Meet the rebellious researchers embracing rap, magic and circus acts | Research

Hip-hop poetry, magic and circus acts should be embraced by academics to make their work more effective and help them spread their findings among a wider audience, according to researchers calling for a “rebellion” against traditional forms of output.

The group, which includes academics from the UK, Europe and Australia, is publishing a book that sets out how researchers can “rise up and rebel” against the conventions of higher education which make speaking at academic conferences and publishing articles in scholarly journals the main methods of disseminating research.

The case studies in the book – Doing Rebellious Research in and Beyond the Academy, to be launched on Monday – include a University of Cambridge researcher who created podcasts to collect material on how students were affected by Covid and released an album of the results on Spotify . Slam poetry recitals were also used by academics to discuss young people’s experiences of social injustice, and high-wire circus acts employed to explore risk-taking and collaboration.

Prof Pamela Burnard, one of the co-editors of the book, said there was an urgent need for academics to communicate more clearly and “be more engaging, more fascinating and more impactful”, or risk being drowned out by the cacophony of modern media .

“I’ve got colleagues who don’t come to research seminars, because they just want to sit in their silo in research and just do what they’ve always done; they haven’t had to get out into the real world solving real-world problems,” Burnard said.

“It’s actually about more than just reaching a wider group and selling more copies. It’s about putting forward new knowledge and new ways of knowing and, in doing that, actually relate to new solutions to societal problems. Why can’t academics speak to people who haven’t got a degree?”

Burnard points to one of the book’s case studies, the rap artist and educator Breis, who runs workshops on creating verse and improving literacy skills through hip-hop.

“Through the art of rap and movement, I was able to engage with hard-to-reach students. I got them creating raps around different topics,” Breis writes. This led to the students producing anthologies, music videos and performances that were a “huge success” with the children as well as their teachers and parents.

Another example in the book is the Academy of Magic and Science, created by staff at the University of Cambridge and Judge Business School. Its magic shows introduces audiences to connections between diverse subjects such as engineering and psychology, and aim “to provoke curiosity and surprise” when presenting research.

Similarly, Stockholm University of the Arts uses its Department of Circus to test human ability and self-control, and to study teamwork in high-risk environments.

Simone Eringfeld, from the University of Cambridge, said she sought out non-traditional methods of presenting her research as she gathered evidence from students about their experiences of higher education during the Covid pandemic.

Eringfeld created a podcast that attracted listeners and guests, and then used their data and testimony in poetry that she put to music and released as an album on Spotify, culminating in a tour to universities.

“I wanted to reach audiences within and beyond academia. And by podcasting and with the album I produced, I was able to reach people who otherwise would not be reading journal articles,” Eringfeld said.

“Tracks from the album, for instance, were played by the BBC and places like that. I suddenly have a lot of people showing interest in this work. They’re just not reading a journal article. That’s a very limited way of putting out research results because it’s only read by fellow academics. And this project was meant for a much bigger audience.

“I had collected all these interviews, and people had spoken about their feelings, about their experiences during the pandemic – often in very emotional conversations. But when you transcribe it into written text, you lose a lot of the knowledge that is embedded in how we use our voices.

“If you just read something, you don’t hear how someone is speaking those words, if they’re hesitating, if they’re silenced, if they’re angry, if they’re joking – you miss out on a lot of those layers.”

The research alternatives are currently in action

  • “Research dabbling” is a technique used by Draw (Departing Radically in Academic Writing) in Australia, where students postgraduate summarise their theseis in 100 words of stream-of-consciousness. Students say it helps them make their work “more human” and focus on why they wanted to do the research in the first place.

  • Helen Johnson, a psychologist at the University of Brighton’s Center for Arts and Wellbeing, uses slam poetry and spoken word art to help marginalized young people talk openly about their experience of social injustice. She says that poetry can be used to challenge established notions “of what research and knowledge look like”.

  • Cambridge’s Academy of Magic and Science is supported by the International Federation of Magic Societies. It aims to “innovate science outreach” by using magic as the springboard for learning about everything from chemistry and electronics to physiology and psychology, and helping people discover the scientific principles behind perceptions and biases.

  • Finland’s Hallå Steam program introduces students to the French mathematician Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis and the Swedish scientist Anders Celsius via a “performative recasting of history, science, art, language and education”. It explores the discoveries that resulted from their 18th-century expedition to Lapland, including Celsius’s experiments for a new thermometer and Maupertuis’s efforts to prove the shape of the Earth.