It’s official: I’ve been lucky enough to have been selected as one of this year’s New Generation Thinkers by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. And of course this wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t share a few lines on the process that led to last week’s melodramatically long-embargoed announcement and to my first ever appearance on national radio.
After completing the short online application in December 2014, I was notified in February this year that I was one of the sixty applicants who had been shortlisted and invited to a training and selection workshop in March. There were three workshops: two in London, one in Salford, and each event would be attended by twenty shortlisted applicants. I’ve already shared with you my thoughts on the preparation for the workshop here, so I won’t go into this again. Suffice to say I was very unsure about how I would “fit in”, and this hasn’t changed much since the launch.
A little nervous, I was determined to be sociable, enjoy the experience, and just throw myself into whatever tasks we’d be presented with. Granted, I finalised my 2.5 minute programme pitch in the car park once I’d arrived, but I wasn’t surprising myself with that. It was a very unfamiliar task, and it took me a while to perfect the timing, and to get what I thought was the right mix of showcasing what the programme might actually sound like and explaining what I envisioned its main components to be. As so often, walking into the room and congregating around the tea and coffee was awkward, but I managed to just get on with it, smile, and say hello to people. Everyone else seemed much in the same spirit, so there weren’t many awkward silences. Bonus.
Once we had formally started the day, we were asked to introduce ourselves, one by one, in thirty seconds. I smirked then, and I’m smirking now. Most academics aren’t good with timing, never mind introducing their research topic in much less than thirty seconds, or – in fact – explaining anything at all in that time (another reason, I think, for the 2.5 programme pitch we were asked to prepare). I wasn’t proven wrong. I had the benefit of being one of the last people to introduce myself, so I was determined to keep things short and sweet, no matter how hard it might be.
The day was made up of training sessions, talks by the producers of Radio 3’s speech programmes, and the tasks on which we were assessed (the programme pitch, and an improvised debate). We were played some clips from BBC radio and television programmes and were asked to discuss what we thought their strengths and weaknesses were.
It was inevitable, it seemed, that if you threw twenty academics into a room with BBC producers there would be some cringeworthy moments on our part, featuring name-dropping, and often a distinct lack of conciseness. That said, I didn’t particularly feel as though our group was uncomfortably competitive, and that particularly came through in our programme pitches and the staged debate.
I was exhausted when the workshop was over, but also very enthusiastic and slightly worried. I had enjoyed doing my pitch, and I had really enjoyed the staged debate. I could see myself doing these things, and perhaps even doing them well once I had some practice and guidance. So what if they didn’t pick me? If I hadn’t enjoyed the day so much, it would have been much easier to prepare for a no, and I do think some people walked away feeling that this kind of thing perhaps wasn’t for them after all. I felt like I had done well, with some dodgy moments thrown in, but I really wasn’t sure if “someone like me” would be given this kind of chance. Would the BBC want a pierced, tattooed, slightly gobby northern woman, and with a German passport thrown in at that?
Well, they did, at least in combination with my research on widows. It’s no coincidence, though, that at the scheme’s launch at the Hay Festival one press person was looking at me when he said, “I suppose the idea is to recruit people who don’t look like researchers”. Or maybe I do interesting research and am, I hope, a little less boring and monotonous than others when presenting it? Just an idea, of course.
While the launch itself felt awkward to me, I immensely enjoyed recording Free Thinking with Rana Mitter and three of the other New Generation Thinkers. I love the challenge of entertaining an audience, and I do like a good debate (though this one was rather short, and I didn’t get into it as much as I would’ve liked to).
In the end, I was and am incredibly excited. I wouldn’t have applied in the first place if this hadn’t been an opportunity I really wanted. I’m excited to be able to bring a topic that’s important to me and to the women I work with to more people, and I immensely enjoy writing in a different kind of style (which I’ve been trying to do for a while in my academic writing, too). I know some academics frown on media work, but – honestly – I couldn’t care less. I find it stimulating and challenging to write and speak about my research in a way that engages people, and it’s what I try to do at conferences and, in future, in my publications, too. I never for one second assume that people want to listen to me ramble on and on, and that counts for my lectures as well as for papers I give, so I feel like this is a chance to do something about which I’m passionate, and perhaps something at which I can even be good.
Besides, perhaps I can contribute to showing that there’s no right way for an academic to look or talk, that post-92 universities, too, produce excellent research and employ ambitious, capable researchers and communicators, and that being a good academic doesn’t mean taking yourself so awfully seriously all the time.