How becoming a New Generation Thinker made me a better academic

Dr Will Abberley is Senior Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Sussex and was a New Generation Thinker in 2014. He has gone on to be part of the research team on the AHRC-funded Land Lines nature writing project and worked with the AHRC to find the UK’s favourite nature writing book.

He describes what it was like for him to apply to become a New Generation Thinker (or NGT) and how the scheme has changed his career, and his ways of thinking (Click here for more info on becoming an NGT). 

When I heard about the NGT scheme I had just started a post doc and was in that classic insecure phase of an academic career. I listened to some of the content that NGTs had made for Radio 3 and felt inspired; applying just seemed like the right thing to do.

Will Abberley

Before I did my PhD I had worked on news broadcasts for a local radio station, and I’d been looking for a way to combine my academic and media careers. The NGT scheme seemed perfect. I wanted to find ways to talk to people who weren’t up in our academic ivory towers; I strongly believe that as academics this is something that we should do.

Media work can seem very opaque – it’s not always easy to see how you translate an academic career into a media career and there are not many places where you can learn, apart from NGT.

Everyone I met seemed great and very bright. I didn’t hold out much hope that I would get through, but I did. I think my previous media work must have helped give me a bit of an edge, because I already had some experience of how to write for the media in an accessible way.

It’s not only good for us as academics in that it helps disseminate our research, I think it also makes us better academics as well.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about the natural world and how we humans look at it; we tend to look at living things as machines and I wanted to ask the question: what if they function more like interpreters looking for signs in the world around them like humans do?

The whole debate around this issue is usually couched in dense philosophical jargon. But having to strip all that out forced me to go back to first principles. I think jargon can sometimes be a way of hiding and glossing over complexities in research and getting rid of it all is hugely liberating.

I wouldn’t say it changed my mind, as such. But it did make me focus and find new ways to express myself. I’ve been able to abstract from the very technical conversation and find a more accessible way to discuss these complex issues.

I’ve learned such a lot. Particularly when making longer documentaries, which I found very challenging. There’s always the temptation to turn what you are doing into a lecture – which is exactly what it shouldn’t be!

As an academic, I’m always trying to be objective and serious – I would never put myself in my research. But of course as a broadcaster that’s exactly what you should be doing.

One of the programmes I really enjoyed was the Proms Extra on HG Wells. I was chairing the debate, and on the programme was an HG Wells expert and a novelist who had written a sequel to War of the Worlds. It just seemed the perfect mix of academic rigour and accessible conversation. And it happened in front of a live audience, which gave it all a very nice atmosphere.

As an NGT, you can find yourself working on all sorts of programmes. A few years ago a film came out called Black Sea, which starred Jude Law and was a disaster thriller about a submarine. I suddenly found myself thinking about how many films there were set on submarines, and realised it was a genre in itself.

I approached the editor and said: ‘how about a programme on submarine films.’ And he said ‘yes’. So off we went. It wasn’t my specialist subject, but I read up on it and it was a fascinating programme to make. I think it’s important to remember that you can do things beyond your PhD. You can be a generalist.

Being an NGT is a brilliant prestige thing to have on your C.V. I was doing post doc when I applied and I’m now a senior lecturer with a permanent position. I’m sure that all my broadcasting work, public engagement and impact was instrumental in getting me that job. Impact is highly regarded these days; people look for it when they are recruiting.

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