t discount the educational value of resources like these in the classroom – particularly at a time when Classical Civilisation as a qualification is at risk, and when visual culture modules like ‘Archaeology: Mycenae and the classical world’ and ‘Art and Architecture in the Greek World’ have fallen off the new A Level specifications. I have fond memories of being 18 and falling in love with ‘Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey’ (but that’s an entirely different story…) – it didn’t profess to be an educational programme and was not presented by an ‘academic’, but this series was inspiring and educational in just the right amounts. Everyone’s a winner in this scenario, right? Non-specialists have a bit of entertainment and might learn a thing or two; a bit of history and some recent archaeological work gets put out there; and Classics as a discipline can tick a box for public engagement. Is any of this a bad thing?
Welling with pride and inspiration – what now? Over at Cambridge’s outreach e-hub (‘The Greeks, the Romans, and Us’), we’ve been playing around with some of these ideas all year, and trying to work out what works and what doesn’t work. We’ve been concentrating our output on social media, a whole new dragon which is constantly rewiring and reinventing its own rules – and no doubt Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram will all look completely different in the next six months. As it currently stands, content needs to be immediate, digestible, frequent, and invite participation and comment. An example is our new #AfterClassics series of profiles, which spotlights alumni from the Faculty and the weird and wonderful array of jobs which they have gone on to do. Our first post (Sophia Odenthal, HR Treasury) has been one of our most successfully engaged pieces of content to date. Why? Because it tells a story, and it invites engagement: 46 retweets so far, of people both sharing their own stories or challenging the piece on how Classics can prepare one for the world of work (short answer – in many ways!).
Another series which we have been running is #30SecondClassics, wherein researchers have been given half a minute to share an idea on the ancient world without hesitation, deviation, or repetition. This idea has been designed around what we know about when people access Facebook – on silent commutes, at work, or in the library when they should be working (going on then, guilty! Who else?) Content therefore needs to be short (the average watch-time of any Facebook video is just over 30 seconds, talk about short attention spans!) and needs to be subtitled for those watching silently on the sly…and we still have seven new videos to release! We’ve had some really great feedback on this project, and the content has been used in ways we didn’t expect – in the classroom.
‘I love these guys! A great way to start a lesson with my GCSE students to keep them interested and easily teach them something new! Keep them comin’!’
‘This is a brilliant idea — I can imagine assigning it to students as well. An elevator talk of sorts.’
This is making us re-think some of our social media strategies for the next year. Now that we know what works, what content gets seen, and how it is being used, we need to make sure that we are producing what people actually want – and that we avoid becoming irrelevant or patronising. Feedback is always welcome, and if there’s anything in particular as a student, a teacher, or a colleague which you would like to see output or if you have any other feedback, then please get in touch!! email@example.com
…of course, the whole thing can also be great fun, and sometimes the best ideas are just the result of bad jokes…
So there you go: love it or loathe it, outreach actually is all around us. Strategising and planning content inevitably changes as the world (/internet) changes, and maybe we will draw misfires along the way. But for now, let’s talk seriously about engagement and work out where we can go next. And who knows – if we get it right, maybe somewhere in the future, another PhD student procrasta-dreaming deadlines away will remember how ‘The Greeks, The Romans, and Us’ (or similar) first got them hooked on Classics.