Archive for June, 2011

I really enjoyed presenting at the New Media and Academia conference. My thanks again to all those who organised the event and contributed. You may remember that I spoke about corporate history as an example of public engagement, one of many ways in which academics can work with a wider public. In a nutshell, my paper was a look back at my own experiences with corporate history and discussed how new media could help to address historical issues of narrative, agency and our attitudes towards the past.

Since giving the paper in Newcastle I’ve had the chance to revisit the company that I researched in 2009. In the two years since the company history had been produced, the firm’s marketing has become more ‘heritage led’, drawing not just on innovation but also on accumulated industrial experience and historical prestige. Apparently the history document also provided some reading material for the Prince Charles when he visited the factory! I think this demonstrates just one of many ways that historians can engage with the wider public and provide a service that can influence practices outside of academia. It also highlights something that I didn’t mention in my paper; that the way in which corporate history is used is perhaps as important as the content of the history itself.

In my paper I mentioned various critics of corporate history, who tend to view it either as ‘history to order’ or as an ongoing conflict between the historian and the client company. Yet, such criticisms may have simply taken these histories at face value and neglected the more subtle ways in which they can influence corporate practices. Indeed public engagement can be assessed according to its short-term results but also its long-term outcomes, which are harder to quantify, but just as important.

I suggested that historians could help this process along by encouraging greater use of the electronic archive, as a kind of ‘digital art gallery’ that combines oral histories, photographic archives and press articles. This would allow companies to use historical knowledge on a day-to-day basis, which would have a variety of operational uses for training, marketing and research. The archive could also have practical historical use in facilitating research into hitherto unexplored areas, whether from amateur historians, secondary school students or postgraduates. As a general rule, corporate history as a form of public engagement tends to only engage with a narrow ‘private’ public. Yet, it can also exist in a form that reaches a broader audience and can make history more lucid and accessible.

Ravi Hensman

University of Manchester


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Following on from my earlier post, what advice would I give to a PhD student thinking of trying social media?

  • Have a look at the examples first – they may stimulate ideas.
  • Don’t get bogged down into thinking you have to use a particular resource  – initiatives are more likely to be successful if they are led by what you want to do, rather than by technology.
  • Think before you leap in. You may often hear people deriding social media as trivial – but each tool is only as trivial or worthwhile as you make it. Are you confident you can keep your blog interesting?
  • At the same time, don’t be afraid to experiment, and don’t worry if it doesn’t work out.
  • Enjoy it! Most social media tools are simple and hugely engaging – we’ve come a long way since you needed to type in reams of complex code and negotiate servers to publish a single, dreary, read-only web page. Even the most enthusiastic of researchers tends to get rather jaded by their work at some stage – perhaps social media can help rejuvenate your research?
  • Finally, it’s good to retain some scepticism: social media has downsides as well as plus points. You need to think about issues such as intellectual property, time commitment (if procrastination is the thief of time, Twitter is its cunning accomplice), the blurring of social and academic life, and the ephemeral nature of social media. However, none of these are insurmountable. Judiciously handled, social media may open up a whole new world for your research – try it!

Lucy Keating


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I was invited to the conference to describe an online resource I’ve created which aims to help arts and humanities researchers learn more about how social media can help with their research.

I’m an academic liaison librarian, and have often been surprised when discussing information management with researchers, that while most postgraduates enthusiastically embrace social media such as Facebook or Youtube in their personal lives, very few see a potential use for them in their research. Indeed, some are downright hostile. My experiences seem to be backed up by various research projects in the past few years (for example, by RIN and Education for Change).

I wanted to try and redress the balance. As social media tools are generally characterised by being cheap, fast and flexible – words not often applied to the traditional scholarly communications process – I felt that researchers were missing out. And it’s not just about publishing – social media can play a part at all stages in the research process: finding information; collaborating with others; organising work; disseminating findings and engaging the public.

Nonetheless, being more of a measured enthusiast than a fervent evangelist myself, I certainly understood researchers’ reticence. Therefore, I tried to design the resource to cater for a typical researcher. In other words, an intelligent sceptic who doesn’t have time to read a 30 page ‘how to’ guide. Someone who might be prepared to give me a couple of minutes of their time at best.

So the resource is made up of ‘bite size’ chunks, broken down into categories according to the type of tool (blogging, networking etc). As the focus of the conference was specifically on engagement, I also created a new section looking specifically at that area.

To grab the attention, each section has examples of arts and humanities researchers using these tools. Try explaining Twitter or wikis to someone who has never used them before, and the chances are you’ll be met with a bemused shrug. Show them Pepys Diary on Twitter, a music research group promoting its conference on Facebook, a local history project involving the public with wikis, a literature project displaying data with Google maps, a museum using Flickr to publish rare photos for the first time ever….. and you may well see a spark of enthusiasm.

