Picturing Gertrude Bell

How do you translate images and stories to open them up to new audiences without losing their meaning? Early Career Researchers Lydia Wysocki and Sana Al-Naimi talk with Dr Eve Forrest about their recent work on an ESRC IAA project translating the archive-based comics ‘Gertrude Bell: Archaeologist, Writer, Explorer’

EF: Can you tell me a bit more about the original research project?

LW: The research began as an educational project aimed to support younger historians access the digitised Gertrude Bell archive (recognised by UNESCO as of global significance, and with a strong contemporary resonance). This new approach to archives, education and webcomics was achieved by our interdisciplinary team including cartoonist John Miers, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology Mark Jackson, and web designer Brittany Coxon, who worked with us and the Young Archaeologists’ Club (YAC) to develop a series of seven online comics that tell episodes in the life of Gertrude Bell. The images and words in the comics were developed from primary source material in Special Collections.

Excerpt from Gertrude Bell comic online (all © John Miers and the Gertrude Bell comics project)

EF: How did the impact project begin?

LW: After we had done the first part of the research project and published the comics online, we saw that YAC members found the website intuitive to use and clicked through to digitised archive photographs, but tended not to click on links to transcribed text. When the archive was digitised 20 years ago it was aimed at academic researchers, so it’s not surprising that it’s less appealing to general interest readers.  Looking at web analytics we also saw that quite a bit of web traffic to the site was coming from Turkey and from Arabic speaking countries.  We realised that we had a great base with the comics but could do more to enable more young people in the UK and internationally to become interested in history and primary archival material through the comics, particularly given the complex issues that these comics begin to address.

SA-N: I joined the project at this stage of translating from English to Arabic, working with Saziye Tasdemir who was translating from English to Turkish. It was great to read the comics as accessible snapshots of complex material that I was already familiar with from working with the Bell archive for my PhD thesis about Gertrude Bell’s influence on architecture and urbanism in twentieth century Iraq. I knew it was a rich source of visual and verbal primary sources with potential to be more widely used, but also knew that there would be particular cultural sensitivities to address as part of this translation process. As an archaeologist and academic lead for the Bell archive Mark had already highlighted sources that are real treasures of the archive, and I was able to add to this with a focus on the architecture and culture of Iraq.

Gertrude Bell webpage (all © John Miers and the Gertrude Bell comics project)

EF: Certain things can often be ‘lost in translation’ did you find the same thing with the comics?

SA-N: Translating will always be a challenge, particularly around areas of cultural sensitivity. Gertrude Bell was an extraordinary but also contentious figure. She was unusual as a woman of power in the Middle East, she was fluent in Arabic and worked for the preservation of antiquities, however this was still within the framework of colonialism and the British Empire. When we were translating the comics for this new audience we had to keep that in mind.  There was also more practical changes to make. For example each comic had to be flipped to read right to left in Arabic rather than left to right in English:  but as an architect, I knew it was essential that iconic buildings were still drawn accurately not as mirror images.

LW: Working with the original cartoonist John Miers and with Sara Qaed as the Arabic-speaking cartoonist relettering the comics has been a positive process. These comics are complex texts in their own right with speech bubbles, thought bubbles, diary extracts, letters, and narrative voiceovers – so working with John and Sara as experienced comics creators to ensure that the reading order within the comics still makes sense is just as important as the innovation of using hyperlinks to show the original archive content in context.

Excerpts from the Gertrude Bell comics with the popup/hyperlinked archive content (all © John Miers and the Gertrude Bell comics project)

EF: The project was only for a year, what are the other areas you would like to develop in the future?

SA-N: There are more stories to tell, particularly around Bell’s role in the founding of Iraq as a country and her influential 1920 White Paper ‘Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia’. There’s potential to make this visually really interesting, which is great for our interdisciplinary team. Mark Jackson and I were discussing links between the Lowthian Bell family’s patronage of Arts and Crafts artists in the UK, and Bell’s interest in the the geometric and symbolic styles of art and architecture in the Middle East at that time. It’s great to work with John as an artist who picks up on these visual references, and we’re all excited to see how this imagery comes through in the new comics we’re working on.

