I was sit­ting in the physics depart­ment tea­room, and I told an astro­physi­cist col­league that I’m think­ing about pub­lic engage­ment because I’m going to talk about it at this year’s National Digital Forum. 

What’s that?” he says.

It’s the annu­al get-together of the GLAM sec­tor,” I reply.

GLAM?” He looks puz­zled, bemused

I real­ize this is what he’s thinking:

Photo of the band KISS in full makeup and leather outfits

I send through my abstract for the con­fer­ence describ­ing how across the GLAM and the STEAM com­mu­ni­ties, we’re all talk­ing about how we do pub­lic engage­ment bet­ter, ask­ing if we’re talk­ing to each oth­er, and if we have any kind of shared lan­guage between our two sec­tors that make sense.

I get back this love­ly email accept­ing my abstract, but just check­ing that I meant STEAM? Surely I mean steam? Maybe I meant STEM.

Graffiti on a wal reading "The 'earth' without 'art' is just 'eh'"

I’ve avoid­ed using STEM for a rea­son. STEAM is a lit­tle bit like this. I know its cheesy. But STEAM is sci­ence, tech, engi­neer­ing, the arts, and maths. And it does pro­vide a place for me, a his­to­ri­an in a physics depart­ment, to feel like I might fit in somewhere.

So before I’d even got here, I’d answered one of my ques­tions. Do we have any shared lan­guage that makes sense? Science thinks you lot are a bunch of glam rock­ers, and you folks might think of us as a lame plant dia­gram or a steam­punk cos­play. So how about the pub­lic? They’re the ones we’re try­ing to engage­ment through a vari­ety of means.

Public engage­ment describes the myr­i­ad of ways in which the activ­i­ty and ben­e­fits of high­er edu­ca­tion and research can be shared with the pub­lic. Engagement is by def­i­n­i­tion a two-way process, involv­ing inter­ac­tion and lis­ten­ing, with the goal of gen­er­at­ing mutu­al benefit.
National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, What is pub­lic engage­ment?

The British National Co-ordination Center for Public Engagement, which assists with and assess­es UK uni­ver­si­ties’ pub­lic engage­ment activ­i­ties defines pub­lic engage­ment thus­ly. And I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in the fact that it’s activ­i­ties and ben­e­fits. It’s high­er edu­ca­tion and research. And that it’s defined as being a two-way process, with inter­ac­tion, lis­ten­ing, and the goal of gen­er­at­ing mutu­al ben­e­fit. Okay, so far so good.

So what does pub­lic engage­ment in uni­ver­si­ties in New Zealand actu­al­ly look like? For a start, for­get dig­i­tal. We’re still think­ing of pub­lic engage­ment as schools vis­its and guest speak­ers. Our insti­tu­tion see this type of pub­lic engage­ment like the mark­er Senatus Populusque Romanus. It’s just like a stamp. We’ve done that.” It’s all done. Put it on your APR, which is your annu­al per­for­mance review.

There is lit­tle need to assess or mea­sure, derive ben­e­fit, or reach out beyond the schools and pub­lic lec­tures mod­el. So what I’ve been con­tem­plat­ing is the ten­sion between space, place, and mul­ti­ple publics.

I do not dream of Sussex downs
or quaint old England’s quaint old towns—
I think of what may yet be seen
in Johnsonville or Geraldine.
Denis Glover, Home Thoughts” (1936)

Space. Where we meet the pub­lic mat­ters. A pub­lic lec­ture deliv­ered by a vis­it­ing aca­d­e­m­ic in a uni­ver­si­ty lec­ture the­atre is very dif­fer­ent to that same lec­ture being deliv­ered in a gen­uine pub­lic space, be that vir­tu­al or actu­al. When Habermas said we call events and occa­sions pub­lic when they are open to all in con­trast to exclu­sive or closed events, he was­n’t real­ly think­ing about the fact that a lec­ture the­atre might feel pub­lic for those of us who are used to uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es. But to nego­ti­ate a uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus, fol­low the arrows to a pub­lic talk, and fig­ure out the arcane room nomen­cla­ture, all of these things are hard for peo­ple who aren’t used to uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es. And I real­ly won­der whether what we would call a pub­lic talk from inside a uni­ver­si­ty is the same thing as some­body out­side a uni­ver­si­ty would call a pub­lic talk.

So, place. If we con­duct our pub­lic engage­ment activ­i­ties, these schools vis­its and pub­lic lec­tures, in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, are we gen­uine­ly reach­ing out to mul­ti­ple publics? Confining our activ­i­ties to cen­ters that have a uni­ver­si­ty again rein­forces the sense that it’s peo­ple who have knowl­edge of uni­ver­si­ties that can access the engage­ment we’re try­ing to do. If we are to dream of what yet might be seen in Johnsonville and Geraldine, we need to be present in those places.

Now, pres­ence needs an under­stand­ing of mul­ti­ple publics, and I have to thank Mike Dickinson for remind­ing me of this. I still recall the first time I used the phrase mul­ti­ple publics” in a Te Pūnaha Matatini strat­e­gy meet­ing. And I had a table of sci­en­tists, most of whom are physi­cists and math­e­mati­cians, look back at me sort of bale­ful­ly and go, Is that even a thing?”

And I explained when you’re spon­sor­ing a lec­ture series and the events per­son who’s orga­niz­ing it tells you that it’s real­ly great to get your emi­nent sci­ence speak­er in front of an arts fes­ti­val because that’s a whole new audi­ence, that’s not real­ly mul­ti­ple publics. University out­reach or engage­ment tend to have two foci. We con­cen­trate on school kids, who have to be there, right? And we also con­cen­trate on already-engaged publics. So peo­ple who know about events and things that hap­pen at uni­ver­si­ties. What I said to my col­leagues at that meet­ing was we focus on peo­ple like us, or peo­ple like our stu­dents. And that’s actu­al­ly just not good enough.

So, what does a new mod­el of pub­lic engage­ment look like for sci­ence? I’ve got two images at play in my head. The first one is this:

A childrens' crafts table covered in plastic bins filled with various colorful materials

Your local kinder­garten or play cen­ter col­lage table, to which each kid brings their sub­jec­tiv­i­ty. Their own choic­es, their cul­ture, her­itage, pref­er­ences, arti­facts and [tāna/tānga?], and they make some­thing new. 

Now, a real­ly good ear­ly child­hood teacher does­n’t impose struc­ture on the cre­ative acts at that table. They wait. They leave space for the child to make their own mean­ing with the tools they have in front of them.

Now this is St. Heliers Church & Community Centre. It’s where my eleven year-old daugh­ter has her piano lessons on Wednesdays. When I go there to pick her up, there are always at least sev­en things going on in that build­ing. Piano lessons, after-school care, chil­dren’s choir, dance class­es, senior exer­cise class­es, a meet­ing or two. There’ll be an MP or local board mem­ber talk­ing to con­stituents. And there’s always a table with free excess pro­duce from some­one’s gar­den. There is a tan­gi­ble sense that this is a pub­lic space, teem­ing with mul­ti­ple publics using it for the our own purposes.

So what I’m kind of think­ing about is that a pub­lic space, be that vir­tu­al or actu­al, must be a place that pro­vides both the col­lage table, qui­et space in which peo­ple can cre­ate mean­ing, and the com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter. Dynamic space filled with mean­ing mak­ers from mul­ti­ple publics. As uni­ver­si­ties strug­gle to think more deeply about pub­lic engage­ment, we need to learn from you who inhab­it spaces that bridge this qui­etude and this dynamism. So please come and talk to me about it.

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.