A new initiative from the NCCPE, the Engage Researchers’ Academy is a year long professional development programme for researchers with a passion for public engagement. The programme creates a challenging but supportive environment for delegates to reflect upon what it means to be an engaged researcher, and to explore the quality and value of engagement. It aims to equip participants with understanding, skills and practical experience to enhance the impact of their engagement and to become leaders in engaged research.

I have just been awarded a place on the Engage Researchers’ Academy, consisting of three sessions in Bristol, tied to a new role that will become park of my work at Manchester Metropolitan University, drawing upon the press and other impact work I undertake.

Please provide a short biography

Dr Bex Lewis is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University. Trained as a mass communications historian, she has written the original history of the poster Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster (Imperial War Museum, 2017), drawing upon her PhD research. Drawing upon past experience in technology informed learning, and digital literacy projects with JISC, she is Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst  (Lion Hudson, 2014). She has a strong media presence, with her expertise featured in a wide range of publications and programmes, including national, international and specialist TV, radio and pressand can be found all over social media, typically as @drbexl.

Please describe your research

With my research and public engagement, I am passionate about encouraging positive and responsible engagement online, contributing to a culture where people can thrive focused upon areas of digital culture, digital literacy, digital transformation and inclusive digital communities. I work chiefly within the third sector and with values-based organisations and communities, predominantly those related to Christian faith, seeking the wider impact such organisations can have upon society, including its more vulnerable users. My research is knowledge-exchange oriented: in a previous role, my research focused specifically upon discipleship in a digital age, drawing upon a range of voices from ‘the pew, the pulpit and the academy’ within the blog bigbible.org.uk, highlighting to the church the importance of engaging with digital technologies in order to listen, and be listened to.

My work largely works alongside the title ‘In a digital age’, often-addressing questions of ‘digital habits’, attitudes and behaviours. I am keen that practical insights are accompanied by more philosophical questioning. Whilst technology offers new opportunities, I reject notions of technological determinism and any accompanying moral panics. At heart a humanities scholar, I believe that, fundamentally, human beings remain human beings, seeking meaning and purpose in life. I draw upon theories related to the social shaping of technology, as digital culture and practices are shaped by the larger culture and power structures that they are embedded within, and in the decisions that we make as users, whether consciously or not.

My initial research in the 1990s focused upon British Home Front propaganda posters in the Second World War, their planning, their design, and their reception, and in which I noted the following:

In the 1930s Aldous Huxley recognised that propaganda ‘canalises an already existing stream’; it is only effective on those already in tune with the ideas expressed. Propaganda encourages its audience further along the direction that they are already moving, and reinforces partly formed ideas.

These ideas inform my contemporary digital practice, including drawing upon behavioural ‘nudge theories’, as Sustein & Thaler (2009) highlighted how we can make better choices for ourselves, our families, our organisations, and society, knowing how to ‘nudge us in the right directions, without restricting our freedom of choice’.

Drawing upon qualitative research methods, I seek to understand the online environment, its characteristics, engagement and interactions, so users at all levels can leverage it well. Organisations and users need to take a responsible approach to online engagement, where relationships and personal connections are key. I am keen to see organisations move beyond Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to embedding organisational values, and not be held back by fears of digital technology, as we learn how it works, how people interact with it, how it influences people, how we can use it for good, how we can avoid the worst, and how we inhabit the online environment.

Tell us about your experience of engagement

From early engagement with ‘Public History’ conferences, I have sought not to be an ‘ivory tower’ academic, keen to see that the research and work that I undertake making a difference to knowledge and practice in society, whichever discipline I sit within. My PhD was described as ‘highly readable’ by my examiners, and a former colleague described my work as ‘able to translate complex ideas into a seemingly effortless read’.

In order to fund my PhD, I set up Digital Fingerprint as a social media consultancy. Clients included third sector organisations such as Girlguiding, The National Archives and NCVO (via an agency), Christian organisations including The Church of England, The Methodist Church, Tearfund, The Salvation Army, and United Reformed Church, publishers, universities, and a range of small businesses, including anti-diet cause Beyond Chocolate.