LW: This project is still ongoing really and is complex in terms of time and resources, as well as the translation in itself. There were a number of useful things we learned in the process that we could map to other archives, particularly when thinking of new users accessing archives as well as the translation of resources too.  For example there is huge potential in this work being developed as part of the curriculum and into richer educational resources, and we’re working with student intern Brad Lloyd to develop resources for A-level students undertaking independent study so there is a great potential new audience there. Brad joined the project as an A level student applying to study Archaeology here at Newcastle University: he is now starting his Archaeology degree here, so it’s a benefit to our project to work with someone at that transition stage, and hopefully a benefit to Brad too in building his CV. Comics are also a unique and innovative way to explore archives and artefacts, particularly here in using web comics with hyperlinked online archives. Overall we’ve had encouraging feedback from readers so far and want to continue making resources that help a range of readers around the world access the Bell archive and explore the significance of this history.

All the Gertrude Bell comics can be found here  

Finding out about Girl Kind

Dr Sarah Winkler-Reid’s Girl-Kind project at Newcastle University was featured by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) last week, as a brilliant example of how an impact project can develop over time. This is a reblog of the original article found here. For more on the Girl-Kind project and for updates see their website here

Young people in the North today are proud of where they from and proud to be Northern, shows research from the Children’s Commissioner for England. At the same time, many are growing up in communities of entrenched disadvantage. In relation to girls, the 2016 report The State of Girls’ Rights in the UK by Plan International UK found that ‘a girl’s location is critical’ across many different aspects of her life, including opportunities and access to resources.

The Girl-Kind North East project was launched in response to these findings, which identified North East England as the ‘worst place to be a girl’ – based on indicators such as child poverty, female life expectancy, teenage pregnancy, GCSE grades and whether girls were in education, employment or training. The project creates a space for girls themselves to explore these contradictions, without imposing assumptions about what these statistics tell us about their own experiences.

The project is led by Dr Sarah Winkler-Reid, a Lecturer in Social Anthropology at Newcastle University, and Dr Sarah Ralph, a Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Northumbria University. Both conduct research on girls’ lives and growing up in Britain, and have drawn on this work to develop Girl-Kind. Sarah Winkler-Reid’s ethnographic research in a London school explores young people’s everyday lives and relationships in school, while Sarah Ralph explores how media is used in everyday social interactions. Despite stereotypical media representations of girls as passive and unthinking, both these studies encountered girls as active, skilled and critical individuals.

A pessimistic and moralist tone pervades media representations of contemporary girls. However, the girls we have encountered through our previous research and through Girl-Kind are thoughtful, critical and reflective about both their own lives and how news and fictional media represents them (Sarah Winkler-Reid)

Working with groups of girls aged 11-16 from schools across the North East, the Girl-Kind project creates a space for girls to explore their own selves, relationships and contemporary representations of girlhood, with workshops leading up to UN’s International Day of the Girl Child in October. An initial workshop focuses on the challenges and opportunities of growing up as a girl in the North East. The participants choose a particular focus theme and produce creative outputs and performances that are showcased on the International Day to family members, friends, invited dignitaries, and members of the public.

With funding from an ESRC-funded Impact Acceleration Account (IAA), the pilot project in 2017 was carried out with Year 10 students at two schools in Newcastle and South Shields. The project expanded through follow-on ESRC IAA funding in 2018 with five further schools, in North Tyneside, County Durham and Teesside. It will run for the third time in 2019 in ten schools across the North East.

“We are constantly in awe of way girls are able to articulate their experiences and their righteous sense of injustice. They have devised so many fantastic, creative and distinctive ways to express these,” adds Dr Winkler-Reid. “The International Day of the Girl offers a dedicated day for them to revel in the brilliance of being a girl from the North East. Our event is a celebration for the girls, as well as opportunity for the audience to learn about what it means to be growing up as a girl today.”

Impact from critical research: what might it look like and what support is required?

Ahead of REF 2021, Ruth Machen considers what impact from critical research could look like and how assessment frameworks could support, rather than squeeze out, space for critical research. Four modes of critical research impact are outlined: challenging policy; empowering resistances; platforming voices; and nurturing new critical publics. Note that this was originally published on the LSE Impact Blog

Critical research is often impassioned by a desire for social change. Yet as research that challenges the status quo – by unpacking the socio-historical contingency of meanings and exposing the reproduction of structural inequalities of power – critical research often faces a more challenging pathway to impact. As demands for demonstrating impact are increasingly woven throughout the funding and institutional architectures of higher education, Smith and Stewart are not alone in raising concerns that the impact agenda could adversely affect critical and blue-skies research, favouring instead research that lends itself more easily to societal uptake.

