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February 2021

How public engagement has shaped a life as an academic

We caught up with Professor Michael Scott, Co-Director of the new Warwick Institute of Engagement, to celebrate his recent Classical Association award win and get some inspiration on delivering meaningful public engagement. For Michael, receiving the award has been a privilege and an honour, and also an important sign of how much the Classics community values communication and dialogue with the wider world.

Michael happily recounts how he never actually intended to get into Classics. It wasn’t until he went on a school trip to Greece and spent his 17th birthday at the ancient site of Olympia that his fascination with the ancient world quickly ushered his previous plans (to be a doctor and/or lawyer) out the door. From that point he wanted to know what happened in places like Olympia, about those people whose footsteps he had walked in. And he wanted others to be able to share in that same excitement and feeling that he felt in Greece.

Of course, not everyone has a single experience that acts as a real catalyst to engage with a certain subject. This is something Michael now knows all too well. For many people, children particularly, they just don’t have the access to the ancient world and learning about it as Michael did. This is a real driver for the Classics professor, who wants everyone to have the opportunity to engage with the weird, wacky – and often wonderful – nature of the ancient past for themselves.

A supportive environment for engagement

Since his days as a PhD student, Michael’s understanding of what it is to be an academic has placed emphasis on being equally as interested in explaining why we should care about our subjects to the wider world as we are about teaching and researching them.

In practical terms, for Michael this meant working with schools and writing books for a wider audience. And that audience has indeed broadened, with a decade of making TV programmes for the BBC and ITV under his belt. Michael is quick to acknowledge and thank the supportive environment in the Classics Department here at Warwick, and the wider University, who are leading the field in how the Higher Education sector engages with the world. Working alongside colleagues who do a huge amount of engagement work, seeing it as an important part of their academic role, has proven invaluable, he says.

In the last couple of years, Michael’s focus has shifted away from not just doing engagement work himself, but also trying to support, develop and embed initiatives for engagement within the institutions with whom he works. At Warwick, this includes the Warwick Classics Network and most recently the Warwick Institute of Engagement. He’s also a Trustee of Classics for All, a charity that supports state schools across the UK to introduce or develop the teaching of classical subjects, and President of Lytham St Annes Classical Association – the youngest and largest regional branch of the CA..

Why engage at all?

When we asked Michael about why it’s important for universities and academics to be outward looking, the answer was clear.

“Universities in the 21st century can’t afford to be ivory towers. They need to be—and benefit hugely from being—fundamentally connected to the worlds that they are a part of and play a role in."

On a personal level, Michael is adamant that he has learned a huge amount from his engagement work. In turn, this has improved both his teaching and his research because he has really had to work out how to convey meaning to an audience who aren’t necessarily convinced that what he had to say was all that important! If you’ve only got an hour of someone’s time, what kind of message and story do you need to tell to make them feel that that hour was well spent?

Public engagement is about communicating information to the public and hearing what they have to say in return. It is a dialogue that invigorates and inspires both parties to ask new questions and see things in a different way.

“Engagement shouldn’t be seen as a ‘bolt on’ to academia, but rather a fundamental third side of the triangle of teaching, research and engagement. These three are all integral, mutually reinforcing and supporting one another.”

This idea of the three elements of academia being mutually supportive is what pushes Michael to focus on embedding engagement in the lifeblood of Warwick through the Institute of Engagement at a strategic and institutional level.

Part of the student experience

Engagement as part of the student experience is a big ticket item on the Warwick Institute of Engagement agenda and Michael was able to shed some light on that too. From his experience with Warwick Classics Network and the undergraduate students who have been involved in their outreach efforts, the feedback has been that the students find these activities some of the most worthwhile experiences of their degree.

This sort of involvement offers students the chance to give back to future generations of students and inspire them. But crucially, it also develops an important set of skills – conveying ideas to audiences and connecting in new ways. This, Michael believes, is a crucial set of skills for every student experience, which is why the Institute of Engagement is also seeking to make Public Engagement a hallmark of the Warwick student experience.

What’s next for Warwick Institute of Engagement?

Michael sees Warwick Institute of Engagement as the next step in his push to strengthen engagement as an integral part of the role of academics. But it goes beyond this, as the Institute draws on expertise from across all areas of Warwick. The Institute brings together professional services, academic staff, and students to think about how, as a university, we engage more fully with the region and nationally.

Everyone at the University plays a role in engaging with the outside world, especially as we look towards Coventry’s year ahead as UK City of Culture 2021. The Institute is here to help, facilitate and encourage people to do just that.

Tips for engagers

Michael shared with me his two takeaways for people thinking about doing engagement for the first time. The first is a practical tip – “keep whatever you’re doing simple and clear”. The second, and arguably more important, is to “have fun doing it”.

 

About the award

The Classical Association prize is annual prize given to an individual who has done the most to raise the profile of Classics in the public eye. It is effectively the biggest UK prize for Engagement in Classics. More about it here: https://classicalassociation.org/ca-prize/