Thursday, September 15, 2016

Being heckled by my dad... and four other things I learned doing the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

I love public engagement. Broadly defined as "engaging the public with research" (as the RCUK puts it), public engagement has been pretty extensively embraced by universities as a way of highlighting the relevance, importance, and impact of academic research beyond the university. In other words, it's a great way to show that the research we're doing as academics can make the world a better and richer place. While we might be the experts in our own research areas, talking to non-academics - professionals, local communities, governments, charities, and multinational organisations - about our research can be incredibly rewarding (and challenging).

Photo credit @edbeltane
This summer, I dived into public engagement by getting involved with the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. The Cabaret (or CODI for short) is organised by Beltane and is basically an opportunity for academics to present a 'dangerous idea' from their research (e.g. exercise is bad for you; we should get rid of zoos) and discuss it with a non-academic audience while standing on a small wooden stage in a yurt at the largest arts festival in the world. Piece of cake.

I've previously written a bit about the content of my show (that we should take romance novels more seriously) and if you're more of an audiophile you can listen to a slightly clumsy radio interview where I talk about the show and my research. What I want to talk about in this post is more generally about my experiences of doing public engagement in case it's of use to any other academics who might be interested in sharing their research more widely. I'm certainly no expert in public engagement, but I've definitely learned some things this summer.

 So, in no particular order, here are five things I learned doing an Edinburgh Festival Fringe show.

1. Talking to the public is scary (the first time). 

I don't mean talking to people at the next table in the pub, or chatting to the lady on the bus. Talking one-on-one to people in non-work environment is easy. But when you're up there on that stage, with 40-odd people staring up at you, and they're expecting you to be both clever and funny (it is the Fringe, after all) it can be quite intimidating. I'm not scared of public speaking. I remember being nervous before my first seminar as a postgraduate tutor, and I was slightly intimidated when giving my first lecture to 200 students in the week of my job, but I've taught for so long now, that I've forgotten what it's like to have your stomach in knots, your thoughts scattered, and your hands shake visibly.

Doing a Fringe show reminded me of all of that. I felt that I needed to apologise to anyone I spoke to in the hour before the show started because I'm not sure I was in any way coherent. My stomach was tied in knots and my hands were shaking so much I was sure people could see it on the stage. But, after the first ten minutes or so, as people started to laugh and to contribute thoughts and questions, it stopped being so scary. About half an hour in, it even started being fun. And the minute it finished, I wanted to do it again. I suppose anything is scary the first time you do it, and sometimes that nervousness is a good thing - it gives you adrenaline that gets you through it. Personally, I'm looking forward to the next time, when I hopefully won't be scared at all.

2. You will get heckled by your dad (if he's anything like mine).

I think the scariest thing about talking to a public audience is that you're not sure how they're going to react. When you give a paper at an academic conference, you know roughly what's going to happen. More often than not, three people will give twenty-minute papers, followed by a half-hour Q&A session. Generally, people don't  interrupt, they'll ask (hopefully) polite questions at the end and you might exchange email addresses afterwards in case you want to build a new research relationship. There's a code. There are rules.

With public engagement, there are no rules. Well, there are rules, but they're different to the rules you get at an academic conference. For one, talking at a Fringe show meant that people were much more likely to shout things out in the middle of the show (to be fair, I did encourage them). Begging my friends and family to come also meant that one of those hecklers was my (lightly refreshed) father.

But actually, I found the more informal atmosphere energising. Like a teaching session where students are really engaged I had to think on my feet, but because the audience contributed so many comments and ideas, it meant that my role was far more facilitatory, rather than managerial. Being able to riff off and refer to content from the audience meant that I had to spend less time talking, there was less attention and pressure on me as the 'sage on the stage' and I enjoyed myself much more.

So, I suppose, thanks for the heckling, dad.

3. You won't get asked the questions you expect.

When I was a PhD student preparing for my first conference paper, I was advised by a friend to practice for the Q&A session by trying to think of all the possible questions I could be asked. As it happens, this was good advice; as academics, we know what other academics might ask us because they're the kind of questions we would also ask.

