Exploring Novel Approaches to Public Engagement

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to publish my first book from my research. Unusually though, this wasn’t a traditional academic text but a graphic novel of sorts and the subject matter was homelessness.

The homelessness project has been my core research for the last two years and it has now come to an end. If there is one thing I have discovered in my time as a researcher it is the thrill of having work recognised and appreciated. This only comes as a project concludes. Research isn’t easy: there are lots of challenges along the way and in truth, much of the legwork, the administration of a project and analysis of data, for example, is painstaking and tedious. But at the end, something can be said about the project’s subject matter and the knowledge that has been gathered can be shared with others.

One of the things I love most about working at a University is the access to ideas, knowledge, and creativity of the people that work there. It’s an environment that provides a constant stream of fresh ideas and thinking. The only downside is that rarely do some of these ideas get the resources and the opportunity to be turned into a reality. Luckily, the graphic novel was one idea that made it through. My research colleagues, Phil Brown, Lisa Scullion, and Peter Somerville all backed the idea of producing the book – all we had to do was find someone to draw it!

I was introduced to Sam Dahl via a colleague in the School of Art and Design at the University. Sam, who was just finishing his Masters degree, was interested in the idea of the book and produced a two-page storyboard for us. It was very exciting to see the idea for the book start to take a physical form. But what really won us over and gave us confidence that the idea could work was seeing Sam’s graphic interpretation of some very sensitive material, which in this instance was an episode of childhood sexual abuse.

From that point we asked Sam to draw the whole book which would include around five or six stories from the life histories we gathered in the research. Most of the work from this point up until completion of the project was therefore undertaken by Sam. It wasn’t easy because none of us had done anything like this before and we didn’t know what was possible and how long things would take (now it’s finished I’d like to think we were pioneers!).

The book, entitled ‘Somewhere Nowhere: Lives Without Homes’ is now finished and on sale. We bought a number of copies ourselves to give to people who were in contact with the research in Stoke-on-Trent where the study took place.

The book has been very well-received by those who have seen and read it. I don’t think academics should ever underestimate the power of visuals when presenting their research and engaging others in their messages.

I’m very proud of what we have achieved by producing this book. I’m pleased because my research colleagues were willing to support the idea, even though we could never be sure where it would lead.

I’m pleased because we had an opportunity to offer someone who was brave enough to take the task on and will reap the rewards and recognition of his efforts in illustrating the book.

I’m also pleased because the response to the book has been so positive and I’ve had feedback from people (and witnessed it myself) that people who would not ordinarily engage with this difficult subject matter have read through the book in its entirety.

And I’m pleased because we decided to self-publish the book, giving ourselves total control over its content, and have shown that it is possible, quite easily in fact, that if researchers have something they want to publish they don’t need to necessarily take the traditional publishing route to achieve it.

This book has been our way of trying to engage a wider audience with our research. It’s always seemed to me that social sciences are provided with greater challenges for public engagement because it’s not as easy as some disciplines to offer a visual representation of the research.

Are there any examples of social science public engagement methods that are worth shouting about?

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