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New Generation Thinkers: What to expect

Dr Sopie Coulombeau
Dr Sopie Coulombeau

Ahead of the announcement of this year's group of New Generation Thinkers, here's an interview between Dr Alistair Fraser – 2017 New Generation Thinker and Senior Sociology Lecturer at the University of Glasgow – and Dr Sophie Coulombeau – 2014 New Generation Thinker and Lecturer at Cardiff University.

Dr Sophie Coulombeau: You’re a current NGT, is that right?

Dr Alistair Fraser: Freshly minted. Which year did you do it?

SC: I’m a bit long in the tooth. 2014-2015 was my cohort.

AF: That’s great - one of the best things about the Sage festival was meeting folks that had done it before.

SC: Yes. I was sorry not to be able to make it. It’s always such a lovely crowd.

AF: So, what stage were you at in your career when you applied, and why did you?

SC: I was going into the final year of my PhD, and was thinking about what I wanted my future career path to look like. I was really inspired by some of the Radio 3 programmes I’d heard, and the short films I’d seen, from previous New Generation thinkers such as Fern Riddell and John Gallagher.

It seemed to me that they’d found a way to blend research expertise with popular appeal, and reach a wider audience than that of a traditional academic book. I wanted to do the same. I didn’t think I’d stand much of a chance as a PhD student, but wanted to give it a shot anyway.

AF: I actually applied in the final year of my PhD too, but that was in the very first year of the scheme - 2010 - and didn’t get through. I forgot about it, moved to work in Hong Kong for four years, then came back and saw it was still running. This time though I had a bit more confidence in my work and a bit more media exposure so I think made a better job of it.

SC: You work on gangs, youth and crime, don’t you? Sounds like a fascinating topic.

AF: Yes spot on. The topic lends itself well to broadcast as it’s something that people are instinctively interested in, but actually doing something engaging is hard…

SC: I had such envy of that kind of topic when I applied, because it seems so instantly topical and important for society today.

AF: What do you work on?

SC: I’m a scholar of eighteenth-century literature, with a particular interest in the relationship between personal naming and identity. Which to me is the most interesting thing in the world, but perhaps not to your average person on the street.

That’s the thing about the workshops, isn’t it? You’re so fascinated by everyone else’s topics that your own seems a bit dull or odd in comparison.

AF: I actually felt like a fish out of water at the assessment day, a lot of people seemed to be doing fascinating historical work that seemed to lend itself well to Radio 3 and TV broadcasts. I wasn’t sure if gangs were very Radio 3.

SC: That’s the thing about the workshops, isn’t it? You’re so fascinated by everyone else’s topics that your own seems a bit dull or odd in comparison. My pitch was to present a programme exploring the marital history of surname change, because it seemed that nobody actually seemed to know why women in Britain traditionally took their husband’s last names. So that’s what I applied to do, and they liked it.

AF: It’s a great topic.

SC: The workshops were brilliant, I thought – even though I was a little intimidated that most people there were far more senior than I was. I loved talking to so many interesting scholars and producers, hearing about how a programme was pitched, written and created, and being put in some situations where you really had to think on your feet. I remember coming away thinking “I probably won’t have been selected for the final ten, but that was a brilliant day in itself and I’m happy with that.” So, being selected was honestly a bonus.

AF: Yep I was completely dreading the debate bit and was very nervous but actually found it exhilarating and the best bit of the day.

Likewise, I went away thinking ‘that was cool and fun’ but basically thinking my topic wasn’t quite right for it. So I was totally delighted when I got through, then intimidated all over again as we went down to Gateshead for the first gig.

SC: And isn’t the Free Thinking festival amazing?

AF: Yes - loved it. I met the writer Denise Mina waiting for a taxi and ended up sharing one with her and having a great old gas.

SC: I remember Simon Schama was at our launch at the Hay Festival, and I was pinching myself a bit.

AF: I have to say too, the BBC folk have been absolutely tremendous - so patient and nurturing.

Dr Alistair Fraser

AF: Have you kept up doing media stuff since?

SC: Yes, pretty evenly overall. I did two radio programmes, a short film and one BBC Arts piece during my time as an NGT. Since then I’ve done a review of an exhibition, and three radio programmes for the BBC. But it’s also been invaluable to have that kind of experience and exposure in order to work with other outlets. I did a long-read piece for the Guardian and a six-part podcast series for the New Statesman.

I think the best thing about the scheme isn’t that it’s one year of exposure; it gives you the platform to really take your career in a new direction.

AF: That’s really encouraging to hear.

SC: Oh, yes. The Radio 3 people will keep in touch with you and keep nurturing your ideas afterwards.

AF: How have you balanced it with academic work?

SC: Well, it does take up a lot of time. And the problem is that unless your media work is specifically attached to an impact case study, it’s often not accounted for in your workload.

But having said that, I think institutions love having an NGT or former NGT on the books, and I probably partly got my job because of it.

SC: So, aside from the trickiness of the balancing act, what effect do you think the scheme’s had on your career so far?

I also have had some really lovely emails from random people who do work with young offenders and share their experiences.

AF: I think it’s given me a lot more confidence to deal with the media. I used to get media inquiries and kind of quietly back away from them, but now feel more confident with the rules of the game and how to act - and how to ask for payment.

I also have had some really lovely emails from random people who do work with young offenders and share their experiences. It’s not led to any direct collaborations yet but I hope it will.

SC: Yes, the feedback is one of my favourite things too. Being on the scheme has convinced me that the arts and humanities do have an important role to play in the lives of many, many people who can only access them through non-academic channels.

When I published my research into the history of marital surname change, women from all over the world emailed to tell me that my work had helped them think differently about themselves, their identities and their histories.

So, do you have any advice for people who want to apply to the scheme?

AF: Don’t be scared of it – there’s no harm in trying and If at first you don’t succeed - try again the next year.  The application and workshop are great training in themselves even if you don’t get through.

 This kind of thing is becoming increasingly important to modern academic work so give it a go if you fancy it. But you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. Not for everyone and scholarship for the sake of scholarship is still really important.

SC: Excellent advice! I fully endorse it all. To which I will add only one practical point and one ‘why should you do it / is it for you’ point. Before deciding whether to apply, listen to Radio 3, and read online pieces of public scholarship. See what people before you have done, and think how you might give that your own special twist or angle. Consider if you have the time, or can make the time – because it does take up a lot of time!

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