What I’ve learned from “academic outreach”

As I go through my DPhil, I receive regular emails from my university/funding body encouraging me to embark upon “academic outreach”. Whether it’s pitching for a TV show or setting up a blog, there seems to be no end of encouragement for broadcasting research outside of the university’s ivory tower. And the arguments presented are pretty solid: for starters, a well written blog post on a popular website can rack up thousands if not millions of hits, vastly outstripping the reach of the average journal article or book chapter. Add to this the notion that publicly funded research should be available to the public (and the somewhat more cynical argument that it’s good for REF), and public engagement seems to be in a much more favourable place than it was only a few years ago.

There’s still a sense though that outreach is something that is done grudgingly. It’s often viewed as an effort, and a drain on time and resources that could be directed towards producing new, original, academic content. But writing for outreach can have significant advantages for academic work. The amount that can be gained from outreach seems to be undervalued — I’ve yet to receive an email that asks me to do outreach to improve my academic work. From a personal perspective, I’ve found that it’s changed how I approach writing for academic publications, and outreach initiatives I’ve been involved with have been some of my most enjoyable doctoral experiences.

So I thought I’d share a few observations about what I’ve learned from outreach, and how it’s benefitted me as an academic. I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on the below, particularly if you’re a fellow PhD who is weighing up the pros/cons of spending time on outreach in any of its guises.

1. There is no “general public”.

This is perhaps the most important thing outreach writing has taught me. “Outreach” essentially means everyone not currently working in your own discipline — and that’s a broad church. You have to adopt a different tone depending on whether you’re aiming at secondary school students, adult enthusiasts, or academics from other disciplines. The information included and the language used will change in each case. Within university, this has been been invaluable for me when it comes to swapping between styles to write various kinds of content, from grant applications to journal articles. Likewise, writing radio and podcast scripts has been a great way to learn how to put together a conference paper, which is quite different in tone and construction from a book or thesis chapter.

2. Multi-authored blogs and websites can be a great way of getting constructive criticism.

If you want a critical eye cast over some ideas, website editors can be an unbelievably helpful resource. Blogging doesn’t have to mean uploading unedited content to your own site — guest writing for a website provides the opportunity to have a new perspective on your work. Plus, receiving editorial comments on how to write in the house style of the website in question feeds into point one, giving you a whole new set of writing skills in your arsenal.

3. The library is not the only place for Good Ideas.

I adore long days curled up in the library behind a stack of books, but occasionally venturing outside and getting involved in new projects can be a way to find completely new angles for your work. The people that I’ve met from other disciplines and professions are sometimes an information goldmine, and have put me on to interesting ideas that I might not have come across otherwise. Which also links to…

4. A different audience can help dispel disciplinary anxiety.

This may be a musicology specific problem, but the proliferation of books and articles dedicated to “the value of the humanities” and “why music matters” bespeaks a certain nervousness about whether what we’re doing really does matter. Casting your net outside of a familiar discipline reveals many different kinds of audiences, many of whom will be excited by new research and will happily discuss it on online forums. Having realised that there are many different audiences who care about arts and humanities research, I’ve tried to stop worrying about if my research matters and have attempted to divert my energy into showing how it matters. This has made me much less defensive in the way I write, and frankly makes the solitary DPhil process a little less isolating. It can be very liberating to get a wider perspective, and people are far more likely to be interested than I thought — it’s all in the presentation.

Which leads me to more writing-specific observations. Writing for readers outside your discipline is both terrifying and rewarding in itself, but can also benefit your writing for readers within your area of study.

5. State your research findings clearly.

While writing a blog post and a journal article require two different toolkits, writing articles for my website has made me more aware of how I structure my more explicitly academic writing. I notice much more easily than I used to when a chapter is straying off topic, or when I’m repeating myself a lot. While there’s an elegance to an argument that unfolds over a substantial number of pages, it’s worth explicitly stating the significance of the research. This is particularly the case in theoretical and discursive fields such as the humanities, whose conclusions can sometimes appear nebulous.

6. Sometimes it helps to build a narrative for your research.

One of the most useful “outreach” projects I’ve tried was turning my research into a story for primary school children. It forced me to be very clear in my own mind what my arguments are, and made me think differently about what the most compelling aspects of my work are. Essentially, what is the story that I want to tell in my work? All arts and humanities research has some kind of narrative underpinning it, and thinking about this explicitly helps me to structure my writing for an older audience.

7. A reader is always a reader — or, there’s no such thing as outreach.

This is personal preference, but I really enjoy academic writing that reads smoothly, with some consideration of the reader’s demands, as well as those of the writer. There doesn’t have to be a void between academic and non-academic writing — sure, a lot more knowledge will be assumed when writing for a journal, but this doesn’t mean that this writing can’t be gripping and engaging. Likewise, a sophisticated argument doesn’t have to be reserved solely for the scholarly monograph. Somebody gave me the very good advice that you shouldn’t write anything for “outreach” that you wouldn’t be happy for your colleagues to read. The two spheres can and do overlap — this kind of creative approach to non-fiction writing is something that I’d love to work towards as I move through my academic career.

Let’s do away with the prevailing attitude that outreach is academia’s charity case. It masks all the positive attributes of “impact” work, and is frankly quite patronising. Yes, outreach takes time, and it takes effort. But learning to write for new audiences is teaching a new skill, which is surely time well invested. There’s perhaps a problem with terminology here as well — the word “outreach” suggests something that stems from the more important and interesting work that happens in a hermetically sealed academic unit, instead of a vital and integral part of what an academic job entails. Perhaps we could rename it “networking”, or “communicating”, or something to that effect.

Finding a form of outreach that you enjoy might be a net positive for academic pursuits, whether it’s podcasting, blogging, teaching, TV presenting, or a combination. Plus, more than anything else, it can just be good fun.

Leah Broad

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