Researchers’ Night


The Researchers’ Night is a Europe-wide event bringing together the public and academic researchers once a year on the fourth Friday of September.

In 2011 Researchers’ Night took place at 320 European Cities in 32 countries. Jo Barratt attended the event at the University of Reading to learn about some of the research carried out there. Under the title ‘Language, Text and Power’ the day was packed with workshops, talks and other events.

Produced for Pod Academy by Jo Barratt
Jo Barratt: Reading University is one of four UK venues that is opening its doors today as part of Researchers’ Night. A Europe-wide event which invites the public to learn about the work of an academic researcher at a number of free talks and workshops designed to appeal to a general audience.

The day offers visitors to the university the chance to meet and ask questions of professional researchers working within an academic environment, and learn about the often surprising diversity of work they are involved in.

The event is organised with support from the European Union. Sandro Ricci, Deputy Head of the EU Unit responsible for Researchers’ Night, explains some of its aims and how it hopes to boost people’s interest in research.

Sandro Ricci: Researchers’ night does not directly provide financing to researchers to carry out research. Rather it is designed to create an awareness about what research is, how research could be interesting, how research fits into everyday life for everyone. It is an activity addressed to the public as a whole, though mainly to young people because they will be the researchers of the future. It is also addressed to those people who are reluctant to make contact with science matters – hopefully they can be involved through this kind of initiative.

This is designed to be fun, to encourage conversations. Everything is done in a relaxed environment. It is a way to help people feel close to research.

JB: Reading is not the only event happening today, there are other events happening…

SR: Yes, this event is carried out on the same day in all the European countries plus several associated countries. In the UK there are other events, for example, there is one in London at the Natural History Museum. Over the years, this has been a successful activity. In the past five years, since 2006, at least 1,700,000 people have been involved in Researchers’ Night, which I think is a very good result.

There is also mobilisation of resources. The EU is financing only part of these activities, all the other parts are financed directly by the institution involved. So the EU is working as a sort of catalyst to increase the awareness of research in universities and other research centres and to provide a focus on having a career in research.

JB: Professor Peter Kruschwitz is Head of the Classics Department at Reading. For him, Researchers’ Night is mainly about communicating the ways in which this research affects people in their day to day lives.

Peter Kruschwitz: I think if people take their time they do understand why academics in the arts and humanities are doing what they do. What is more worrying sometimes is to look at the immediate reflexes and responses you sometimes find in newspapers, in letters to the editors and online forums where people feel university research has very little impact on their daily lives. However, I’d maintain that the way we do things here at Reading, across all the disciplines involved, actually has a lot to contribute to public debate on ongoing public issues.

We could blame the public and say, you don’t understand what we do. But I don’t think that is fair. I think the responsibility is on academics to explain what they are doing, to explain why they are doing it, why they are doing it in this specific way and what impact this can have on public life and public debate. In that respect Researchers’ Night is, I think, a fantastic opportunity for us to open our doors and invite the public in, to let them participate and let them understand, let them engage with what it is that we academics do within a variety of departments.

JB: Reading’s theme for Researchers’ Night is ‘Language, Text and Power’. The importance of language is something which is perhaps hard to over-estimate. Whoever wants to understand the problems of the past, the present, and the future will also have to look at the way language is used and thought about within a society. Reading has long been a centre for traditional and non-traditional language research, and its profile in this area has been boosted by its decision last year to launch this faculty research theme of Language, Text, and Power. The diverse range of talks and workshops on offer today all relate to this theme in some respect, something which really highlights the significance of this area of study. Professor Kruschwitz also heads up the research theme.

PK: The Language, Text and Power theme came about as a research initiative in the Classics Department, because we felt that quite a few colleagues were doing research that was looking at language in quite an unusual way. You would expect people in the Classics Department to read Virgil and Homer, and obviously that is what we do, but on the other hand quite a few of us are looking at language and text in unusual ways that you might not find in other Classics departments.

We started talking to colleagues in other departments in the university and our faculty. It became clear that this would help us tap into faculty-wide resources and create a significant amount of synergies between departments.

Modern languages, English and applied linguistics are natural partners for looking at language use and how power relationships are negotiated though language. For example, how do you speak to somebody who’s superior? How do you speak to somebody who is a different age, gender, or standing in the social hierarchy?

Interestingly enough, at Reading, there are so many different approaches. The History Department springs to mind and not just because they look at the speeches of Hitler and Stalin and are interested in the rhetoric. They also look at medieval texts and instances of magic and witchcraft. All this has to do with language and with power.

And Reading is particularly known for exciting, outstanding typography department. We look at the design of text and the design of fonts.