With the draft guidelines for REF2021 open for consultation, now, perhaps more than ever, is a good moment to think about what impact from critical research could look like. And how assessment frameworks could support, rather than squeeze out, space for critical research. To this end, this post outlines four modes of critical research impact: challenging policy; empowering resistances; platforming voices; and nurturing new critical publics.

Research impact: to engage or not?

Anxiety around the impact agenda arises from the increasing instrumentalisation of knowledge, the corporatisation of UK higher education, and the relationship between assessment metrics and neoliberalism (Pain et al. 2011, Pain 2014, Gregson et al. 2012, Olssen 2015). As well as fears that impact will prioritise certain kinds of knowledge, there are also concerns it rewards particular types of researcher; academic elites with established reputations and influential networks rather than early-career or international researchers (Smith and Stewart 2016). These are vitally important concerns. Yet some scholars also identify opportunities for “doing impact differently”. Participatory Action Research (PAR) had delivered social benefits through collaboration with non-academic partners long before research impact became instrumentalised within academic assessments (Pain et al. 2011). Pain in particular seeks to reclaim impact as “walking together”, rather than “striking a blow” (2014; see also Evans 2016). Likewise, Reed and Chubb suggest that impact is a provocation to reconsider our intrinsic motivations for research and epistemic responsibilities. Re-engaging with these, they argue, incentivises impact without research becoming driven by external incentives (Reed and Chubb 2018). Perhaps there is merit in heeding Back’s argument that, as soon as someone suggests “this would make a good impact case study”, we should be alert to how our attention is being directed. However, does pursuing impact necessarily put us, as Back (2015) suggests, “on the side of the powerful”?

Exempting Laing et al’s recent work in education (2018), there is a strange silence around what impact in critical research might look like beyond PAR. Suggestions that not all research, and not all researchers, need to realise impact open space for critical research only through exception, negation, or omission. Instead, building from Pain et al.’s emphasis on the “political imperative to restate the kind of academy in which we want to work” (2011:187), I focus on how impact might be pursued in ways that support and enrich critical agendas.

What might critical research impact look like?

A review of the REF2014 impact case studies yields the following simple typology, which might provide a useful starting point:

 Figure 1: four possible modes of critical research impact

Mode 1: Challenging policy

The UK Government Magenta Book – the UK Government’s guidance for policy evaluation – in principle endorses the need for critical approaches that unpack assumptions underlying policy and analyses. Confronting mainstream policy head-on could involve policy amendments by highlighting the implications of existing policies on particular underrepresented groups, geographies, or concerns. More transformative policy change is likely to involve election manifesto writers and/or targeted social pressure rather than consultations within existing policy cycles.

Mode 2: Empowering resistance

Greater traction around critical research findings is sometimes found amongst activist organisations with a degree of policy standing. For these organisations, research, or the connections it articulates, may help to strengthen their discursive position or alternative vision.

Mode 3: Platforming voices

This mode is typified by PAR, where working with marginalised communities often co-produces research questions around non-academic challenges, foregrounds and empowers underrepresented voices, and sometimes challenges participant narratives through deliberation (see Roberts and Escobar’s work on citizen juries).

Mode 4: Nurturing new critical publics

Critical research can inspire new critically engaged citizens. Gregson et al. (2012) argue that engaging with schools can “reclaim critical praxis and constitute new critical subjects”. With rapidly developing digital technologies and the growing role of social media in generating critical publics, there are opportunities to think about new forms of media through which critical publics become fashioned, politically engaged, and/or mobilised.

Recommendations for supporting critical research impact

To support and encourage critical forms of research in the pursuit of societal change, assessments of research impact should bear in mind the following:

  1. Direct policy citation of critical research is rare. Change is more likely through political ownership of ideas, and what Pain et al. have called a “more diverse and porous series of smaller transformative actions that arise through changed understanding among all of those involved” (2011: 187). Retaining a strong focus on narratives in impact assessment and recognising the role played by relationships are both important.
  2. Changing the terms of debate is difficult and slow, with quick wins unlikely. Critical research impact may require longer timeframes to develop, materialising outside or cross-cutting assessment periods.
  3. Marginal/alternative organisations may be smaller and/or more local in reach. Assessing significance and reach together helps to prevent reach from dominating.

