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Interview with New Generation Thinker Dr Hetta Howes

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has teamed up with the BBC as part of its long-standing New Generation Thinkers Scheme to produce a series of podcasts called ‘New Thinking’ which celebrates the huge range of amazing arts and humanities research. So, what is it like to swap holding tutorials to presenting a podcast in the BBC studios?

“It's just really good fun,” says Dr Hetta Howes, one of the first podcast presenters and Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Literature at City, University of London.

“It's the first time I've done anything like this and it's been great. It's felt like everything I love about research: three people with similar interests talking engagingly for other people to listen and enjoy.

“To be part of this kind of forum has been fascinating – I've learned so much already.”

Dr Howes also believes the podcast is a powerful tool for encouraging a new generation of researchers to step into public life.

“Being a young academic can feel quite precarious,” she says. “But these podcasts give early career researchers a place to speak up about the great research that they are doing and make their mark.

“It's great to have voices out there that aren't the usual professors and senior academics.”

The podcasts are also a powerful advocate for the value of arts and humanities research.

Researchers will often come up against the preconception that they spend all their time in the library and don't really engage with the 'real' world.

“Scientists and engineers can make big announcements, whereas our research can be more a bit harder to translate; it takes more time to explain what we are doing and why it is important. These podcasts are the perfect platform to do just that,” says Dr Howes.

“We have the space to work through complex ideas and abstract concepts.

“Plus, these podcasts just feel more conversational, up-to-date and progressive than a lot of other media outlets. They feel egalitarian and a long way from the stereotype of the 'ivory tower'. There is a chatty and informal energy to them.

“I like to think that we are creating something a bit like the sort of conversations you might have over coffee at an academic conference – and those are the moments when I think the best conversations happen!

“These podcasts are the perfect response to those 'what's the point of your research?' questions that we all get from time-to-time!”

Many of the skills involved in presenting or appearing on a podcast are similar to academic teaching. “I think when the podcast is at its best is when it's like a really good seminar, where all the students are talking – and the lecturer is almost silent,” says Dr Howes.

“As a presenter you need to ensure there is less of you and more of them! Although it does also help if you like the sound of your own voice.

But despite the crossover with academia in terms of skills, the experience of presenting is not without its nerve-wracking moments.

“It can be scary, but in a good way I think,” says Dr Howes. “As a presenter you have an earpiece and the producer is chatting away, giving you a steer, saying 'ask them about this or that', and that takes some getting used to. But you get there.”

“I've learned so much. As an academic you spend years and years focusing closely on your specialism, and it's really nice to be able to broaden your horizons a bit. For example, I've learned loads about Stonehenge and the latest research on the monument through making these podcasts.

“I would encourage everyone to get involved, especially those who think that 'radio is not for them'. This is different.

“If you're thinking about doing it, do it.”

Plus, getting involved with the AHRC / BBC podcasts is a good way of demonstrating skills that are increasingly valued in academia: the ability to communicate with both the public and your peers.

“Most funding bodies are now encouraging multi-disciplinary research and the podcasts show just how fruitful that approach can be.

“I never imagined that I'd be sitting in a BBC studio with a headset on talking about fascinating topics with a group of really interesting, engaging people like this.

“It's been absolutely brilliant.”

If you have an idea for one of the future ‘New Thinking’ podcasts please do get in touch via engage@ahrc.ukri.org