Members of the public won't ask these kinds of questions. During my show, the suggestions and questions asked were sometimes far more basic than I'd usually be asked and often more unexpected: "is the bible a romance novel"? I realised how much, as academics, we rely on a base level of research knowledge as a shorthand; we don't, for example, ask about the story content in the Canterbury Tales because the assumption is that we already know it. Members of the public don't always have this base knowledge and so you might find yourself answering questions that (to you) seem obvious, but to your audience are not.

4. Public engagement support exists (and it's for people like me too). 

Before this summer, I was aware that organisations like Beltane existed, that my university had a whole office devoted to helping academics with public engagement, and I knew that colleagues were involved in public engagement activities. I just never really thought that it could be something I could do. Not just because I research books that are either really old (it's hard to do a panel discussion with a medieval romance author) or really uncool (as I said, we really need to take romance novels more seriously). It was also because as a teaching fellow who wasn't being paid to do research, I felt that I fell somewhat outside of the structures.
Talking about sexy books in a yurt (photo credit: Beltane)

Most funding council or bodies now require some public engagement as part of any research they fund. Equally, the Research Excellence Framework (a roughly five-yearly census of research outputs in all university departments) now also requires universities to submit case studies of public engagement or research impact. So for most academics, public engagement is definitely on the radar.

What's more, as a PhD researcher, I had several opportunities to engage wider audiences with my research. I took part in the 3 Minute Thesis competition (where you have 3 minutes and one slide to explain your entire PhD topic to a non-academic audience) and helped to organise events where academics talked to and alongside professionals, artists, and writers.

Universities have clearly done a lot to help academic staff and research students to do public engagement. But as an early career researcher who wasn't employed to do research, I found myself somewhat in limbo. Many of the fellowships and pots of money made available to support public engagement are not available for teaching-only staff. In addition, while my department were super supportive, I get the sense that in other places, researchers like me (who are, effectively, independent researchers who happen to work at a university) might miss out on research mentorship and guidance that they might otherwise receive from a line manager.

But, things have changed. While there might not be as many opportunities for a non-research staff member, there were still opportunities out there. By going along to some of the public engagement events supported by Beltane and by getting to know some of the staff who work for Beltane (it helps that we share a building), by following their activity on social media, and by signing up for their mailing lists I realised that there are opportunities for me to get involved in events where I can talk about my research and to get support for it. It was just a question of asking.

5. Once you pop...

At first it was just the one Fringe show. But then there was the associated Tweeting and blogging, the radio interview, the social media connections (this has been great for my Twitter follower numbers, guys). I've since been invited to speak on a panel at the Sheffield Festival of the Mind. I get the feeling that once you've started getting into public engagement, people start to recognise you as someone who can communicate their research well to non-academic audiences. You begin to be publicly associated with particular research areas. You get invited to more events and activities and, through networking and working with other publicly engagement academics, you learn how to be better at public engagement yourself.

So there you have it - my assorted advice and reflection on what I'm (privately) calling my first 'summer of public engagement'. I'm sure it won't be the last.

Useful links:

Beltane online toolbox  - advice on media skills, finding funding, and festivals (mainly in Scotland)

Research Councils UK guides and publications - a more formal but still useful collection (maybe refer to these if you're convincing your line manager that public engagement is awesome)

National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) - funded by the research councils and the Wellcome Trust there's a helpful and accessible guide to getting started in the 'Do It' section of their website.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

On This Day: Five Years of Blogging

I quite like Facebook's 'On This Day' feature. On the one hand, it's a daily reminder of exactly how much data Facebook has about my life. But on the other, it's a souvenir of friendships, trips, and events I've often forgotten about. It often makes me reflect on how far I've come in the past decade - from an English Literature undergraduate student, to a stressed-out Masters student learning about gender and feminism in new ways, to an even more stressed-out PhD candidate pulling together medieval literature and modern romance, all the way to the post-doc I am now, multi-tasking a host of professional and personal skills and practices.

Today, Facebook showed me a ten-year old message from a good friend, photographs from a wedding I attended last summer, and it also informed me that on this day five years ago, I published my first post on this blog.