The typology presented here is basic, provisional, and by no means exhaustive. Its goal is to prompt debate and expand possibilities for thinking about critical research impact. With similar conversations reportedly held at Open (2013), Bristol (2013), and Glasgow (2015) universities, it would be great to hear more about these discussion findings – especially in thinking through forms of impact beyond policy

Ruth Machen is a Research Fellow at Newcastle University. Her research on science-policy interaction focuses on environmental knowledge where her recent work takes a critical look at science-policy translation – Towards a Critical Politics of Translation


What use is academia for small businesses and community interest companies?

Please note that this post has been re-blogged from the original, first published on the LSE Impact Blog  

Pressures to demonstrate the impact of research has led to increasing numbers of academics looking beyond their peers for new audiences for their research findings, including to small businesses and community interest companies. But how can academia be of use to these groups? Emily Rainsford, LJ Rawlings, Lauren Mistry and Eve Forrest share reflections on a successful collaboration and skills exchange between a social sciences researcher and community interest company Youth Employment UK, with perspectives from academic, community interest company, and funder.

What use is academia for small businesses and community interest companies? Both within and outside of academia, this question is becoming more and more relevant. Pressures to demonstrate the impact of research has led to increasing numbers of academics looking beyond their annual conferences and workshops for new audiences for their research findings, audiences who may or may not prove receptive.

This post provides three perspectives reflecting on a successful collaboration, funded by the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA), between Youth Employment UK, a community interest company (i.e. social enterprise), and Dr Emily Rainsford, a research associate in the politics department at Newcastle University.

Emily was seconded to Youth Employment UK for a skills exchange as part of the ESRC secondment scheme, which targets social scientists to collaborate with businesses around the industrial strategy – not necessarily as natural a match as in other fields. Below, all parties – academic, business, and funder – share their reflections on why this collaboration proved to be a success. Rather than a prescriptive account of how to undertake such work, this post is instead a reflection on the development of the relationships involved.

Emily Rainsford – the academic

At the time I saw the call for the ESRC IAA secondment, I didn’t know much about Youth Employment UK, other than they were the secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Youth Employment. The call was focused on early-career researchers looking to foster a skills exchange with business.  I was initially taken aback by the criteria: as someone from the social sciences, and politics in particular, working with a business doesn’t feel like a natural match!

I realised the main skills I have to offer are research skills and expertise, so I approached Youth Employment UK with the offer of a methods workshop in exchange for being shown the ropes of the policy domain. Luckily this was exactly what they wanted, to become more authoritative with data and research but lacking the skills or capacity at that particular time. Having that clearly formulated mutual benefit at the outset was key to the success of our collaboration.

My research is on the role of family in pathways to youth employment, so clearly of relevance to young people, their families, and society. My main motivation for applying for the IAA money and working with Youth Employment UK is I care about what I’m researching and am determined to share the knowledge created with those who are affected by it, and those with the power to make a difference. Youth Employment UK is a key player in this field and so seemed a fitting partner with whom to develop effective pathways to impact. In addition to a wide-ranging membership, including all sizes of businesses, charities, youth organisations, and young people, they work with civil servants and politicians and run the APPG.

It was clear from the beginning that we had complementary skills, knowledge, and contacts. Early on I visited their office in Kettering to deliver the methods training, while we also spent a day planning our report. That initial, face-to-face, intensive meeting was really valuable in establishing trust and understanding. The methods training has been one of the main impacts on Youth Employment UK, as they have now started their own data collection. In exchange, I’ve gained some invaluable contacts and new avenues through which to disseminate my research – from national organisations delivering employment programmes, to businesses like Pret, as well as charities like the Saints Foundation. I’ve also been given access to their political networks and now represent them on the European Social Fund’s national sub-committee on employment, skills, and social inclusion. I’m due to speak at the APPG on Youth Employment in London in September.

LJ Rawlings and Lauren Mistry, Youth Employment UK – the small business and community interest company

Youth Employment UK champions the voice of youth. Founded in 2012, we work tirelessly to ensure young people have a view on the issues that matter. While we have worked with young people on a national scale, albeit in smaller focus groups, larger pieces of research have proved beyond our capacity. Despite this, an ambition of ours is to become an authoritative research voice, and so collaborating with Emily has helped us make vital progress towards this goal.

