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.