'On This Day' (Amy Burge via Facebook)
The post, entitled simply 'Bevis in London' is about a Middle English romance called Bevis of Hampton (c.1330). It's the story of an exiled English knight raised by Saracens, and the adventures he and his friends encounter as he tries to regain his English heritage. It's long (over 4500 lines), has complex overlapping plots, and features giants, magic, battles, love and betrayal. It's one of my favourite Middle English romances, and it features prominently in what is now my monograph.

The post is about a very small part of Bevis of Hampton. Late in the romance, Bevis returns to England and specifically to London, where he becomes embroiled in fighting in the narrow streets of  the City. Now, many have assumed that Middle English romance is simply a fantasy genre, much like today's romance novels - set in fictional locations, with little regard for reality. However, Bevis of Hampton describes its geography, particularly this London scene, in such detail, that I don't think we can dismiss it as merely fantasy (others have made similar arguments that Middle English romance is more realistic than we think).

In fact, the London locations of Bevis of Hampton are so detailed that it is actually possible to map them onto London streets. Which, with the help of a now-rather outdated version of Google Maps, is exactly what I did. Voila, your very own 'Bevis in London' walking route:

Follow Bevis' medieval footsteps in modern London (created in 2011 by Amy Burge)
 I had a lot of fun making this map and researching this part of medieval London. The map didn't make it into my thesis, but a lot of the analysis behind it did (and this analysis is now in my book). I've always meant to actually walk this route - particularly to see the London Stone which I've always thought was a tremendously underrated London landmark - but in the intervening five years, I've not managed to do so. A friend, teaching medieval romance in London, thought it would make a terrific walking tour for her class - were I to ever teach medieval literature in London I'd definitely make use of this.

Since I published this post, there have been significant advances in the digital humanities, including in GIS and mapping. I remember, when I posted this, having all kinds of ideas for interactive, multimedia applications for this map; perhaps a podcast that tells the story of Bevis as one follows the route, or a website offering Bevis-related content when you click on map locations. At the time, this didn't seem like something there would be much interest in, but five years later, I can see a definite audience for this kind of thing, and a lot more in the way of support and resources for someone like me to actually create it.

Reflecting on this post also made me think about how much has changed for me in the past five years. Five years ago, on 11 August 2011, I was still a PhD candidate at the University of York, with roughly a year to go on my thesis on Orientalism and religion in Middle English romance and modern popular romance novels. Now, that thesis is a book, and I'm firmly embedded in the postdoctoral world of job applications, temporary contracts, writing and publishing. My ideas have developed, my writing is better (although this is certainly an ongoing process), and I'm so much more confident in my research and scholarship.

I look back at that first post with a mixture of embarrassment, pride, and nostalgia. If I could, I'd tell the 2011 version of myself to enjoy that last year of doctoral research, as it would be the last time for a long time (possibly forever) where I could focus in such depth on one specific project. I'd tell myself to worry less about what I didn't know and have more confidence in what I do - that there would be plenty of time to learn what I needed to know in the years to come (and boy, have I learnt a lot in these past five years).

If someone had told me, five years ago, that I'd still be blogging about medieval romance, I'm not sure how I would have felt. Blogging was quite new to me then, and I'm not really sure I knew what I was trying to achieve (a colleague has recently written a brilliant piece on her reasons for blogging which I think, in hindsight, are a lot like why I took up blogging in the first place). But I know now, that if someone asked if I still want to be blogging five years into the future, the answer would definitely be yes.

I'm not going to go into detail about all the ways blogging has helped my research and my career, but I'd like to end this post with a thought, prompted by Bevis of Hampton. I've always been fascinated by how the medieval is used, understood, and played with in the contemporary world. Sometimes this is obvious - the medieval-ist world of Game of Thrones, for instance, or the way political rhetoric something refers to the contemporary Middle East as 'medieval' (something else I talk about in my book).

