The Journey to becoming a New Generation Thinker

In February this year, Dr Michael Talbot – along with nine other academics with a talent for communication – became an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker. In this week’s blog Michael describes his journey to becoming part of the next generation of Arts and Humanities broadcasters.

One sunny September afternoon, I was sitting at my desk, quietly getting on with some beginning of term admin, when my office-mate, Dr Sara Pennell, got my attention by dramatically moving her head into my line-of-sight.

‘Have you thought of applying for the New Generation Thinkers scheme?’ she asked. ‘The deadline’s really soon – you should go for it!’

Now, in all honesty, I’d never heard of the scheme before, but if there’s one thing I love, it’s bringing my subject – Ottoman and Middle Eastern history – to a wider audience. So, with the encouragement of my colleagues, I set about writing the application.

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The first thing to do was to decide what aspect of my research I might want to talk about, which had to be written up as a programme proposal aimed at a non-academic audience. I’d recently had an article published on Ottoman legal and military responses to piracy and privateering in the 18th century, and that subject seemed to have enough wider relevance – and interesting stories – to fit the bill.

With a limit of 2,000 characters – 300 words or so – I spent a good few hours drafting, redrafting, and, perhaps most importantly, reading it out loud. It was important to avoid jargon, but not to dumb it down. It was also a chance be a bit more creative in terms of writing style; quite refreshing if, like me, you’re often frustrated with the constraints of formal academic writing.

The second major part of the application was to write a review of a film, book, or exhibition, penned as if it were to be read on the radio as a short essay. I spent a good deal of time listening to shows featuring previous years’ New Generation Thinkers, and a fairly random selection of episodes of BBC Radio 3’s The Essay.

One episode that ended up inspiring me was Andrew Martin’s lovely piece on the dying art of ventriloquism. One of the highlights of a recent holiday to the Baltic had been a visit to the Toy Museum in Tartu, Estonia, so, I decided to write my review – 250 words – on an exhibition we’d seen there on toys and society in Estonia in the 1990s. It had to be creative, engaging, and with a clear perspective. Again, reading it out loud was massively helpful.

I managed to get the application in on time, and thought no more about it as I got stuck in with a new year of teaching. Then, in mid-December, I got a genuinely unexpected email inviting me to one of the selection workshops in London.

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After doing a little dance, I set about thinking about the homework we’d been given to prepare – a presentation of a programme idea, and a ‘discussion’ around a particular topic. For the discussion, I wrote down some ideas, but decided that on the day I wouldn’t use any notes – I knew what I wanted to say, and didn’t want to be too glued to my papers in the middle of a fast-paced discussion.

The mini presentation was fun and challenging to write, again allowing me to be creative. It was very clear from the instructions that we had to be bang on with timings, so I needed to do several redrafts and a lot of practice runs.

The day of the workshop itself was intense, but in the best way. My presentation was exactly to time, and I managed to chip in to all the discussions, and thoroughly enjoyed the  debate. Most importantly, everyone was lovely. It didn’t feel like an interview or a competition. I mainly remember having some really great conversations with fellow applicants, and with the AHRC and BBC teams. I learned so much on the day, and I think it’s a credit to the way it was organised and run that I came out thinking that even if I didn’t get through, the whole process had been worth it.

So, I guess the moral of all this is, apply! The New Generation Thinkers scheme has really made me think about how I communicate my work, and it’s had a positive impact in pretty much all areas of my academic life. And for anyone thinking of applying, feel free to get in touch by email or on Twitter if you’d like some advice on the process from an applicant’s perspective.

For more information on this years New Generation Thinkers scheme, visit the Arts and Humanities Research Council website here.

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