There’s a little irony in this post in that I have been conspicuous in my lack of communication recently. It’s my first post for a month as I have had a very busy few weeks adjusting to new working hours, and cracking on with starting my PhD. But… I’m back from my little hiatus and I’d like to pose a question to you all…
Is there any point in doing something worthwhile unless you can communicate it effectively?
Science has undoubtedly gotten better at it in recent years, especially when it comes to cutesy, fluffy, broadcast-friendly things. But in academia there is still an undercurrent of, for want of a better word, superiority…? And there are crazy intelligent academics doing amazing cutting edge research, but what good is that research if it isn’t communicated effectively?
I take an example from when I was at university the first time round, which was a few years ago (but not so long ago that the people in question wouldn’t still be working in academia…) anyway, the worst teachers I experienced where often the ones doing the super-cool research. But super-cool research isn’t enough, not every project will jump out and speak for itself.
And I mean some of these lecturers were dire, really dire… like monotone, reading from black and white PowerPoints, dire. No matter how life-changing the discovery, delivery like that wouldn’t stop weary students (likely recovering from the effects of the previous nights Jäger bombs) from taking a little nap. They weren’t all bad mind you, I’ll never, ever forget the legend that was Prof Brian Moss and his crazy jumper, oh and annual renditions of “mud, mud, glorious mud”.
We have a duty in any field to communicate openly and clearly. So how do we do this successfully in academia when a lot of said academics just want to do the research? Using creativity to communicate shouldn’t be underestimated, I mean yes know your audience, but a little brain teaser or god forbid a game, gets even the most superior-minded thinking.
I recently went to a research workshop that explored creativity in science communication and it was very levelling, everyone in the room participated, from us lowly PhD students to the director of a research institute. And yes it was a little silly and involved drawing and (shock horror!) talking to one another, but it really got the brains thinking. And apparently we all love trees!
A friend of mine (who teaches what could be described as a fairly difficult audience) has a great starter for a lesson, the students have to answer the register with an animal noise, and it has to be a different noise to anyone else. Daft? Totally! But it gets them thinking, and almost more importantly, listening to one another.
I can say that academia seems to be pulling its socks up since the last time I had the pleasure of full-time education. York University (not that I’m biased) certainly seem to have lots of opportunities for PhD students to improve their communication skills, from training to active participation in things like the 3 minute thesis competition. So hopefully our newer generation of academics will be more dynamic and engaging, and be faced with less nappage in the lecture hall (mind you there will always be one, yes I’m looking at you my lovely ex-roomie who once drank the entire shot menu in Baa Bar…).
We should never underestimate the importance of chucking in a curve ball in any kind of communication. I’m speaking largely from a classroom point of view here, but there’s no reason that similar principles can’t be utilised in a professional setting. Get them to use Twitter as part of a presentation, do a Kahoot, hell, get them to play computer games like this air quality partnership in Nairobi led by the Stockholm Environment Institute.
In this day and age there are a multitude of tools for effective communication, both technological and less so (moo, baa, woof), so there’s really no excuse for death by PowerPoint.