Across all these departments we could synergise and do even more exciting things, using this label language, text and power to further collaborations across disciplines and to engage in collaborative, competitive research.

JB: In an average day we will end up reading thousands of individual words. But how often do we stop to think about the letters which make up a text and the thought that goes into what they look like. Gerry Leonodas is a senior lecturer in the Typography Department at Reading. He explains how studying 300 year old Greek translations can help the designers of our phones and laptops today.

Gerry Leonodas: There is a very measured process of evolution in typography of complex texts. So things tend to look very similar. If you go all the way to the nineteenth century then you will look at things that seem very familiar to us today. We can read these books, the typographic conventions have survived throughout the decades very well. You don’t change things when the users need to get to grips with the text unless there is a good reason. So these models are actually a very good guide for how people respond to the text. They help us understand how we use the text and what the demands on the text are. The industry is shifting quite a lot and people are trying to see how can we actually build something that works in this very different environment but actually capitalises on the experience of the previous centuries.

This is where we come in. One thing we are doing is looking at the range of uses for type in the past. Secondly, we are trying to map this onto contemporary uses on the one hand you have dictionaries very dense documents, very small sizes and often you have typographic conditions that make the typesetting quite difficult.

On the other hand you also get what newspapers are turning into now. We might imagine, for example, that lifestyle editions or magazines will have two or three languages in them depending on the region.

Or you might get localised editions of publications. This is a condition in the design world which did not exist 20 years ago. If you go to McDonald’s in Egypt, the menu will look like the McDonald’s you are used to round here and somebody needs to make sure that these texts work side by side. Or if you go to the Olympic Games then there will be four or five different versions of this in languages that must fit on the same document and work with each other.

There is a range of conditions which are new now for designers. Conditions that did not exist before. For example, almost everybody will have a thing that uses a browser. The interesting thing is that the problems for designing for this [smartphone] are not that new because we had small things before. Here is a page on an iphone for an itinerant dutch scholar, this is from 1707. See how small the text is and how actually readable it is. Now imagine that this is for a time when people did not have very good lighting, their specs were ground by hand on stones, and yet it still works. The basic conditions of arranging the text on a very small format survive, and we can use this 300 years later. The lessons from this somehow translate to my iphone screen.

Jo Barratt: Lib Taylor is Professor of Theatre and Performance in the Department of Film, Theatre and Television. Here, she explains her research into verbatim theatre and how she hopes the workshop she has planned for A-Level students will help them think about language, power, and specifically the theatrical text in new ways.

Lib Taylor: We had a research project in the department which looked at documentary theatre and one of the areas that we were particularly interested in was verbatim theatre. Verbatim theatre is quite difficult to define and there are several ways of talking about the kind of theatre it produces. It is basically theatre that uses the words of real people in the performance text.

The words are used in different ways by different writers. Some writers use the words of real people absolutely straight, while others will edit them to some degree or another. Verbatim pieces that audiences may be very familiar with are the works that come out of the Tricycle theatre where they have done a series of plays over the last ten years or so called ‘tribunal theatre’. They reconstruct, in an edited form, real tribunals that have occurred- the material which has been produced at the tribunal becomes the material of the performance. The Stephen Lawrence trial was one example.

Another form of verbatim theatre is the work of Alecky Blythe. It is this work I have been particularly interested in recently and it is the work I aim to use as part of the Rearcher’s Night workshop.

Alecky Blythe has most recently written a play for the National Theatre called London Road, based on the Ipswich murders. The play has been very successful, and that has brought her work to the fore. She has a very particular approach to verbatim theatre which, as I understand it, she developed after attending a workshop which was based originally on the work of the American writer Anna Deavere Smith. This work involves recording the words of people via an electronic source of some kind, digital or tape.The text is produced by editing the words into a coherent form, perhaps a narrative form or perhaps more of a collage of voices.

Alecky Blythe would probably say her first performance was based around the Hackney seige and was called Come out Eli. Alecky was very involved in recording the words of people who were watching the seige and in the area that the seige was taking place. The play comprises a lot of characters but their words are produced from the real words of the people that were watching the seige. She works by literally editing the sound material. She doesn’t actually write the text into a written form until it is required for publication.

JB: Researchers’ Night, which is all about research and how it could be more accessible, seems like a form of theatre which could show people something new.

LT: This form of theatre is one that is very interesting for young people who want to develop some of their own performances maybe using this verbatim form (or something close to this form). The workshop will bring together a group of people to work on material that I prepared around ordinary everyday speech, so that using everyday conversations or dialogue the participants will produce theatrical work.

