In our latest Blog post, Michael Noble takes time to reflect on Collaborative Projects.
Just before Christmas, academic and community leads from the Centre for Hidden Histories’ co-production grant scheme came together to take part in a dedicated workshop to reflect on their projects, share examples of the things that they had achieved and exchange ideas for further work.
The atmosphere was excellent and every participant found the workshop to be positive, constructive and enjoyable. The environment fostered honest and open discussions in which participants felt able to share an unvarnished version of their experience and their hopes for the onward development of university-community collaboration.
Many of the issues raised by each group were common to all. These included the structural challenges of preparing and completing projects within programme timeframes and how projects not only expanded the scope for traditional research but strengthened existing relationships between universities and communities.
Participants also discussed the emotional aspect of working on the projects and of collaborating with one another and with the wider publics. Specific stories were shared to illustrate these experiences.
Everyone discussed plans to continue working together, either on the current projects or on new ones, into 2018 (and beyond). These included ideas for making project outputs self-sustaining and for reaching audiences in schools. The group considered whether it would help if a collective effort could be made to perpetuate this work.
Among the positive outcomes was the production of valuable outputs. One researcher expressed delight at having been able to create ‘something tangible like the project booklet that is meaningful to “ordinary” people’. Furthermore, he said, ‘it’s fantastic that our information is being disseminated in this way.’
The nature of this dissemination, and the connection with the public, provided moments of significant impact. An example was discussed of a participant with a strong emotional reaction to the activity because of a direct family connection to the history being discussed. Accessing this history was a significant moment in her life.
The experience of co-production in a public environment was regarded as being very positive and offering great promise for further activity. A participant noted that they ‘have been able to link up the Afro-Caribbean and South Asian communities in a shared enterprise’ while another spoke of having established links with community groups (and potential new collaborative partners) in towns outside their own.
They also found it valuable to be part of the nationwide Engagement Centre programme. For them, the ‘relatively modest grant has been useful as a learning exercise and development opportunity’. In this, the Shared Experience Workshop was regarded as a ‘real highlight’ and evidence that cross-project communication and collaboration would add a significant new dimension to this work.
The nature of this collaborative work means that the outputs often fell outside the standard definitions and metrics used by universities and their regulatory, supervisory and funding bodies. The group noted the difficulties in trying to pin down the value of intangible outputs and making them meaningful to standard impact measures. ‘Large organisations can’t understand outputs like poetry, installations and so forth,’ claimed one participant. ‘We need to communicate the fact that there are ways other than traditional academic articles for creating and disseminating project outputs. This incompatibility creates pressure on researchers who are required by their departments to achieve particular scores in schemes such as Research Excellence Framework.
These sort of outputs ‘can be captured but not really measured’ and, overall, the difficulties in measuring were not considered a reason not to continue. ‘We were clearly trying to gather impact data during the project. The university has been quite supportive of our approach’ said one academic participant.
Nevertheless, these ‘intangible and difficult-to-measure’ outputs had significant and noticeable effects on the impact of each project. The group discussed the ‘hidden impact of hidden histories’ and noted that some projects have more ‘impact opportunities’ than others.
For one project, this worked well. ‘Our booklet output was the right fit for the community audience.’ The researchers had gathered anecdotal information about the impact that it had had on the public participants in the project. ‘People approached [the project leads] to say how emotional they had found it’.
For another project, a significant, if intangible impact, came from setting up a community group with an academic historian who really challenged them. The community group expressed their delight at this opportunity which enabled them to improve their work.
Overall, the group enjoyed the workshop and found it useful. One participant commented that it was ‘inspirational to listen to the other projects and to hear how everybody got on’. The group also considered the question of whether this sort of combined meeting would have been better at the beginning of the project work (in addition to this completion meeting) and suggested that it would have been ‘interesting to see other people’s proposals’. One participant floated the idea of an even earlier meeting, ‘at the point we were preparing our bid’. This, they suggested, could have prompted inter-project co-ordination, even collaboration.
Meeting and reflecting after the grants have been awarded, whether at the commencement or conclusion of the actual projects, is somewhat selective. It was noted that ‘there’s a certain survivor bias’ in this approach. ‘We’re only looking at the projects that were funded and were completed. It would be interesting to review the projects that didn’t happen.’
Future programmed grant schemes might benefit from operating an initial ‘sandpit event’, at which prospective project leads develop their ideas in a collaborative way before submitting for consideration. The purpose of such an event would be to hone project ideas but it would be possible to include a reflective data capture element too, perhaps with a nominated reviewer employed for this purpose. It’s an interesting idea and suggestive of the hopes for even stronger collaborations in future.
Michael Noble is from the University of Nottingham’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded Hidden Histories Engagement Centre.
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- Dr Mark Jackson (Newcastle) introduces his work on the Gertrude Bell archive