The fact that I can map Bevis' 700-year-old circuitous route through London using modern digital tools reminds me of those medieval echoes. It's one of those moments when our medieval past suddenly re-surfaces and becomes anachronistically visible. It's both exciting and troubling - such a visceral awareness of history can prompt interest and engagement with the past, but it can also make our modernity, so often defined by its distance from non-modernity, seem less secure and more anxious.

The five years in which I've been writing on this blog are not comparable to the 700-year history of the Middle English Bevis of Hampton. However, stretching the analogy of engaging with history as exciting or troubling, I'm happy to say that I'm much more excited than anxious about my particular, personal research history. So perhaps it's time to finally take that pilgrimage to Bevis' London - you're most welcome to join me.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Taking myself seriously: A defence of romance

There’s been some discussion recently about what makes a #seriousacademic. That discussion, sparked by this Guardian article, centred on academic and public engagement, particularly on the use of social media tools to talk about research. That discussion has prompted some of my own musings about seriousness and academic research – in particular, why it sometimes feels like my research field isn't taken so seriously.
Next week, I’m doing an Edinburgh Festival Fringe show about my research. It’s called ‘Can Anyone Write a Romance Novel?’ and it’s part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, where academics are invited to discuss ‘dangerous’ ideas from their research. There are some pretty controversial topics in there. For example, Should we let extremist speak? Are children an environmental threat? Should we still have zoos

And then there’s my dangerous idea: Should we take romance novels seriously

Initially, I thought that my dangerous idea was pretty benign, certainly when compared with some of the other topics on offer. But the longer I work in higher education and the longer I read, write, and publish on romance, the more I’ve realised that the idea of taking romance seriously, particularly in higher education, is anything but benign. 

The problem is that being someone who researches romance sometimes isn’t really seen as serious at all. I’m a #seriousacademic (who also happens to blog from time to time but that’s another issue). I’m a medievalist. I’m trained in gender studies, in literary studies, and in cultural studies. I’ve published my research, including a book on medieval literature, gender, and race. But – and this is the part that people can get stuck on – I also research popular romance. 

I've been asked in a job interview by the head of an English department how I can conduct legitimate academic research on romance novels that are clearly (in his opinion) terribly written. Only after I patiently and carefully explained that the romance genre is diverse and creative and worthy of study did he reply: “I should probably read one”. Casting shade on an entire literary genre without ever having engaged with it is something that happens curiously often with romance. 

On another occasion, when discussing teaching romance to English students with a senior colleague, I was challenged on wanting to include such texts on the curriculum. I suggested that the popularity and diversity of romance, in addition to their ability to inspire discussion about what ‘good’ literature is, should be justification enough. Yet this colleague could not get past the idea that ‘they’re just not good enough to be canonical’ and therefore not worthy of sharing with undergraduates. 

To be fair, it’s not just modern popular romance. Medieval romance has been at the sharp end of criticism from literary critics for hundreds of years, not least from the ‘father of English poetry’ Chaucer himself, who (in the voice of the host of the Canterbury Tales, Harry Bailey) declared romance “nat worth a toord [turd]”. In fact, it’s only recently that medievalists have recognised that medieval romance is a great way to find out more about the medieval imagination (plus there are some amazing plots). 

I’m not blaming my colleagues for their particular views on what constitutes good literature. There’s clearly a wider discourse at work that isn’t just (or even mainly) about romance scholars. Romance readers have, for decades, been teased, ridiculed, and even abused for their reading choices. In fact, it’s gotten so bad, that many romance readers have moved to reading romance electronically using ereaders like Kindles (on a Kindle, no one can see you’re reading a romance novel). So, you might ask, why should I expect to be taken seriously when I research something that isn’t taken seriously by anyone?

Leaving aside the arguments for why wider society doesn’t take romance and its readers seriously (spoiler: it’s because it’s written and read by women - Laurie Kahn’s recent film Love Between the Covers does an excellent job of setting this out), I want to focus on a different point – why we should take the academic study of romance seriously. 

Academia is supposed to be a place where we analyse and expose the kinds of discourses that surround romance novels, not where we, either subconsciously or knowingly, replicate them. When any discussion around romance is shut down – when we don’t teach undergraduate students about literature and value and choice – we are sustaining that narrow-minded attitude that doesn’t take romance seriously. 