Alecky Blythe’s actors usually wear earphones during the rehearsals and indeed during the performances, so that instead of apparently learning the lines that they speak, they are listening to the words of the person on whom their character is based all the way though the performance and reconstructing or imitating what they say. With every ‘umm’, ‘ahhh’, ‘cough’ and inflection they are trying to imitate the intonation and that is a really very difficult thing to do and something very unfamiliar for most actors. It’s quite a challenging way of producing a theatre text and a performance. We talk a lot about performances coming from inside the actor, whereas this is listening to something from outside which then they have to absorb very quickly and produce their own version of it very quickly. I’ve talked to various actors who’ve worked with Alecky Blythe using this system and they are largely very enthusiastic about it, enjoying the challenge. They talk about the way in which even though they say the words many many times during rehearsals and performances, in fact they don’t know the words, and if recorded material wasn’t available for them to listen to they would get lost in the text and find it difficult to understand. I believe them and I think that young people in a workshop could very usefully try this experience of listening and repeating and trying to get every nuanced sound and presenting that as a performance – not just speaking it but incorporating it into a performance.

For young people who are learning about theatre, finding out about this method of producing ‘realistic’ performances, participating in a workshop is as interesting, or another interesting way of following the performance as well as going to see it. So if they see something like the Girlfriend Experience and actually try the process themselves they would begin to understand in a different way how the text has been produced. It is possible to look at a written text and analyse it, that is one thing, but to understand how theatre works, you have to do it. This will allow young people to be involved in making the theatre as well.

JB: Finally, I spoke to Dr. Mathew Nichols of the Classics Department. In his work he recreates 3D models of buildings and cities to help us understand what the ancient world may have looked and felt like. He painstakingly reconstructs each building from the available archaeological and literary evidence, yet again showing us the way in which language can be used in ways which may surprise us.

Mathew Nichols: The talk I’ve just given was called ‘A Researcher’s Voyage’. That was the title I was given, and I thought the interesting way to tackle it would be to go in two different directions.

One – to look at the places I have been to around the Roman Empire. I’ve travelled pretty widely across the span of territories that were once held by Rome from Hadrian’s Wall last week to Turkey next week and places in between. So to look at that and not just show my holiday photos but to talk about what you notice as you go round such a large empire which is a surprising — the strands of continuity, amidst diversity sure, but with recognisable building types and functions and places: temples, bath-houses, theatres from one end of the empire to the other and to think about why that might be. The hand of the army, the role of locals in imitating and emulating Rome in their own struggle for local prominence or prestige.

Two – to talk about how we get back in time and go from ruins of these places (very impressive ruins, but still ruins) to real, working buildings as they appeared when they were new and how we can envisage a bit about how these buildings functioned and the impressions they made when they were brand new. One of the ways I do this is through digital architectural modelling. On my computer, I make 3D images of these places, of the buildings the way I envisage them. I’m now working on a a model of the entire city of Rome which is coming towards completion. In the workshop we had a ‘fly-down’ of that and a look at some of the buildings and streets of Rome.

JB: Researchers’ Night is all about telling people outside the academic world what it is that researchers do. I can see that your work could have lots of applications. Do you have any ideas about how the research could be applied?

MN: I do think that this is something that can be used to let people outside the academy learn about what we do and also to share our findings and our expertise of the ancient world with people who are interested in it. The really nice thing is that we know that people are fascinated by the ancient world. All the time people are going on holiday to these places, they are buying the guidebooks, they are watching the films eg Gladiator. Our undergraduate recruitment is very healthy. People are just fascinated by the ancient world and it’s great to bring that to life and share it. The  3D modelling is a vivid way of doing it because it produces quite pretty (though a say so myself) visuals that you can put up on a screen and see how it looked.  People get it immediately. If you look at a pile of ruins or an architectural drawing, it can be a little hard sometimes to work out what it really looked like. But in this way you see the whole city there in bright colours and 3D,  you can fly through it, you can get down to street level. People really enjoy it so I take it to schools and  museums, I lecture sometimes on cruise-ships and I take it along. Depending on what the subject is or where they’re going on the cruise ,we can do the architecture of entertainment  or the architecture of power in the roman empire.  I’ve started talking to commercial firms who might be able to help me make something of it on a much wider scale. I won a little prize in a regional academic entrepreneurial contest recently that was encouraging.  I’ve started talking to some software companies. I’d like to talk to publishers about a guidebook because then we could get it into the hands of lots of people visiting Rome  – they could use it to see their way round the modern city as tourists.  Or it could be used in the classroom by students and pupils.

JB: Researchers’ Night culminated in a debate which brought together many of ideas connected to the days theme of language text and power and asked the question ‘how many languages can we afford to speak in today’s society?’ This debate is available to hear in full on the Pod Academy Website.

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