D. H. Lawrence was fond of climbing mulberry trees in the nude to stimulate his imagination. Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group once convinced the Royal Navy they were a group of Abyssinian princes by donning fake beards and painting their faces black. George Eliot was the first person to make reference to ‘pop’ music. These are just three of the things I’ve discovered in the last year, since I embarked on a project to find the interesting side of literature. I did this partly because of that perennial question, or invitation, which preoccupies (and haunts) many a PhD student and academic researcher: “Tell us about your research…”
Increasingly in Higher Education, academics are being encouraged to communicate their research to a wider audience beyond academia. In many ways, this is nothing new, but the growing importance of “impact” in measuring the efficacy of research, and the idea of “accountability” – whereby academic research should recognisably yield some cultural and financial return on the money invested in it – have helped to bring the issue to the forefront of many discussions within academia. As it currently stands, ‘impact’ forms only 20% of the big research assessment currently underway – REF 2014 – but early signs suggest that impact is likely to make up a considerably larger percentage of the next REF assessment in another six years’ time. What is “impact”? It’s hard to say exactly: frequently cited examples include museum exhibitions and performances, public lectures and talks, and media appearances – activities which entail your research reaching the public in some way. All of these activities are loosely connected by the issue of “public engagement.”
“And this is why I started thinking about D. H. Lawrence climbing trees in the nude”
But in the online age, there are many other options open to the researcher. After all, not everyone can get a spot on BBC Radio 4 to talk about their research into medieval madrigals or their work on Thomas Hardy’s “lesser novels.” Setting up your own blog is one excellent way to gain valuable experience in public engagement: a blog can be a space to record and promote your academic activities, or it can take the form of an online forum which is centred on some issue of your research which acts as a way of bringing together scholars working in a similar area. Another way to bring your research to a wider audience in the digital age is through providing guest blogs for other sites. And this is why I started thinking about D. H. Lawrence climbing trees in the nude.
One of the most common problems I have faced with my own research is: how do I make this interesting to a non-academic audience? Of course I know why it’s interesting, but as anyone who’s stood at the front of a lecture theatre will agree, knowing something and communicating that something to other people are two different things. Another question: how do I pitch it right, so I don’t alienate the non-specialist but, at the same time, don’t over-simplify or ‘dumb down’ the essence of my work?
I decided to test the online waters, first by setting up a Twitter feed, @InterestingLit, and then by establishing a WordPress site where I could publish longer posts on some aspect of literature. But instead of making the focus of the blog and Twitter feed my own specific field of research, I decided to keep the focus on ‘literature in general’ instead. This is because I wanted to attract anyone interested in literature, not just people interested in modernism or dystopian fiction (two of my own research interests). It’s also true that academics are often called upon to teach on team-taught modules that lie outside their immediate area of research. So I thought that such a project might force me to seek out the interesting aspects of other areas of literature, not just those that fall within my research interests. Twitter has proved, in many ways, the perfect platform for such an experiment: many academics and researchers now use Twitter to promote their own work and connect with others, but there are also many literature enthusiasts who aren’t in academia but who take an interest in the work being carried out by researchers and critics. (I know this because of the many non-academic fans of ‘weird fiction’ and Gothic horror I have found on Twitter who have expressed an interest in my own research.) Twitter also forces you to be brief, of course, meaning there’s no room for specialist jargon, waffle, or lengthy explanations. I soon discovered a large community of literature fans on Twitter who responded to the facts, quotations, and links I posted on my feed.
“factoids may be trivia but they have helped to attract visitors to my blog”
These can be very short and sweet. Robin Hood didn’t live in Sherwood Forest. Sherlock Holmes didn’t make any deductions. Evelyn Waugh’s wife’s name was Evelyn, and Evelyn wasn’t his own first name. Victor Hugo liked to write naked to help cure him of writer’s block. Such factoids (a word coined by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe: itself a little literary factoid) may be ‘trivia’ but they have helped to attract attention to my Twitter feed, and this means more visitors to my blog. I started getting followed by people and organisations I knew and respected: the Oxford English Dictionary, the Poetry Foundation, playwrights, critics, columnists … even the people behind the television series QI and one of the Eggheads. Heartened by this growing interest in my endeavour, I started to blog more frequently. My blog now receives over 3,000 hits a week. I am attracting guest blog posts from academic researchers from all over the world, including high-profile writers such as Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells, who are keen to share their research with a wider audience in the form of short posts on a public forum. That means I can offer specialist posts from researchers working in fields I don’t intimately know myself (modern vampire literature, eighteenth-century women’s poetry) but also more general, non-specialist posts by myself, which share the interesting things I – the non-expert – have discovered while reading around in these different areas of literature.
A guest blog can be a great way to gain practice in doing several things: communicating your research succinctly and engagingly to the public (which could be useful for such future research activities as public lecturing, media appearances, and working with public institutions such as museums and theatres); highlighting what is particularly relevant about your research (often this is also the aspect that would most appeal to the general public, since it points up its links with universal concerns, whether social, cultural, or political); and thinking about how to make a subject interesting for students, which can be particularly useful when you’re writing that undergraduate lecture in which you have to distil years of doctoral research on the late Victorian Gothic into one fifty-minute introductory lecture on Jekyll and Hyde. Of course, it’s important to continue to acknowledge one essential truth of academic research: namely, that it is not always apparent at the outset why a particular project might be relevant or valuable. Such a thing is only discovered by praxis, by carrying out the work and seeing what it yields. But in principle these initial research questions are interesting in themselves, and worth sharing with people beyond the walls of academe.
I’m sometimes tempted to fall into the trap of envying academics who work in other disciplines – how easy it must be to make your work in engineering have “impact” if it leads to the building of a stronger bridge, or a faster car, or a safer building! But those of us who work in the humanities, and particularly in the area of literature, have a gift we shouldn’t overlook: our subject is already of interest to millions of people around the world. What we need to do is show this community of readers why our work is interesting, and that goes hand in hand with why it might prove relevant and beneficial to the wider world.