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New Generation Thinkers: It's the human side of our work that makes it meaningful to others

Dr Eleanor Lybeck
Dr Clare Walker-Gore

In the latest of our interview series with the AHRC and BBC Radio 3's New Generation Thinkers, we caught up with Dr Eleanor Lybeck, Lecturer in English at the University of Oxford and Dr Clare Walker Gore, Junior Research Fellow in English at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. They explain what the scheme has meant for them on both a personal and professional level, and in particular how it's opened up a number of opportunities, from developing their confidence in public speaking to speaking to a literary agent. Details of the new scheme can be found via the opportunities page on the website.

What motivated you to apply to the scheme?

Clare: I was attracted by the idea of making a radio programme. I listen to the radio a lot, so I loved the idea of actually getting inside Broadcasting House and seeing where all the magic happens. At the time, I was writing up my PhD and very absorbed in that, so the NGT application was a nice distraction. Although I didn’t think it likely that I’d be shortlisted, as I’d never done anything like this before, the application was so straightforward that it didn’t take much time, and I thought I had nothing to lose by giving it a go.

Eleanor: I’d always been looking for an outlet for a rather unusual research project. I came up with the idea of a biography of Albert James, a nineteenth-century comedian and singer, who just so happens to be my great-grandfather. A strictly academic setting for this work never seemed like quite the right thing, so I’d always kept the 'Albert project' running alongside my doctoral research and teaching. I’ve produced and performed a one-woman stage show about him, and published poetry and journalistic prose that tells his story and the story of my search for him. But when I heard about the NGT scheme and the opportunity to share innovative research in creative ways with a much wider audience, I jumped at the chance to really focus on Albert’s life, work, and personal legacy. And on top of that, like Clare, I’m a radio addict.

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

Clare: I was quite nervous about the shortlisting workshop, I wasn’t sure what to expect and I found the idea of making my pitch (we had to make a two-minute pitch about a radio programme we’d make if we were selected) to a room full of people quite intimidating. But in the end, I enjoyed the day. The talks from radio and television documentary producers were really interesting, as was looking round Broadcasting House. It was like getting a peek into the world of broadcasting. And the other people there were so friendly that even the presenting was quite fun, really. It was a very supportive atmosphere. I was one of the youngest and most junior people there, and the more senior academics went out of their way to be encouraging about my work and my presentation. So even if my application hadn’t gone any further, the shortlisting day alone would have been well worth doing. I came away feeling really encouraged about my work, which is so important when you’re trying to finish your PhD. It’s hugely helpful to feel like it’s worth finishing and that people are interested in your research.

Clare: Then after the shortlisting process was finished, the next stages were going to the Hay Festival, recording a short piece for Free Thinking, and then recording The Essay at the Free Thinking Festival. I thoroughly enjoyed all those things. The Free Thinking Festival, especially. I got to hear some great programmes being recorded live, and then presenting my Essay in front of a live audience was both nerve-wracking and ultimately really rewarding. I got some great questions that were very different from the kind you get at an academic conference, which actually helped me think about the topic in a new way, and it was a huge confidence boost. I was in the process of applying for my first job by then, so it was perfect timing. If you can give a lecture to a room full of people whilst being recorded, you can definitely give a presentation to an interview panel.

Eleanor: I must admit to being very excited about the workshop, and was amazed at my performance, especially in the debate, when I found a new feistiness. Like Clare, I found I learnt so much about the process of creating a programme and what is expected of academics or expert guests when they take part in a documentary or discussion for radio and television. This was, generally, very useful. It was also an excellent opportunity to get a sense of the amazing work that’s going on all across the country from other early-career academics in a wide range of disciplines. It was so much more compelling than an academic conference.

Eleanor: I think I was a little less enthusiastic about the media training when it came to it. Before I went back to study for my PhD, I’d worked as a press officer and had done a little bit of similar training for that, which I’d always found slightly off-putting. It made me think too much about the task in hand, rather than just going for it in a way that seemed more fluent and natural to me. That said, I did learn a good deal about my verbal tics in conversation, which I hope I’ve now ironed out.

Eleanor: So far, I’ve introduced my research into Albert James at Sage during the Free Thinking Festival and delivered a postcard about my doctoral research into Irish circus history during a Free Thinking programme. Sage was brilliant; I was thrown in at the deep end by a wonderful producer who asked me half an hour before recording to perform an extract from my stage show about Albert, Wild Laughter. I’ve acted in front of big audiences in the past, but that was something else. And getting to record my postcard in Broadcasting House realised a life-long dream it sounds like Clare and I both share. I worked with another exceptionally patient and supportive producer, and loved taking part in such a diverse programme of interviews. I spoke alongside two economists and a visual artist. Based on these experiences, I can’t wait to get to work on my Essay.

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

Clare: I think the main thing for me is that it has given me more confidence in public speaking, and in sharing my work with a non-specialist audience. And I think that, in turn, it's helped me cope with the process of job applications, and with interviews, which usually involves an element of public speaking and presenting your research. It’s also opened up publication opportunities for me, as people who wouldn’t otherwise have done so have heard about my work.

Eleanor: I’ve become hyper-conscious about how I write and present my research. I’m now much more plain-speaking and, as a result, my arguments are much clearer and persuasive. And it’s been very exciting to discuss my research with a literary agent, who has been helping me to shape my knowledge of popular theatre and circus into a book that will (hopefully) make its way onto the shelves of general readers up and down the country. Again, writing for this kind of audience has always been an ambition, one which the NGT scheme is helping me to realise.