We study other popular literary genres all the time; I have seen modules, journals, and funded research projects devoted to thrillers, crime fiction, detective fiction, and adventure novels. What’s ironic is that we study and research popular romance all the time, we just don’t call it that (I’m looking at you, Pride and Prejudice, Pamela, 50 Shades of Grey). 

So, as I plan to set out in my show next week, I think it’s time that we start taking romance seriously. It’s time that we recognise (and value) its position as the most popular form of genre fiction in the world. It’s time that we showcase the rich, evolving history of romance that stretches from ancient literature to the most contemporary publications. It’s time that we stop blindly criticising something we haven’t read, and instead invest our energy into finding out what makes this fascinating, diverse and, yes, popular genre tick. In short, when it comes to romance, it’s time we start acting like academics.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Men, sex, and mountains

forest and mountains of Zion National Park
Zion National Park, Utah (photo credit: Amy Burge)
Summer can be an interesting time for academics. For many of us, the months of June, July and August mean no teaching, an end to marking, exam boards, meetings and all of the things that keep us so busy during the rest of the academic year. This means that summer often becomes a time when we get on with those things we don't have time for the rest of the year - namely, research (and perhaps the odd holiday). 

In others words, men, sex, and mountains. 

Let's start with the men. I'm currently at the start of a research project looking at cultural masculinity in romance texts. Basically, I'm interested in how different parts of the male hero's identity work together (ethnicity, race, religion, sexuality). I'm testing out some ideas this summer with a couple of conference papers.  

In June, I gave my very first keynote at the conference Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women's Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. My paper was about masculinity, race, and genre fiction titled "Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance".

Organised by the Postgraduate Contemporary Women's Writing Network, it was a great day, with lots of papers presented by graduate students in what was an intellectually rigorous and supportive day. The excellent Laura Vivanco wrote a report on the whole conference, including my paper, at her website blog. You can follow the tweets from the event via #CWWRomance16.

A couple of weeks later, I gave a shorter version of my paper at the Sixth International Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance in Salt Lake City, Utah. There was lots of tweeting from the conference at #IASPR16. 

Now, onto the sex. 

This refers to an ongoing research project about sexualisation and the history of sexuality. In other words, what can medieval attitudes to sex and relationships tell us about the modern world?

At the end of June, a guest post I wrote for the history of sex blog Notches was published. Titled "Thinking Medievally: The Sexualisation Debate and Medieval Advice Literature", the post draws on my current research thinking about what late medieval advice literature can tell us about contemporary sexualisation concerns.

And as a bonus, later this summer (on 16 August), I'll be giving a talk as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: "Can anyone write a romance novel?"  

The blurb for the show is as follows:

Amy Burge did a whole PhD on romance novels (yes, you can do that) and reckons there’s more to them than you think. Come along to this sixty-minute collaborative writing session and decide for yourself if romance novels deserve more esteem. Amy will introduce you to popular motifs and you’ll get a chance to suggest characters, costumes, settings and even the title! Will you leave with a higher opinion of this seemingly frivolous genre?
Harlequin Mills & Boon have even kindly agreed to send me 50 novels to give away free at the show! It will be the first time I've done anything quite like this, and I'm really looking forward to hearing the audience's ideas and having a discussion with a much broader audience than we usually get as academics. If you're going to be in Edinburgh at the time, you're more than welcome at the show

And as for the mountains... well, this isn't a metaphor for the amount of work I've given myself this summer, but a literal reference to the peaks I saw on my holiday in the USA between the conferences and the blog posts and the Fringe show. Because a bit of quiet reflection and repose is one of the most important summer tasks of all.

Friday, May 27, 2016

‘Not our responsibility?’: Equality and diversity in university teaching

Tutors are part-time, adjunct, assistant, sessional or casual staff essential to many universities’ teaching provision (Beaton and Gilbert, 2013), but often labelled as lost, invisible, intangible: an ‘academic underclass’ (Brand, 2013; Sharaff and Lessinger, 1994, p. 12; as cited in McCormack and Kelly, 2013, p. 94).  Such a view of tutoring only supports the idea that equality and diversity are not the responsibility of this group of teaching staff.

