It was almost by chance that I got increasingly involved in public engagement over the last three years. My studies on bilingualism delaying the onset of dementia and improving recovery from stroke conducted with colleagues in India, and my paper on bilingualism and ageing, based on the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, received worldwide media interest and were followed by a long list of press, radio and TV interviews. At the beginning, it looked like a daunting task for someone like me, who had not had much experience with the media before. But as I quickly discovered, the University of Edinburgh offers a fantastic range of extremely useful public engagement courses, often with practical exercises, combined with a lot of helpful advice from the Press Office and the Beltane network.
With time, I have not only become more confident in my interviews, I started to enjoy them more and more; one of the great advantages of working in public engagement is the opportunity to meet interesting people, full of curiosity and enthusiasm. And when I heard that a social enterprise, Lingo Flamingo, was founded based on the results of my research (about which they had heard through the media), it became clear to me that public engagement is by no means “l’art pour l’art”. It can have tangible relevance for our work; we are now working with Lingo Flamingo on a joint ESRC impact grant on teaching languages as cognitive training in patients with dementia.
But there is one more aspect of public engagement that I did not think about beforehand and that I noticed only gradually, although it can be as important as those mentioned above. Being trained how to explain my research in a brief, clear and engaging way but without compromising on accuracy, made me much more confident in my teaching. I learned how to engage students in my lectures, how to encourage questions and provide more satisfactory answers (even in the notoriously difficult task of feedback). Like giving interviews in the media, this is very much a set of practical skills, difficult to put into a list of abstract, context-free recommendations.
But what might help, at least as a start, is to think of teaching in similar terms to public engagement. After all our students, when we first encounter them, are a general audience and it is our task to help them become experts. Accordingly, engaging students and the general public have a lot in common. In both cases, the true art is on one hand to be clear and correct, brief and precise when explaining complex scientific theories and findings to those who are not yet familiar with them. But on the other hand, it is equally important to be engaging, to capture the interest of the audience and, ideally, to infuse them with curiosity and enthusiasm. If we manage to do it, students will not only remember our lectures and what they have learned in them, but they will also be much more likely to search actively for information themselves, understanding that learning can and should be a life-long adventure.