By Gregory Tate
The research that went into my monograph was, like most academic scholarship, very specific: it focused on the ways in which Victorian poets drew on, contributed to, and resisted the development of the scientific discipline of psychology in the mid-nineteenth century. However, as is invariably the case with even the most recondite research, it also addressed larger issues. In this case, different ways literature and psychological science represent the mind, and the relationship between artistic and scientific approaches to human experience more generally. These issues are however necessarily subordinated to the detailed textual and critical analysis that forms the basis of academic literary study.
After The Poet’s Mind was published, and as I continued to research the intersections between literature and science in the nineteenth century, I kept thinking about how to combine detailed academic research with a consideration of the broader questions raised by that research. Hopeful that those questions would be of interest to a wide audience, I applied to the BBC and Arts and Humanities Research Council New Generation Thinkers initiative, which offers humanities researchers in the early stages of their careers the opportunity to discuss their research on Radio 3’s Night Waves programme and at the BBC’s annual Free Thinking Festival. In May I was announced as one of the New Generation Thinkers for 2013.
I’m delighted to have the opportunity to share my research with non-academic audiences, but now that the initial thrill of excitement has subsided and I’m starting to think about my first broadcast, I find myself asking questions about the relationship between academic scholarship and public engagement. How can I share the ideas behind my research, clearly and engagingly, with a broad audience, without losing sight of the difficult intellectual problems which drew me to my subject in the first place? How can I reconcile the complex details and the big ideas which I see as equally vital to academic research?
Shahidha Bari, one of the New Generation Thinkers for 2011, has examined the same issues. ‘Difficulty is what academics deal in,’ Bari writes, and she argues powerfully against the notion that this difficulty needs to be reduced to something more accessible in order for it to be palatable to a non-academic audience. The division between ‘difficulty’ and ‘accessibility’, Bari suggests, is a false one; the difficulty must be retained if the research is to make any substantive contribution to public debates. I support Bari’s comments resolutely, but there remains the practical issue that academic forms for disseminating research (monographs, journal articles, conference papers) and forms of public engagement (radio programmes, blogs) address different audiences, using different styles of language and speaking from and to different frames of reference.Bari’s piece highlights the difficulties of translating between these forms, but, nonetheless, a type of translation is perhaps what is required.Bari’s key point, though, remains unassailable: the process of translating academic research into public engagement cannot dispense with intellectual complexity, which is the essence of the research itself.
Forums in which academics can share their ideas with the public are proliferating at the moment: the launch in May of The Conversation, a news website written by academic researchers, is just one of the latest examples. The heightened focus on public engagement is a challenge for scholars committed to preserving the academic standards and intellectual integrity of their research, but it’s also an opportunity for us to demonstrate how our complex and original work can confront preconceptions, communicate new knowledge and new perspectives, and inform public debates. It’s an opportunity which humanities researchers, who perhaps have been less effective than scientists in publicly advocating the significance of their work, need to embrace while retaining their open-minded scepticism and determination to interrogate assumptions. Academics are skilled in communicating and discussing their ideas in the classroom, and we now need to continue the discussion outside universities as well.
My research on the complex links between literature, science, and psychology in the nineteenth century draws on an impressive body of work by a range of scholars. I strive to meet the high standards of rigour and attention to detail which characterise this work and academic research on literature more generally. I also hope, though, that my close analysis of nineteenth-century literature, and my consideration of its links to science, will be of interest to a non-academic audience, both in itself and because I’m convinced that an awareness of nineteenth-century views of the relation between literature and science can inform current debates about the place of the humanities and the sciences in education and culture. The question of how to combine these two aspects of research, the scholarly and the public, is a difficult one, but it’s also pressing and needs to be addressed. Luckily, academics are not shy about tackling difficult questions.
Gregory Tate is Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Surrey. His book, The Poet’s Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry 1830-1870, is published by Oxford University Press. You can follow him on Twitter @drgregorytate.