But, as Emma Watson eloquently put it in her speech to the UN in September 2014 launching the #HeForShe campaign, "if not me, who? If not now, when?". And actually, tutors are hugely important to front-line undergraduate teaching in most universities  - I'm sure we all remember being taught by PhD students or by recent PhD graduates. 

Tutors are often the teachers who spend the most time with undergraduates and are their main teaching point of contact. So it's clear that equality, inclusion, and diversity are the responsibility of tutors, and those who support the development of tutors, like me, need to think about how we can help.

So what kinds of support do we offer to tutors? The first thing we did was to explicitly highlight University and national policy on equality and diversity.  We were finding that, for whatever reason, tutors were not aware of these policies, so we began by telling tutors that these documents exist.

We then drew out points from University strategies and policies which were relevant to the teaching roles of tutors. In particular, we highlighted the mainstreaming of common learning adjustments as outlined in the Accessible and Inclusive Learning policy. These are actions agreed by the University that all teaching staff  should do, regardless of whether they think there is a need to (so whether they think there is a student with disabilities in the classroom). This is intended to make learning more acessible for everyone, and is also helpful in tackling the fact that many disabilities (including things like dyslexia) are not outwardly visible. These actions include things like:
  • Providing presentation slides for seminars at least 24 hours in advance of the class
  • Giving key words and formulae to students at least 24 hours before the class
  • Telling students about changes to rooms, classes, or courses by email
  • That students are allowed to record any teaching for their personal use
  • That all teaching staff should wear a microphone where available (even if it doesn’t appear that there is a need for it).
We also provide additional resources for tutors on ways to make teaching more inclusive and accessible, for example, the Race Equality Toolkit, which offers practical advice and tips), Teachability (for general help with teaching that is accessible to students with disabilities) and advice on netiquette for online teaching.

Above all, it's important for tutors to recognise that inequalities exist. Women are hugely under-represented in Engineering and Technology, for example (2014/15 saw 15,790 women and 85,225 men enrol at UK universities in this subject area: source - HESA), so tutors working in these areas can be aware that the women in the room may be more likely to be talked over or interrupted (this Bitch Media article collates some of the research on this)

For those tutors who are lucky enough to be able to pick their own teaching material, diversifying the curriculum (including texts by women, by black and minority ethnic authors) is one good way to be inclusive - former Edinburgh University Students' Union (EUSA) officer Imogen Wilson has written a blog post about this. Making your curriculum more diverse is sound advice, although it's often relevant only for staff with control over the content of their teaching.

I'm aware that these are only first steps. In terms of my role, we can work more closely with other parts of the University doing work around equality and diversity in learning and teaching, such as the Student’s Association (EUSA) and the Support Services who provide training and resources for staff more widely. Equality and inclusion in assessment and feedback (much of which is carried out by tutors) will likely be a focus for the future.

But, for now, I hope this is an important start to recognising that creating equality, inclusion, and diversity is the responsibility of all teachers, no matter their role.


I presented a paper on this subject at Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education: Sharing experiences and Best Practice at King’s College London in March 2016.

An earlier version of this post was published at IAD4Learn in May 2016



Beaton, F. and Gilbert, A. (2013). Developing effective part-time teachers in higher education: New approaches to professional development. Routledge: London.

Brand, T. (2013). Foreword: The lost tribe. In F. Beaton and A. Gilbert (Eds.), Developing effective part-time teachers in higher education: New approaches to professional development (pp. xv-xviii). Routledge: London.

McCormack, C. and Kelly, P. (2013). How do we know it works? Designing support interventions to meet the real needs of new part-time lecturers. In F. Beaton and A. Gilbert (Eds.), Developing effective part-time teachers in higher education: New approaches to professional development (pp. 94-113). Routledge: London.


The image of the equality symbol was created by Mutxamel and accessed as public domain via Wikimedia Commons.