If your curiosity is stirred, the site has links for you to try the tools out for yourself. If you want to go into things in more depth, you can watch three-minute screencasts, or follow up bookmarks with in-depth advice from elsewhere: for example, the dos and don’ts of academic blogging or podcasting. I’ve tried to keep it concise, objective and practical, and hope to improve and update the resource over the coming months (particularly the screencasts). I always welcome feedback and new examples!

Lucy Keating


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I’m really happy to be able to contribute something following a conference that raised so many questions. Not wanting to simply repeat my paper or the historical case study that it provided, I have tried to isolate the key points that I think it raised.

The first is that New Media has the potential to be a democratising force that allows us to reach beyond traditional academic audiences. This is an opportunity that we should – must? – grasp.

However, it also raises a number of potential challenges. This second point was one that was raised by most of the conference’s participants and was the focus of my paper.

I stressed that it is for us to define the parameters of this ‘new digital academic’. In doing so, we must think carefully about both the practical and more fundamental questions this raises. If this is seen simply in terms of dissemination, then we should be aware of our purpose and the value that we can add whilst taking care to present information accessibly.

But, if it is seen in terms of engagement – a process that is, by definition, more targeted and potentially more discursive – then we must work to foster a deeper interest in the specifics.

In this sense, dissemination (through blog postings, commentary, or a youtube video…) provides a hook but is not the end of the process. Such actions could instead be seen as one level of a multi-layered approach. Indeed, grasping new methods should not – necessarily – mean removing the complexity of a given subject, provided that a balance can be found between accessibility and nuance.

This is, of course, just one perspective. And it doesn’t really offer any answers. But hopefully the questions – like those raised by the conference more generally – will provide some food for thought. Either way, I’d be interested to know what you think.

Henry Irving

University of Leeds

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Day one of the conference involved discussions on the different kinds of new media available to researchers, before focusing on one particular method: YouTube videos. Northumbria University kindly supplied filming equipment, editing software and a teacher in the form of Alex Harbor, who provided us with the basic techniques required to make our own videos.

As you can see from the results, there are lots of different ways to go about disseminating your research via YouTube. You can simply sit in front of the camera and talk, maybe interspersing this with images. If, like me, you are incapable of looking remotely comfortable on screen, then you can use pictures for the entirety of your video. You could, of course, take this one step further and not even use your voice – but you’d need enough words and/or images on screen to make the video format worthwhile.

So how do you go about making your own one of these?

The first thing to think about is content. Ideally you want it fairly short (most of our videos are only a couple of minutes long), understandable to non-specialists, and of relatively broad appeal. You could describe your entire project, or one thing you’ve found, or maybe construct a very short narrative.

Then you need to deal with the technicalities. It’s possible that there’s already video editing software on your university computers, and maybe even somebody willing to show you how to use it. If not, there are lots of free programs available online. There’s no need to learn any complicated techniques, unless you really want to.

Interested? Make a video, send it to one of us, and we’ll upload it to the YouTube channel!

Imogen Clarke

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Professor Steven Fielding opened the conference with a discussion on the general merits of dissemination, giving some practical examples from his own work. He argued that academia has entered a new era. While excellent research was still the foundation of any academic career, the ability to disseminate this research was becoming increasingly important with impact now accounting for 20% of the REF score.

The first social media that Fielding discussed was blogging. He commented on the relative ease of starting a blog, but highlighted the importance of thinking about what exactly you wanted to achieve. Fielding highlighted that it was good to think about how your own work links with contemporary events, and what ‘value’ you are adding to the existing story. He also argued that it was vital to consider the audience. Fielding showed examples of how, using the Guardian comment is free section, he had contributed to a contemporary news story using his own research. Fielding then talked about Ballots and Bullets, Nottingham University’s School of Politics and IR blog. This blog emanated from an earlier example, which dealt exclusively with the 2010 general election. Fielding articulated the two uses of the new blog: providing a platform for academic staff and PGR students to demonstrate how their own research was relevant to current political debate; and disseminating new research, published in the form of books and articles, to a larger audience.

Fielding also explained how Twitter could work to promote blog posts. He argued that it was pointless writing a blog without being on twitter, as the limited character platform allowed the promotion of blog posts to a large audience. The combination of blogs and twitter can also create a seamless web to promote your work, and generate an audience to follow it. Fielding finished his keynote with a brief discussion of disseminating work through broadcasting. Although much older than new media, he argued that pitching for the BBC was much the same as writing blogs. For both, you needed to condense a lot of information into limited space, and consider the generality of your audience.

Chris Burgess

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Reports from the event are coming soon . . .

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