By Kit Heyam |
The title of this blog draws attention to the most necessary and the most terrifying aspect of the PhD experience (I’ll leave you to work out which one it is). But it leaves out something which, it’s becoming more and more apparent, is equally valuable: public engagement. Unlike the term “impact” – which evokes an image of academics and PhD students throwing themselves and their work at the unsuspecting public, paying no regard to what they flatten in the process – “public engagement” implies a mutual conversation with groups and individuals outside the university, something that feels a lot more constructive and beneficial to both sides.
My PhD research looks at representations of Edward II and his favourites over the period 1305-1700, with a particular focus on the development of Edward’s historiographical reputation as someone who had sexual and romantic relationships with other men. So a natural home for the “public face” of my work was LGBT History Month. This had several advantages: it was an existing initiative (meaning I didn’t have the daunting task of establishing a project entirely from scratch); it was linked to my research, but still enabled me to offer something new (medieval and early modern stories are relatively under-represented in standard LGBT History Month narratives); and, most importantly, it was a cause that I was passionate about personally as well as academically. A couple of months before becoming involved with the York LGBT History Month team, I’d attended a fantastic British Academy workshop at the University of York entitled “External Engagement in the Arts and Humanities”, and the most important message I took away was this: if you become involved in a public engagement project solely to further your career, nobody wins. Regardless of how much you enjoy the project, you’ll judge its success or failure solely on its influence over your future job prospects, which will stop you enjoying it for its own sake. Furthermore, the organisation you’re working with will find it hard to trust and work with you. So I chose to contact York LGBT History Month, not just because joining them might help Edward II achieve “impact”, but because (as a trans person) I was passionate about helping to achieve LGBT equality through education, and I wanted to get to know people in my local LGBT community.
Once I’d discovered York had an existing LGBT History Month organisation, I identified a niche where I could be helpful. I noticed that they didn’t mention any school outreach plans on their website, so I contacted them to ask whether they had any plans in that area, and pitched my ideas about how I could help. I’d advise anyone thinking of trying to join an existing project to do the same: research the organisation and work out what they might be missing. Maybe their website is pretty basic, and you have web design skills they could use? Maybe you were secretary, treasurer or publicity officer for a university society during your undergrad days? Maybe you could steward or help set up for events they organise? Think about what you could offer them, and get in touch to express your willingness to help out.
In the event, for everything I’ve offered York LGBT History Month, I’ve gained twice as much in return. If this sounds like a familiar, almost evangelical refrain from PhD students who undertake public engagement projects, that’s not because anyone makes us say it – it’s because it’s true! It hasn’t been uniformly positive – one big challenge for me has been to reconcile my academic discomfort with the term “LGBT history” itself (one chapter of my thesis is devoted to dismantling the anachronistic treatments of historians who refer to Edward II as “gay”), instead recognising its usefulness as an easily comprehensible signifier, and a valuable indication of continuity for marginalised groups whose history and existence has previously been denied or erased. It has undeniably taken time away from my thesis, and I’ve had to justify that by scheduling it into my diary: seeing it simultaneously as a career-enhancing activity, as a politically important use of my time, and as an act of personal queer community-building and self-care. The benefits in all these areas have been huge. I’ve had to think about how to communicate my research to the public, which has clarified my thinking about how to articulate some complex ideas. I’ve gained experience of event planning, teamwork and radio broadcasting. I’ve raised my profile as a researcher, resulting in more visibility to contacts within my field than could ever have been gained by being one of many PhD students at a conference – I’ve even been offered teaching work at a local university as a direct result of my involvement. And I’ve spent time with people outside of academia, working on an equal level where I’m not just a student at the bottom of the pecking order, and allowing me to feel like a “real person” with real responsibilities. Plus, my time spent in pubs has increased even further. If that doesn’t persuade you, I don’t know what will.
Kit Heyam is a third year part-time PhD student at the University of Leeds, working on a thesis entitled “Literary and historical representations of Edward II and his favourites, c.1305-1700″. He is also the Outreach Coordinator for York LGBT History Month. You can find him at on academia.edu, read his blog unbeseeming words, and tweet him @krheyam.
(Photo 1: © Helen Graham; Photo 2: © Kit Heyam)