I am regularly asked to write for a range of publications for a wide range of audiences, and have made the most of opportunities to provide expert comment to the media. The Financial Times described Raising Children in a Digital Age as ‘sensible’ in a sea of scare texts around the topic of children and the internet. I have invited as an expert guest on flagship shows such as The One Show (BBC One), Steve Wright in the Afternoon (BBC Radio 2) and BBC News, whilst local and specialist media frequently asks for comment or opinion pieces on aspects related to digital culture. For example:

I have brought in at least £200,000 value in media interviews for Manchester Metropolitan University since 2015, most recently a full page in the Daily Express, ‘Wartime slogan that became a motto for our times’. I have extensive networks on social media, including over 11,000 Twitter followers, over 2,000 Facebook connections, over 2,000 LinkedIn Connections, around 160,000 Slideshare views, and average 2-3,000 blog visitors per month on drbexl.co.uk, with an increased number visiting since September 2017, when I started sharing my experience of breast cancer publicly.

Publically sharing the process of thinking, work outputs, and involvement in events and projects of interest, has led to well-received invitations to speak, including at high profile Christian events (https://drbexl.co.uk/testimonials), including in Europe and Australia, publication opportunities, and research projects.

What are the main challenges you face as an engaged researcher?

The main challenge in being an engaged researcher is in gaining recognition of this kind of work as ‘academically valid’ against the pressures of REF and TEF, and therefore attracting workload allocation for work such as media work (which can be somewhat ad hoc, and time consuming). Workloads in general are overloaded, so practical ways to manage that realistically are key, and how to tie in other institutional and sector objectives, and re-purposing and redeveloping, rather than restarting from scratch.

Within our faculty there is some support for public engagement work, including support in putting forward funding bids, and in understanding how research can be applied to and impact policy, although more support is always appreciated. One of the aspects demonstrated in the Research in Learning Technologies paper mentioned above was that those embedded within a sector are those who are likely to be listened to in any options for change: the need for a group of others with an interest in public engagement avoids the loneliness of independent research, whilst developing a community of practice, demonstrates impact within and without the department. Being able to manage expectations and demonstrate value as a return on investment can be challenging to identify.

Being publicly visible takes energy, ensuring that one is able to say something that is publicly useful, can stand up to scrunity, and remains academically valid. Being involved in events, and publishing online, led to my previous role at Durham University, where funding for the role from Christian denominations and organisations was dependent upon interim outputs, networking with funders, and final reports demonstrating that research would make an impact upon the shape of church communications activities. Since 2010, I have been involved in what was the ‘Christian New Media Conference’, and is now the annual ‘Premier Digital Awards and Conference’, as a judge and speaker, whilst identifying other speakers for the event, which has grown from 200-600 delegates, including feeding into plans to encourage more women speakers within the Christian sector through ‘Gathering of Women Leaders’ meetups, and contributing to: https://www.project328.info/database.

In the past, I have been active in contributing to £320,350 of successful bids, with £28,350 gained as sole bid writer. I plan to apply for British Academy funding (one of the challenges is expenses only, with no teaching buy-out) to interview the communication’s and children’s work leads from the British Christian church denominations as to how they believe they have been preparing for ‘a digital age’, and comparing that with perceptions and action ‘on the ground’. This should lead to a better understanding of what is effective practice, impact policy for churches, but may also be more widely applicable outside of the Christian sector. Identifying valuable overlaps between sectors can be a challenge, but of value. This year’s cancer diagnosis has also raised the potential for research into social media and digital platform use by patients, and what that contributes to the patient experience, information sharing, clinical practical decisions, and patient wellbeing.

What does being an engaged research leader mean to you?

The importance of engaging the general public with academic research is key. Academic research is funded from the public purse, and demonstrating the value that such research brings to society, and engaging the public with academia and its research outputs, enables relevant projects to continue. Leading through example by engaging in continued media opportunities, sharing the process, practice and outputs of research, and explicitly encouraging and enabling others to do so through training and aiding the development of appropriate objectives.

What do you hope to get out of participating in the Engage Researchers’ Academy?

I am already deeply committed to public engagement, but would hope to engage with others who are of a similar mindset, to share our expertise, and learn from each other. The importance of communities of practice in ensuring that public engagement and knowledge exchange work are taken seriously is key in moving the work forward for both the institution, and the sector as a whole.

How will you share what you learn in the Academy with others?

Manchester Metropolitan University plans to allocate part of my workload to a public engagement role within the Faculty of Business, which would include opportunities to share expertise: training and encouraging others to undertake public engagement work.

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