Interviews with New Generation Thinkers Seán Williams and Alun Withey

Alun Withey
Alun Withey
Sean Williams

Seán Williams (New Generation Thinker 2016) and Alun Withey (New Generation Thinker 2014) gave Al Golding at AHRC a most entertaining interview as they talked all things New Generation Thinker (NGT) recently. Seán who is Impact and Public Engagement Lead at the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sheffield and Alun, Wellcome Research Fellow based in the History Department of the University of Exeter were selected on the scheme in 2016 and 2014. Both have become successful NGTs and continue to follow new applicants and the process with interest.

Although not chosen for this interview on the basis of shared interests or backgrounds, they do, oddly enough, have research in common. Alun is working on a new project of "Do Beards Matter?" and Seán on "Cultural History of the Hairdresser". Let's see how they untangle any 'curly' questions.

AHRC: Alun and Seán, Let's talk all things NGT. How have your careers developed since you joined the scheme?

Alun: I've got a lot more radio and more TV work. As regards Career, I definitely feel that NGT was one of the deciding factors in getting a permanent post at the University of Exeter. Universities now attach huge importance to public engagement.

Universities now attach huge importance to public engagement

Seán: The NGT scheme kickstarted my public engagement profile, but it is so much more than that. It's about the contacts and learning what is important, e.g. for radio. It has made a difference. It's also led to more radio and TV work for me.

AHRC: What about the process of applying?

Alun: The process is more than valuable. And after you are successful, the input from producers means that your work becomes better and more plausible. The Media Training was also excellent. Having a direct line to producers and freedom to suggest ideas is great. The process is exactly what is says on the tin.

AHRC: What are some of the main things that you have learnt?

Alun: You have to think "Why should they (the audience) care?" i.e. when pitching or preparing, you should always be thinking "What is your message?" Don't be too academic. Boil your research down - this also helps with your teaching. Think what is entertaining/moving and how you will get your academic points across?

Seán: The broader experience of the scheme is the best opportunity. Academics are very interested in what they do, and have no problem with conveying interest, but being around inquisitive listeners does help develop you.

AHRC: Have you experienced any knocks or setbacks along the way?

Alun: When your subject is "History of Facial Hair" you learn to roll with the punches, and it is sometimes hard to be told "there is no space for this". Don't be afraid to get knocked (either in the application process or later) and encourage feedback - you'll find it very useful, as I did.

Seán: Don't ask "Why is your research interesting?" but "Why isn't your research interesting?" People love quirky stories and anecdotes. The radio/TV programmes are as much work as you make them. Loads of producers won't just call you automatically because you are an NGT. I'm now Impact and Public Engagement Lead in our Department at University, but of course the value of the scheme isn't that it's some form of training; more so the contacts and the opportunities to have discussions with producers (who are curious types) and will ask you "So, what is your message?" "Why should the listener care?".

Ask why isn't your research interesting? Why should the listener care?

AHRC: Would you do it all again?

Alun and Seán: Yes, absolutely. The application process is enjoyable.

Alun: It has also worked well for my teaching. I realise now that I must prepare lectures on an enriching basis. I ask myself "How do you engage students?" so as to get away from the traditional lectures and seminars, which I happen to be exploring in research as part of a Fellowship. This is why I blog on matters such as Medical Remedies.

AHRC: What shouldn't an NGT do? (or what advice would you give them?)

Seán: Advice: Enjoy the conversations with people and broader experiences of the scheme. Producers will ask you questions that make you re-think why things are important. Discussions in academia are very formal, yet this scheme is enriching. Know your audience - don't think it's all about you and your ideas. And listen to the kind of content that you want to write for. Formal, laboured or inside-language will put people off. Focus on what moves, amuses or captures an audience.

Alun: Don't be too academic. Get past the period of self-doubt. I'm glossing over the hours spent in windy medieval houses, sat on tourist magazines because I was too short for the table. But it is sometimes hard when you think you have a good idea to be told no. Equally it is OK to enjoy, and have fun with, the often amazing sources we find in archives, but just because it couldn't go in an article, doesn't mean that it isn't crying out for an outlet.

Note from AHRC - Such Outlets could include the AHRC's Blog's Beyond the Trenches and Beyond the Borders

Seán: It is collaborative, but it is not "all about you". Timing, location, ideas are important and your suggestions to producers will be noted, but if you are formal, laboured or use academic jargon, you'll put the listener off. Ask yourself "Why should they listen?" when driving their car or doing the cooking for example. And don't poke fun at people.

Seán: It will not fall into your lap just because you are an NGT. Listen to Radio 3. People love anecdotes and quirky stories - as much for academic history as for radio, so make the most of the broader experiences of the scheme and learn how to pitch your ideas. Listen to content before you submit.

AHRC: And some final words of encouragement from both Sean and Alun

Alun: Go to the workshops believing you have a chance.

AHRC: And you'll both continue to keep AHRC posted?

Both, (whilst laughing): Of Course. And we've got a lot to thank AHRC for.

Seán: You funded by MA which led to a PhD, from which everything stemmed

Alun: And you funded my MA which led directly to funding for my PhD.

I've got to do a lot more radio work, and a lot more TV - Alun Withey

Two minutes of Radio or TV will come from two hours of filming/preparation - Sean Williams

For details of the scheme and how to apply please visit the website.

You can follow Alun on twitter and Sean

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