Durham academics shine in the public eye

The following is an article provided by Palatinate.

Ambitious Palatinate writers have the likes of George Alagaiah and Harold Evans; University cricketers have Andrew Strauss; Durham Student Theatre’s budding actors even have not one, but two incarnations of James Bond to idolize. (That’s Lazenby and Moore, for those whose Bond trivia is lacking.)

Durham University’s list of illustrious alumni is extensive. We share a sense of pride when a former student appears on the news or the silver screen, or their name tops a column heading.

But, we forget that we are in the presence of public figures on a day-to-day basis: our lecturers and professors, whose media appearances are often overlooked by students.

Most recently, three Durham teaching staff appeared on BBC Radio Three’s Free Thinking Festival, which brings together leading figures from the arts, science, politics and literature to discuss and challenge current thinking.

Professor Veronica Strang, a cultural anthropologist and Chair of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth, appeared on the Festival Monday, November 16. She is Director of Durham University’s Institute for Advanced Study.

During the programme, Professor Strang discussed human interactions with the environment with “Twitter’s favourite shepherd”, James Redbanks, and asked whether we can learn from traditional knowledge in seeking solutions for contemporary challenges.

“I am keenly aware that not many people know much about anthropology, since it is rarely taught in school, and doesn’t have a high profile in the media,” Professor Strang said to Palatinate.

“Yet it provides a fantastic lens through which to understand human behaviour and cultural diversity. So I am on a bit of a mission to get it ‘out there’ a bit more.”

Having started her career as a writer before studying anthropology, Professor Strang firmly believes that “it is possible to make any subject accessible to audiences beyond the academy.”

“Researchers in Universities are now under a lot of pressure to make their work publicly accessible […] But as a practising anthropologist, of course, I take it for granted that we have an ethical responsibility to conduct our research collaboratively with host communities and share the outcomes of these efforts with them in ways that are readily accessible.”

Professor Strang also stressed the role of academics in informing and engaging with public audiences to contribute to society’s potential to make informed, democratic decisions on complex issues.

Her own work is primarily focused on social justice issues such as land and water rights, and on environmental concerns: how human societies engage with non-human species and ecosystems, and the consequences of neglecting non-human interests.

“Promoting justice […] requires public support,” Professor Strang summarised.

Media appearances serve the purpose of giving academia a voice in a matter of ongoing public interest, such as combatting terrorism.

Also featured on the Free Thinking Festival was Dr Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, Lecturer in Medieval Literature in Durham’s Department of English Studies.

On the show, broadcast November 7, Dr Barraclough discussed Old Norse mythology alongside author Joanne Harris, whose new novel, The Gospel of Loki, is inspired by the Norse god of trickery.

In 2013 Dr Barraclough was selected as a New Generation Thinker by the BBC and the Arts and Humanities Council. The competition is whittled down from hundreds of applicants – academics at the start of their careers – who demonstrate a passion to communicate their cutting edge scholarship to a wider audience through radio and television.

Dr Barraclough too emphasised the importance of striking the balance between making academia accessible and interesting without oversimplifying or misleading people.

“As an academic, you’re trained to drill right down into the detail, reference everything, dissect everything, question everything,” she said.

“When you’re explaining things to a non-specialist audience, you can’t add a metaphorical footnote after every sentence, otherwise everyone would get extremely confused and bored.”

“The book I’ve got coming out next year [called To the Ends of the Earth] is about Norse journeys through the world, and it’s meant for both specialists and non-specialists alike. Trying to make it informative, accessible and entertaining was incredibly difficult at times, and I spent most of the last six months telling everyone ‘I’m never writing another book again.'”

Belonging to a field of academic study that is occasionally accused of being ‘niche’, Dr Barraclough recognised the worrying idea that if a field of research isn’t of direct benefit to the economy, then it can be considered obsolete.

“Obviously that’s particularly worrying for the humanities, and it’s complete rubbish. The great thing about communicating your research to a public audience is that you have to think hard about what you’re saying, why it’s interesting, why it’s relevant, and why anyone should care.”

“That definitely keeps you on your toes,” she said.

Another radio contributor, Professor Helen Fenwick recently appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live and a number of regional stations to comment on the government’s proposed new web surveillance powers.

Noting the importance of tailoring an appearance to the audience, Professor Fenwick said: “When being interviewed, whether live or otherwise, you are aware that you’re speaking to part of the general public. So although the topic may be complex, you must use appropriate, sometimes fairly colloquial language.”

“In this case, the relation of the law to the factual, topical situation under discussion must be clear. The intention is that the general public would gain greater insight into the relevant area of expertise in so far as it relates to the issue under discussion.”

“Media appearances serve the purpose of giving academia a voice in a matter of ongoing public interest, such as combatting terrorism.”

“Other groups – politicians, journalists, pressure groups – have voices on the particular matter; academics approach it as a matter on which they have expertise due to their sustained study of the area,” said Professor Fenwick.

Such expertise can even prove influential in the field of policy-making.

Last month, Professor Anoush Ehteshami, founding head of the School of Government and International Affairs, held forth in an evidence hearing at a joint session of the Foreign Policy and Defence committees of the House of Commons. Addressing the nature of foreign policy in Syria, and the relationship between Syria and Iran, Professor Ehteshami imparted his expert knowledge to policy makers. (From 16:00:45)

One enthusiastic former student of Professor Ehteshami spoke to Palatinate on condition of anonymity.

“I made sure to watch him giving evidence in front of [the Defence Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons] in case I bump into him and he just happens to question me on British foreign policy in Syria.”

When asked if he would ever address the appearance with Professor Ehteshami personally, the student rejected that prospect out of hand.

“It’s like my library girlfriend: admire from a distance,” he said.

“Jokes aside, though, at risk of sounding like a brown-nose, it’s really quite cool to be taught by someone so highly esteemed. He’s humble, too, not showy about it at all.”

Our professors and lecturers are important public figures, highly esteemed in their academic communities and in the wider public eye. We ought to recognise more that to be taught by some of Britain’s brightest and best is “really quite cool”, even if they don’t have an Olympic Gold or Q’s latest invention.

Photograph: Durham University Images