This month we launch a special collection in Slavic Studies at Modern Languages Open, comprising of six short essays and three critical-creative pieces. Victoria Donovan, James Rann, and Darya Tsymbalyuk, who guest edited the collection, explain how it came about and what it aims to achieve. The collection emerges from the British Academy-funded workshop “Slavic Studies Goes Public: Creating an ECR Network for the Public Humanities” that took place at the University of St Andrews on 23-24 January 2020.
Public engagement, impact, and knowledge exchange are concepts that today feature prominently on research agendas across the UK. Yet, despite the sector-wide emphasis on the importance of these practices and thoughtful work in this area by both academics and administrators, there remains work to be done in articulating what exactly constitutes engagement, the politics and practicalities of building collaborations, and of the ethics of conducting such work, particularly in explicitly transnational fields like Modern Languages and Area Studies.
This special collection showcases the innovative public engagement work ongoing in the interdisciplinary field known as Slavic Studies, but also provides a space for self-reflection, institutional criticism, and the expression of dissent. In order to facilitate these conversations, the contributions are structured around a series of questions relating to the theory and practice of engagement work: What institutional factors and politics inform and determine the “who” of our public engagement work? How can the us/them dichotomy be rethought and with it the idea of “giving voice” to “voiceless” communities? How can those leading projects be sure that the legacy or change is desired by or necessary for the communities engaged? When does engagement end? When should it never have begun? Rather than close down these important discussions, we intend this series to form a point of departure, engendering further conversations, collaborations, and creativity on the public engagement theme.
From deep in Lockdown Three, our British Academy-funded workshop, hosted at the University of St Andrews in January 2019, now seems like an academic fever dream. Is it possible that twenty or so Slavic Studies Early Career Researchers travelled from all over the globe to gather in a tiny taxidermy museum for two days and talk about the ethics of public engagement? Was that me standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a colleague from Ukraine clapping hands and grinning while Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey talked about the Socialities of Music Making? Will there ever be another opportunity to wander aimlessly around a botanical glass house with a group of colleagues chatting about subjects as diverse as conducting research on LGBT+ sexualities in Chechnya and blind interviews for trombonists at the Royal National Orchestra? Honestly, I can’t think about this workshop for too long: the improbability of it ever being repeated at the moment is so remote as to be painful!
What we can and have done in our lockdown times, however, is to work with this improbably talented and dynamic group of individuals to bring to you a collection of diverse and engaging materials reflecting on the questions at the centre of our
fever dream workshop. These included, but were by no means limited to the following: What institutional factors and politics inform and determine the “who” of our public engagement work? How can the us/them dichotomy be rethought and with it the idea of “giving voice” to “voiceless” communities? How can those leading projects be sure that the legacy or change is desired by or necessary for the communities engaged? When does engagement end? When should it never have begun? In the spirit of our event, which showcased the range of idioms (aside from the traditionally academic) that can be used to communicate research to diverse audiences, we did not limit ourselves to text when responding to these questions.
Our collection includes textual essays, but also a video essay, a visual essay, and an essay-conversation, all of which reflect the ethics of collaboration and the innovation and challenges that this work entails. We have also had the pleasure of producing a series of podcasts, now available on iTunes, in which we have revisited some of these same questions with the participants at our event. Listening to and laughing with them over Zoom has been a highlight in the bleak and monotonous landscape of COVID-era academic life.
Slavic Studies Goes Public is a public humanities network and, with this series, we invite potential new members to get in touch, to join our conversations, and to bring their expertise and experience to bear on our work. There is now more than ever a need for knowledge exchange and support networks around projects in the field that aim to work constructively with broader communities. In February 2021, Russian scientists and academics took to the streets to protest an amendment to the law on education that would require researchers and educators to get permission from the state authorities to do public outreach work; meanwhile, in Ukraine, tensions around Russian aggression in Donbas have made it increasingly difficult to have constructive conversations, let alone collaborate with colleagues across the Eastern border; the UK has also seen dramatic recent shifts to its funding landscape, including the government’s slashing of ODA-related research budgets, putting the future many cross-border collaborative projects in jeopardy. Now more than ever we need to keep having conversations with trusted colleagues and partners, across borders, disciplines and sectors, and affirming the relevance of our research beyond the limits of the academy.
To view the Slavic Studies collection, please visit Modern Languages Open.