Brianna Robertson-Kirkland has just completed a PhD on the teaching of singing in the 18th century. She will be speaking at TEDxGlasgow on 3rd June.
As I am leading up to one of the most exciting and important public engagement events I have had the opportunity to do as a postgraduate researcher, I wanted to take the time to reflect on the importance of public engagement as both a student and early career researcher.
I applied for TEDxGlasgow after seeing it advertised on the Public Engagement pages available on the university website. I was very familiar with TED talks having seen a number of them on Netflix and was delighted to see that TEDx presented itself as a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience all licenced by the TED organisation. David Code, a Reader in Music at the Music Subject Area, had also done a talk in 2015 for TEDx University of Glasgow, which is a similar student-led event. TEDxGlasgow will take place at the Theatre Royal on 3rd June and is an all-day event packed with interactive labs, demos, spaces to network as well as the all-important talks. Speakers will include fashion designer Pam Hogg, writer Anne Ellis and James Watt, the founder of Brewdog, who will all be talking on the theme of ‘The Disruptive World’.
While I was familiar with TED, I have to admit I never thought I would be selected to speak, partly because I find it difficult to see how my research has any ‘real world’ value and why a large audience would be interested in castrated singing teachers from the 18th century. None-the-less, the application was a short 300-word abstract, and like they say on the National Lottery, ‘you have to be in it to win it!’ To my surprise, I was contacted a few days later by one of the TEDxGlasgow organisers who wanted to discuss my proposal in person. This was an excellent opportunity for me to speak about my research and helped me to realise the impact it could have. The discussion was inspiring, but I would not have been able to speak so openly about my work had I not already been actively taking part in public engagement events throughout my PhD.
Public engagement is not just about giving a talk to a non-academic group of people, nor is it simply maintaining a blog or posting about your research on social media. I have found that the most useful public engagement events I have attended or organised are those that engage in a two-way dialogue. Early during my PhD, I applied to be a Hunterian Associate and even though I was still carrying out my literature review and didn’t have a clear idea about what the thesis would be, I was able to create events where I could explore my ideas with a wide variety of people including non-expert academics and the general public, who often asked different questions to those that my supervisors were asking. I realised how I could incorporate vocal performance to demonstrate the practice based aspects of my research, and I learned how to talk about my research without using too much jargon.
Some jargon is almost unavoidable, especially when discussing 18th century music, but breaking this down into bite-size chunks helps to engage those who may have limited or no knowledge about the subject. Relating my research to contemporary phenomena was also a good way to frame the talk narrative. For example, most of my talks centre on the castrati, as most people find the subject fascinating. It also has a certain grizzly wow factor that currently is discussed in the popular television series Game of Thrones. I use this as my hook to get the audience interested before moving onto discuss how the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini trained some of the most famous opera singers in 18th-century Britain. In my research, this discussion played out over 300+ pages, but in a 10 minute talk, with singing included there isn’t much time to focus in on the little details.
Taking part in public engagement events has helped me to recognise what the populace deem to be the most interesting aspects of my research. These are not necessarily the aspects I would have chosen, but in order to get my message out there I need to engage the audience first and draw them in. In many ways, I see myself as a bard, with public engagement events as an opportunity to tell the story of my research and if I have told the story effectively, others will want to ask questions, and they will want to know more.
Public engagement is a performance and requires the care and glamour of a performance. It is a skill that can only be developed through dedicated time and practice. It also requires a change in the way you think about your research. Taking part in these events helps to get your name out there and can open up many research opportunities, but you need to be brave enough to take the leap. This is certainly what I did when I applied for TEDxGlasgow and I am so thrilled I will be able to share my research with the world!