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Interview with New Generation Thinkers Joanne Paul and Charlotte Blease

Dr Joanne Paul
Dr Charlotte Blease

In our final interview before the New Generation Thinkers Scheme closes for this year, Joanne Paul and Charlotte Blease talk all things "NGT". Dr Joanne Paul is Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sussex and Dr Charlotte Blease is currently a Fulbright and IRC-MSC Research Fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center/Harvard Medical School; and the School of Psychology, University College Dublin.

What motivated you to apply to the Scheme?

Joanne: I've had a growing interest in getting my research 'out there' more, and a number of friends had participated in the scheme and loved it, so I thought I'd give it a go as well!

Charlotte: The year previous to applying I’d become involved in teaching philosophy to high school students and to adult learners. Communicating ideas to lay audiences was challenging but very rewarding. As a result I tried my hand at writing about these experiences for a Belfast newspaper. I recall saying that people in Northern Ireland are very good at talking but less skilled at thinking. This piqued the interest of producers at BBC Radio Ulster who invited me on an Arts show to defend myself. So when I saw NGT advertised I thought, “Why not give it a go?” I’m jolly glad I did.

What were your thoughts about attending the workshops, media training and ultimately the Free Thinking Festival?

Joanne: The workshops were intimidating, but I tried to treat it as a learning experience. I wasn't convinced when I left the workshop that I was quite ready, but that was ok - I'd taken a lot out of it anyway. As it turned out I got to continue as an NGT! The media training continued some of the themes in the workshop - about pitching and sharing your ideas. It takes a lot of practice to bring everything you have to remember in a radio or TV interview together, so it was an excellent chance to practice. The Free Thinking Festival was an exciting blur, if I'm honest. Mostly it was just excellent to get to speak to the other NGTs and hear about their research - they're all so fascinating and eloquent.

Charlotte: I thoroughly enjoyed the selection process. I remember walking into the room thinking: "Right I’ve two hours to be heard. I’m going to go for it". - From my recollection, the process involved a lot of discussion about what made a ‘good broadcast’, including how to translate academic ideas and concepts to radio and TV. I don’t recall any media training per se. I think we were thrown into the deep end back in 2012. Maybe this has changed since, but we were very much wet behind the ears when it was time to go on air. The Free Thinking Festival was a wonderful experience. Edgy anticipation was severely heightened when producers told me my talk (on medical professionalism) was the fastest selling event that year. Bloody marvellous, I thought, losing a pint of sweat every time I thought about it. But on stage the nerves dissipated. It was a great opportunity, and I recall the terrific high of speaking to an audience for a BBC recording.

How has being an NGT made a difference to your research and your career?

Joanne: It has given me more opportunities to share my research and practice broadcasting skills. I've also been thinking a lot more about different ways of approaching my research and how to make it relevant and enjoyable to a public audience.

For healthcare research, especially uncomfortably new ideas, access to the media is invaluable for communicating findings

Charlotte: NGT opened doors to other media opportunities. My research is focused on ‘real world’ problems in healthcare. In terms of research direction it had a less direct impact, and acted more to facilitate dissemination of my work. For healthcare research – especially uncomfortably new ideas – access to the media is invaluable for communicating findings.

Do you feel it makes the world of research more interesting and engaging to the public? How have you made your specific topics (not that they are not worthy) - enjoyable and appealing?

Joanne: More and more academics are sharing their research more widely, or trying to, and the scheme helps bridge the gaps between the academy and those outside of it who are interested in our research. There are two ways I try to make my research relevant and interesting - both drawn from the advice of others. The first is to think about my work visually, to paint pictures, depict scenes, to think about it cinematically even. For instance, describing the battle of Nasby where the king's letters were found, before they were printed and published. The second is to think about contemporary relevance in terms of political or social problems. To draw from the same example - how was the publication of the king's letters like Wikileaks? What can we learn from such a comparison?