Do you feel it makes the world of research more interesting and engaging to the public? How have you made your specific topics, enjoyable and appealing?

Clare: I hope so. And conversely, I think that being encouraged to communicate our research in a less specialist, more generally accessible way is tremendously valuable for us as academics. It’s definitely encouraged me to think more about the contemporary relevance of my work, which was something the audience at the Free Thinking Festival asked about. I work on nineteenth-century representations of disability, but the more I thought about it, the more strongly I felt that these ideas are still with us, and still inform contemporary perceptions of disability. Ideas about who is ‘fit’ to work, for example, or who is ‘deserving’ of state assistance or charity; those might sound like typically Victorian concerns, as if I’m talking about the New Poor Law of 1834, but actually those are questions which dominate current debates about the welfare state, albeit in slightly different form.

Clare: Taking part in the NGT scheme has really encouraged me to connect my research on the 19th century with contemporary political debates and modern cultural productions, and I think that’s only been a good thing.

Eleanor: Just like Clare, I’ve been delighted to have the opportunity to emphasise how the historic cultural events that I look at in my research are really relevant today, and not just within cultural studies. The BBC producers that I’ve worked with have encouraged me to highlight the personal motivations behind my research: to talk, for instance, about how my parents’ divorce and my father’s disappearance 25 years ago meant that my paternal great-grandfather Albert and his celebrated life in performance were off limits to me until fairly recently. Sometimes, it’s the human side of why we do what we do as academics that makes our work appealing and meaningful to others, especially to people outside of universities.

I think the main thing for me is that it has given me more confidence in public speaking, and in sharing my work with a non-specialist audience.

What's the most unusual thing that's happened to you since becoming an NGT?

Eleanor: Being asked to perform extracts from Wild Laughter, my stage biography of Albert James, at a moment’s notice during the Free Thinking Festival was a little bizarre. I have a pretty good memory, but my mind went completely blank with the excitement of it all. I’d also never had to slip in and out of character in such a short space of time. And given that the character I play is a 61 year old male clown, that presented its own challenges.

How has AHRC and BBC Radio 3 helped you?

Clare: Everyone at the AHRC was so helpful about the practicalities of getting to London and, - rather more challengingly, getting to the Hay Festival and coping while I was there. (The Festival is great but with being held in a field in the middle of the countryside, it’s not the easiest to get to or navigate in a wheelchair) And I can’t thank the producers and presenters at Radio 3 enough for being so supportive, especially on my first recording, when I was quite nervous. I’d never recorded anything in a radio studio before, and I found the microphone and the glass screens around the studio a bit off putting at first. But the producer was so helpful, giving me tips and working with me on the script until it was just right.

I’m now much more plain-speaking and, as a result, my arguments are that much more clear and persuasive.

Eleanor: Absolutely, the producers have been just amazing. It wasn’t until the NGT workshop that I fully realised how instrumental they are in the process of making a programme. Their ability to interpret and translate academic expertise into entertaining broadcasting is remarkable, and inspiring. And the whole BBC team have been very accommodating of my rather unusual circumstances: I’m pregnant with my first baby, which has made some recordings even more interesting than they might otherwise have been. Meanwhile, the support of the AHRC has meant that I haven’t had to think twice about how I manage to get to these amazing events; something I think all early-career academics would be very grateful for.

Would you recommend the NGT scheme and why?

Clare: Definitely. I’ve learnt so much, and I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s a great way to develop your confidence in terms of public speaking and communicating your ideas. This isn’t something that’s only useful if you’re interested in broadcasting, it’s actually incredibly useful for teaching and for presenting your research to other academics who don’t work in precisely your field.

Eleanor: Ditto. Academia is so competitive for people at our stage, being an NGT really makes you stand out from the crowd in lots of ways. And what you learn from the experiences the BBC and the AHRC gift you is going to last throughout your entire career. So yes, without a doubt.

Has your career and institution benefitted?

Clare: I think so; taking part in the scheme was such a positive experience that I think it really helped me during that difficult post-PhD period. Navigating the choppy waters of the academic job market isn’t much fun, but the NGT scheme helped me to stay connected to what I love about my work. Sharing my research and getting a positive response really helped me to believe in its value, and to want to keep going with it. Now that I’m a research fellow, and I’m once again working in a very solitary way.On one hand this is a great privilege, it’s wonderful to have the time to pursue my own research, but on the other hand is a potentially lonely way to work. I really enjoy taking opportunities to share my research, and I feel like the NGT scheme gave me the confidence to do that.

Eleanor: Still being in the thick of this year’s events, I’m yet to enjoy all the long-term benefits of being an NGT, although I sense that there’s a lot of excitement left to come. But there’s certainly been an overwhelming reaction from my university. I was so touched by the response of colleagues to the news that I’d been selected for the scheme and my confidence was really bolstered by the support of the Faculty of English at Oxford. People have taken real pride in my achievement, and that’s been pretty special.

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

Clare: I’d say, go for it. The application isn’t time-consuming, so you have nothing to lose if you’re not shortlisted, and it’ll be great if you are.

Eleanor: I couldn’t agree more.

Details of the latest scheme, closing on 12th October, can be found on the website.

it’s the human side of why we do what we do as academics that makes our work appealing and meaningful to others, especially to people outside of universities

Sage was brilliant: I was thrown in the at the deep end by a wonderful producer to perform an extract from my stage show

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