Rebecca Hasler is currently completing a PhD in the School of English at St Andrews. Her research, which is funded by SGSAH, concerns the development of documentary and mockumentary in early modern pamphlets. More broadly, she is interested in the role of genre in interpretation. Follow her on twitter @RLHasler.
How are a collection of short satirical books written between 1580 and 1625 relevant today? This is the question that, until recently, I asked myself with a hint of dread every time I heard the words “public engagement”.
My PhD looks at the style and genre of early modern pamphlets. These are short books that are concerned with subjects ranging from fashion advice to exposés of crime. Although they can be very funny, explaining their content requires lots of contextual detail. If you have to explain a joke, then it’s no longer funny. Because of this, when I started my PhD, I wasn’t sure how I could make my research accessible and interesting to the public. Over the last year, this has dramatically changed.
With the arrival of fake news, my thesis has taken on a new relevance. Much of my research is about the murky boundaries between documentary and mockumentary, and between real reportage and fictitious or satirical news reporting. As more and more people began to comment upon the dangers of fake news, I began to see interesting parallels with my own research.
Fake news circulates because of clickbait. Sensationalist headlines prompt people to click on links and read stories of dubious origin. Often, stories are shared widely on social media before they are debunked. In my research, I’ve come across countless news pamphlets that sell themselves as “strange but true”. Publishers tried to make their books sell by emphasising that they reported on something “strange”, “miraculous”, or “wonderful”. Although they said that these magical tales were “true”, the reality was often harder to pin down: Did a couple really spontaneously combust mid-coitus in 1583? Did a dragon really wreak havoc on Sussex in 1614? Often, pamphlets offer a tantalising glimpse at the facts (or lack thereof) behind these sensationalistic stories.
Popular interest in fake news has provided an opportunity for me to make my research more accessible. It makes a remote four hundred year old literary form more approachable. It also shows how thinking about the past can inform our understanding of the present: looking at early modern responses to fake news proves that the differences between “news” and “fake news” are in the eye of the beholder, a vital point for understanding the differences of opinion about what is called “fake news” today.
Thinking about my research through the medium of fake news has transformed my ability to engage with the public. In April, I gave a series of three lectures on “Fake News in Early Modern England” as part of the St Leonard’s Prize at St Andrews. These are now available as a podcast. The process of presenting my research to an audience of academics, students, and members of the public was exciting: I gained clarity in explaining my ideas, I further developed my confidence in public speaking, and (most importantly) the lectures sparked some fascinating discussion with people who would otherwise never have known about my research.
As a newcomer to public engagement, this is what I have learned:
Be confident in your interests. If you’re enthusiastic about what you do, others will be interested to hear about it. The more you speak about your research, the easier it gets, and you’ll find yourself wishing that you had stepped out of your comfort zone earlier.
Find a way to make your research accessible. For me, this was the vogue for fake news. Be creative, and find ways of connecting your research to current interests and issues.
Don’t get (too) bogged down in academic details. One of my biggest worries was that my lectures would be anachronistic – how accurate is it to call something that pre-dates news as we know it “fake news”? To make your research accessible, you might have to use terminology or analogies that you would never use in your thesis, and it’s good to think outside the academic box.
Don’t dumb it down. This is about balancing academic rigour and accessibility. Once people are interested, they’ll have really productive insights into your research. Public engagement goes both ways, and to get the most out of these conversations you need to stay true to your research.
Make it entertaining. There was no way that I was going to omit the example of a man throwing his (used) chamber pot at a burglar and knocking him unconscious.
Make the most of opportunities. If you don’t make the effort to present your research, nobody is going to hear about it.
I’m still mulling over what the next steps for my research will be, but I now feel much more equipped to get involved in public engagement. Although “fake news” is often linked to a decline in respect for expertise, it has motivated me to take my research outside the academy.