Charlotte: Great question. I agree that imagery helps to enrich the listener's (or viewer's or reader’s) vista on the concepts one is communicating. Pictorial details are important, as is the human element. Human beings are inveterate gossips, so find the human angle in your broadcast. And never patronize or talk down to your listener or reader. As a broadcaster (and as an academic) our role is to point out something that the listener may not have spotted: to explain what it is, why it’s interesting, and why delving deeper matters. In my research into the doctor-patient appointment, I’ve turned the tables on the medical profession to ask: When are doctors not authorities on medicine? When – if ever – should we distrust our doctor? A bait and switch tactic whets the listener’s appetite for more.

What’s the most unusual or odd thing that’s happened to you since becoming an NGT?

Joanne: Not sure I have a good answer to this question!

Charlotte: Last year I was interviewed for an English language drive time radio show in Seoul, South Korea. The interview was on the back of a psychology paper that I wrote on Facebook depression that The Washington Post picked up. My Korean interviewer was superb: lots of probing, intelligent questions; and the interview lasted around 30 minutes - so plenty of time to talk ideas – without overweening interruptions. Never imagined I’d be rush hour listening for South Korean commuters.

How has AHRC and BBC Radio 3 helped you?

Joanne: The training and experience has been really useful, and I'm looking forward to sending in some pitches for programmes on what I'm working on at the moment, and getting some feedback on that - I think that will be an invaluable experience, even if many of these programmes do not get made!

Charlotte: Likewise, it feels like the door is always open to us as NGTs, which is lovely. Am hoping they’ll pick up on some of my work on the digital future of medical appointments (hint).

Would you recommend the scheme and why?

Joanne: If you're interested in how to communicate beyond the academy, then it's an excellent learning experience, as well as providing valuable opportunities. I can't overstate, as well, how much I've enjoyed meeting others in the scheme and been inspired by them.

Mostly it was just excellent to get to speak to the other NGTs and hear about their research - they're all so fascinating and eloquent

Charlotte: Couldn’t agree more with Jo. There are many opportunities that arise from NGT. Some traditions of scholarship in the humanities suggest intelligibility is inversely proportional to erudition. There is nothing like flaunting a complicated idea (and some highfalutin jargon) to elevate one’s lofty status. Thankfully the AHRC and BBC Radio take a different view. The discipline of learning to communicate complicated ideas to interested, intelligent listeners is valuable in itself – and also the keystone of good academic teaching and writing. We should be throwing ladders out of Ivory towers, not demolishing them or making them taller. NGT takes the role of public intellectuals and public learning seriously.

Has your career and institution benefitted?

Joanne: Absolutely! In addition to what I mentioned above, being an NGT has helped me to pitch and sell an idea I've been working on some time for a narrative history, intended for a public (and not just academic!) audience. For this reason, in 2020 I'll be publishing a book on the Tudor-era Dudley family with Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin. It's doubtful that without the training, new perspective and notoriety of being an NGT I would have been able to do this.

Charlotte: I’ve moved around a lot (four universities since winning NGT in 2012-13, and am moving to my fifth). The experience has undoubtedly benefited all of these institutions. I’ve never been afraid to communicate my research findings to the public, including to the tax-payers who funded it. My career also benefited – I’ve been invited to speak at a number of festivals, and events (such as Medicine Unboxed, British Academy events, and the Irish tech festival, Inspirefest); and have been interviewed on BBC as well as on other, non-Beeb radio stations (RTE, Newstalk).

What advice would you give to researchers unsure whether to apply?

Joanne: Go for it! Worst case scenario you learn a great deal in the process of applying.

Charlotte: I second that. Go for it. I recall asking a professor at my university to check my application before submission. After reading it he assured me, “You do realise you won’t get this? You’re not what they’re looking for.” Fortunately I applied anyway.

Details of the latest New Generation Thinkers Scheme for 2018 may be found via the website

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