By Simon Walker
University of Strathclyde
When I started my post-graduate training, I envisaged a world of books, half-moon glasses and dusty archives. I looked forward to writing a book that no one, except my suffering students, would read and delivering lectures to a room of people more interested in their catnaps, computers and coffees. Then I discovered, the scourge of 21st century academia: Public Engagement!
Strange thing is, I love public engagement. I blog, I tweet, I teach in local schools and occasionally guest lecture at public events. It’s great fun and its very different to dealing with other academics who half the time are waiting nervously (or sometimes impatiently) for their turn to speak. At a PhD level your peers tend to be kind, your betters benevolent and your academic audience, polite. With the public you get quirks, questions and often genuine interest.
One of the best public talks I ever gave was to an audience of only six people as part of the Glasgow Southside Fringe festival. Serves me right for presenting in the basement of a grand mansion whilst the sun streamed down on music and comedy acts elsewhere! To be fair, I wouldn’t have to come to see me either. But the talk was great, because as I explained about trench food and hard tack (the impossible to eat biscuit / bread that was the British soldiers last resort on the front line), the audience engaged, leaned forward and conversed.
But all of these things have been done and done again. Even my teaching in schools, which is great fun, is not exactly unique. So, in the best tradition of finding any distraction from not writing my thesis, I searched for something ‘a wee bit different.’ In the middle of the Great British Bake Off,* I had a very daft idea. When I’m insolently not writing my thesis, I have a tendency to bake. I bake cakes for friend’s birthdays, cookies for my younglings, and doughnuts because it’s Friday. So, I decided to blend together: my love of cooking, my passion for the First World War, and let’s be honest, my dashingly handsome and charismatic self. I decided to make a YouTube cookery show which I called Feeding Under Fire.
The format was simple: get camera, use camera, cook! Having never presented on camera before, I was ridiculously naïve. The research bit was the easy part. I pulled a recipe from an Army Service Cook Book from 1914 for Hard Tack and then trawled through my personal archives for my unwritten thesis for accounts of trying to eat it. I storyboarded the scene, wrote my script and it was time for Lights, Camera, Action! This is where it fell apart.
So, I enlisted a YouTube expert to help me film. Together we managed to make an 11-minute film, which took six hours to make and then ten hours for me to edit. I couldn’t look at the camera, I couldn’t remember my lines, I hated the way I looked, my voice, my kitchen. To get me to lighten up, my director placed a funny sign behind the camera to help my slightly manic smile have some enthusiasm to it. Finally, I managed to upload it to YouTube. This was it, I would be, well not famous, but you know, popular at least, I’m sure! Over the next four days, there was around 15 views, and those were from a smattering of friends, and mostly me, from different devices. As it stands there are over 200 views on the first episode 5 up thumbs and 1 down thumb (I don’t know who that was but I’m going to force feed you hardtack raw, my friend). That was the hardest part. Knowing I had put so much effort into it and no one cared.
Then a schoolteacher friend messaged me to say she had enjoyed the video and that she had used it as part of a lesson plan. She passed it on to another person who did the same and suddenly I felt better about the whole thing. I learned from the mistakes in the first episode. The next one was better researched, I brought in a friend to ‘taste test’ on camera, I actually bought a decent video camera and microphone and I fixed much of the oddities of the first video. Episode two currently has just over 100 views. Episode three is now up and episode four is in post-production hell. It will be done.
So, what is the point I hear you ask. Well done, mate, you made a Youtube video that got less views than a French speaking cat trying to get into a house! Basically, who cares? Well the point is, whilst I am not a YouTube star (yet – I have hope), I love Feeding Under Fire. Public engagement is important for developing wider key skills that are useful both within and beyond academia. Also, having a more varied presentation platform means that you can reach a more diverse audience with your research. Feeding Under Fire is on my academic CV, it helped me get a job at the Scottish Parliament, and I’m planning to apply for funding to push the series as an engagement project for six months whilst in the post-doc, pre-job wilderness. Feeding Under Fire is daft, but it’s fun, it’s interesting and it dares to be a little different; also, my kids love it, so why not. Try it yourself, you never know what might happen, but give me a thumb up when you do, eh?
* Aired on PBS as the Great British Baking Show.
Editor's Note: University of Strathclyde is one of our partner institutions. This fruitful exchange has sent many of our PhD students to Glasgow for a year of study, and Strathclyde has sent CMU many students. Simon Walker is a PhD Student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. He focuses on the physical transformation and control that British soldier’s bodies experienced during the First World War. Email: Simon.firstname.lastname@example.org