Suzanne’s instructions were to write a short statement that avoided jargon and captured the essence of our research, but also illustrated to a general audience what was important, relevant and interesting about our research.
No problem, I thought. Academic jargon has always left me cold. Using a word like ‘structuralism’ or ‘functionalism’ or ‘neo-liberalism’ in a sentence is a sure-fire way to exclude me from a conversation, because by the time I’ve worked out what the word means, and then fitted that into the context of the sentence, the whole debate has moved on.
My first attempt did not impress Suzanne: I will address key anthropological enquiries, particularly the role of power in person-environment relationships and processes of knowledge production, and broader strategic concerns such as the heritage of land management and rural inequalities.
“What does any of that even mean?” chastised Suzanne.
I tried again, this time making my statement more specific: I am researching the social history of a community managed forest in rural northern Scotland to explore the role of power in environmental knowledge production.
“But why would I care about that?” asked Suzanne. “Why should anybody care?”
“I’m doing ethnographic research into…” My words tailed off as Suzanne raised her eyebrow at the word ‘ethnographic’. I was beginning to feel as frustrated with this task as she must’ve been feeling with me.
“Why do you care about your research?” she probed. “Why do you think it’s interesting? What motivates you to keep going with it?”
“Oh, it’s brilliant!” I gushed. “There are all these fascinating stories that people tell me about the forest, stories about their experiences, about adventures and mishaps, local history stories and political stories…and nobody has ever recorded these stories so it’s all brand new and I’m finding that other people want to hear the stories too, so I just want to be able to share all these stories with everyone somehow!”
Suzanne was nodding her head and smiling at me. “NOW I’m interested,” she said. “That’s what you need to get across to people, that enthusiasm and joy. Not everybody cares about all the philosophical concepts in your PhD, and you don’t need to tell them to everybody. It doesn’t make what you’re doing any less important.”
For me, this informal exchange with Suzanne was the standout moment on the Afterlife of Heritage training, the moment when everything else clicked into place. I had come to the training believing that I was a good communicator, but hoping to gain a little confidence in my public speaking abilities and to learn some creative techniques for presenting my research. This moment made me realise that I was so caught up in my research and what it meant for me, that I had lost sight of the value of my research for other people, and thereby lost my ability to communicate about it effectively. Apart from my PhD supervisors and examiners, most people are unlikely to care whether or not I’ve got to grips with Foucault’s work on power or Ingold’s ideas about dwelling. I don’t need to explain the philosophical underpinnings of my research to everybody I meet, but I do need to be able to express my passion for my research.
After this, the rest was easy. I knew that I wanted to share stories of the forest with people so it made sense to approach Dunnet Forestry Trust with a proposal for a social history trail through the forest. We can’t wait to be able to let you know how our project goes…