Strange Bedfellows: The School Years (or: Public engagement & why it matters)

I’m incredibly happy to announce some brilliant Strange Bedfellows-related news. The project team has received funding to run a public engagement programme in York over Spring Term 2013 that will add a fascinating dimension to our research about project about  creativity, analysis and arts/educational policy. Six humanities research students from the University of York, and six from the University of Leeds, will be workshopping with Year 12 students from Huntington School to observe and calibrate their creative and analytical processes, and interview them about their creative lives, curricula and aspirations. This will lead to a project report and hopefully a journal article about the findings of this strand of the project; a short film; and an exhibition of the Year 12 students’ creative work to coincide with the York Festival of Ideas in June 2013. We’re very grateful to Huntington School and the Humanities Research Centre at the University of York for investing in the project to enable this to happen!

We are currently recruiting postgraduate workshop facilitators  – if you’re a humanities postgraduate at either university, and you’d like to gain unique public engagement experience, please have a look at the full info here and drop us an email!

Facilitator recruitment email

Why are we doing this, you might wonder? What are PhD students doing poking around in secondary schools? Don’t they have enough on their plates? Well, yes, we do. But when we set up our project originally (see here for a post talking about its origins), we decided that we weren’t happy with the prospect being just a series of seminars or lectures given by academics to other academics in the rooms of a university.  We wanted our knowledge base and audience to be far more inclusive than that. Inspired by the emphasis in recent years on public engagement in academia, we decided to talk to a rising generation of school leavers from different social backgrounds and pursuing different educational curricula, just deciding what to do with their lives, about the issues that we’re interested in. How do they see creativity? How does it relate to their current school curriculum or other analytical activity? Is creativity a passion, an aspiration, a hobby, a luxury, a necessity? We wanted to observe the processes by which they create and analyse, and give them the opportunity to challenge our values and preconceptions, which can’t help but be somewhat rooted within the academe.

We also wanted to try to give the students a voice in some of the debates about educational and arts policy that are currently raging – after all, they will  be just as affected by current government policy on these matters as us, and perhaps more so. Recent developments in government policy indicate a worrying trend to dismiss the arts and humanities as unimportant or disposable. Key among these are the slashing of funding for arts organisations across the UK, the accepted recommendation of the Browne Report to eradicate the teaching grant for arts and humanities subjects in universities, and the recent decision to exclude arts subjects from the English Baccalaureate.­­ The government’s current approach – paying lip service to the importance of creativity while systematically removing support from its facilitators – risks producing a generation of young people whose state education system dismisses arts subjects as unimportant, who are opting out of arts degrees which might enable careers in the creative industries because they are too expensive, and who have no access to affordable cultural activities in their local communities. To the best of our knowledge, the young people whose futures are at stake have seldom been asked for their opinions on the relationship between creativity and analysis, their curricula and their creative lives, their aspirations and the opportunities that are provided for them by the state. This workshop programme aims to give them an opportunity to intervene in this debate.

So if you know anyone at York or Leeds who might be interested, do point them in the direction of this blog post or of the Strange Bedfellows website, and ask them to drop us a line. We’ll be selecting facilitators just before Christmas, and training in January to commence the workshops on 30 January 2013.

Ode to Arts Council England

Recently Arts Council England published this write-up of my German translation deal for Rites. http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/news/arts-council-news/yorkshires-next-great-young-novelist-signs-transla/  This led me to reflect, first soppily, then angrily, on a couple of things.

I’m constantly aware of the huge debt of gratitude I owe to ACE for its role in funding the Next Great Novelist Award and the publication of Rites. However, not everyone appreciates its importance in the same way. Among other measures, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement announced £34million cuts to DCMS, some of which will very likely hit ACE (which has already cut administrative costs by 50%) hard. (see here http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2012/dec/05/autumn-statement-2012-arts-funding).

I’ll be writing to my MP about the amazing impact that ACE has had on my life and how worried I am about the impact of these cuts. I know most people won’t have the time / motivation to do this, but if anyone has enjoyed or profited from reading Rites, please do just bear in mind that, like many other books you may have enjoyed, it’s an Arts Council England baby. As well as funding initiatives to discover and nurture new talent in unusual places, ACE undertakes very important work in supporting writers who need to take a bit of time out from their day jobs to write. The vast majority (especially new writers who aren’t lucky enough to be independently wealthy) simply can’t survive on (retrospective) earnings from sales of their books, the lion’s share of which goes to retailers. So, if you love literature, love the ACE, and appreciate its work, and spare it a little thought come May 2014.