While we enter into collaborative partnerships frequently, this type of skills exchange wasn’t something we had any knowledge or experience of before. But we certainly found it a valuable and enjoyable learning and development opportunity. The senior leadership team received thorough training in the research process and, with Emily’s support, could subsequently plan impact and evaluation measures of our existing programmes. We have been able to put some of this learning into practise when planning and designing our Youth Voice Census, and gaining this extra capacity and experience sets us up for more ambitious research projects. The new skills will not only enable us to improve our programmes, but also potentially attract more or different funding in future. The training has also made us better critical thinkers, more able to interrogate the big data and statistics we use frequently, such as the Labour Force survey. Too often previously we would be confined to what we thought we knew, repeating the same stats and information.

We take away two important lessons from this collaboration. Firstly, it is important to manage expectations and clearly understand the resources your business will need to allocate from the start. You’re not hiring someone to undertake work for you; it’s a project that demands equal collaboration. Secondly, embrace working with academics and universities. The business sector and social scientists don’t always engage with one another but there is certainly potential for fruitful collaborations.

Eve Forrest, ESRC IAA Officer at Newcastle University – the funder

Of the many successful ESRC IAA projects and secondments we have funded, a number of common underpinning factors can be noted. Good relationships take time to develop and often begin before projects have even been conceived. Whether through chance encounters at sector-specific events or working through ideas at targeted workshops, collaborations frequently start softly. I would always recommend that people, regardless of the sector they’re in, are open to networking opportunities in their own and related fields. These networks can be a great source of – and sounding board for – new ideas.

Also crucial is to bring partners into the project at the earliest opportunity. Irrespective of whether or not the work ends up bearing fruit, partners appreciate the chance to contribute to the process and indicate what support they can offer, which is frequently more than you might expect. To encourage pre-submission discussions, we ask IAA applicants for confirmation that all partners involved have had oversight of the application. We’ve found that co-production applications that have been discussed at length with partners beforehand are stronger and more nuanced in the impact they deliver.

Another key success factor is making clear partners’ mutually beneficial outcomes, as LJ and Emily have outlined. At the beginning of any project, researchers should consider things from the perspective of their collaborators. How much time will realistically be required? What are the advantages of being a part of the work? What are the tangible benefits of involvement? This needn’t necessarily be focused on monetary gains – is there any part of the project they could shape an approach to, or offer insight to others? Is there any help you could give them in return for in-kind support? Being mindful of these advantages can help a project have a lasting legacy.

Of course, you can’t beat good, old-fashioned chemistry and if you get on with a collaborator right away, the rest will come naturally, as it did with Emily and LJ’s project. Yet all strong relationships must start from somewhere. Whether through a chance meeting or a more targeted approach you should always expect the unexpected with any collaboration, but start slowly and it might blossom into something beautiful.

The final report on this project, “The Role of Family in Social Mobilityis available for download from the Youth Employment UK website.

About the authors

Emily Rainsford is a research associate in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University. She has been working on the CUPESSE project looking at the role of family in young people’s pathways to employment and achievement of economic self-sufficiency. She has long been involved in various impact and outreach related activities relating to young people but also an internship in the Cabinet Office, and occasionally tweets at @EmilyRainsford.

Laura-Jane Rawlings is Founder and CEO of Youth Employment UK. She is a passionate campaigner for youth employment and for the rights for all young people to access employment and have their voices heard on the issues that affect them. Recognised as a leading youth employment expert, Laura-Jane provides support, insight, and expertise to many groups such as the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education and Youth Employment, the Education and Skills sub-committee, and sits on the steering group for the Cabinet Office Inclusive Economy Partnership for Youth Employment. She also sits on two ESF National sub-committees: Employment, Skills and Social Inclusion, and Equality and Diversity. Laura-Jane has also worked on consultative projects with organisations such as the Cambridge Local Authority, Northamptonshire Learning Partnership, Chilled Food Association, OCR, Plotr, PiXL, and the National Citizen Service.

Lauren Mistry is Communications and Operations Director at Youth Employment UK. She oversees the organisation’s operations and content management, ensuring that information shared with young people meets their needs. Lauren led the redesign of the Youth Employment UK site and manages the extensive content plan, campaigns, and messaging. She has led key research projects as part of her role, exploring employability skills in the 2017 literature review, supporting on the Role of the Family in Social Mobility report published in 2018, and is leading on the Youth Voice Census research. Most recently Lauren has joined the IEP West Midlands Pilot project to lend her support and expertise.

Eve Forrest manages the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) at Newcastle University and is based within the Impact team in the Faculty for Humanities and Social Science. She has an interest in widening engagement and awareness of social science research with various local and national partners. Her research interests include embodiment and everyday technology practices with particular focus on photography and blogging.