Bright Club More of a Dim and Ignorant End
I’m starting my blogging about the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference 2011 at the very end but because of that I want to start with a quick summary of my overall impressions. Firstly, I declare an interest in that I received a bursary to attend, and I am grateful to the BSA for funding my attendance, accommodation and travel expenses. I also need to mention that I’m gay (my reason for mentioning that will become clear).
This was a great conference, aimed at practitioners, and full of ideas for practitioners about how to engage with publics in different ways. The theme of the conference was Online Engagement, and there was a great range of many and varied sessions on different aspects of this issues, which is central to much of the fantastic work being done. There were some fantastic opportunities to network, and I would go so far as to say this was the most friendly conferences I have ever attended.
Indeed, one of the messages which I felt was most reinforced and important was the importance of understanding the audience for your work. For example, if you are engaging with people who are, in the parlance of the Public Attitude to Science Survey 2011 (about which more later), “Distrustful Engagers”, you need to approach communicating with them in different way than if communicating with, say “Late Adopters”.
Nobody felt the need to mention the importance of ensuring your message doesn’t have boundaries which exclude minority groups; this is, I would like to hope, because inclusiveness is such a core part of science communication that it proverbially doesn’t need to be said. However, its worth point out that all of the speakers that I saw were white, and all were middle aged, and although there was a good number of women (yay!), it’s hardly representative of wider society. Perhaps what happened next shouldn’t be a surprise.
The final “session” (I think perhaps “let your hair down at the end” might be a better description!) was a mini Bright Club. Bright Club is a stand up comedy session with “science-based” humour. The session we were in featured three comedians, one compering and two featured, and by general consensus of people in Hall Two was Jolly Funny. Now, I love comedy as much as anyone, and frankly the story of two fifteen year olds making napalm in the basement was hilarious (and I’ll bet the victims of napalm warfare would be prepared to admit it’s hilarious too), and also highly educational. If I ever need to cause fire-based mayhem, I now know the ingredients and will be well-prepared to burn pretty much anything (BTW, is this what is meant by science literacy?).
Unfortunately, I didn’t laugh along with everyone else. The reason was that I felt the compere had raised some barriers: subtle little assumptions that meant I felt slightly alienated. The compere (I couldn’t be bothered to remember his name) started by pointing out there was a seat between two very attractive young ladies, and inviting a man (any man) to fill the space. This itself is just cheap humour, trying to settle an audience but carries unspoken assumptions to which I do not subscribe.
- I personally think women should be valued for more than their looks. We were at a conference for science communication professionals. Perhaps a reference to an intellectual attribute might have been more appropriate?
- Not all men want to “sit next to women”. By which I mean, when you have sexualised a scenario, pointing out to a room of 100 or so people that you’d prefer to sit next to, say, two cute men feels uncomfortable.
- Conversely, not all women want to be sat next to by men; perhaps one or both of them would have preferred an attractive woman to sit there?
Now, this just meant that (as a gay man) I felt invisible. This sort of humour is only for men who like women, obviously. And that type of assumption winds me up.
The coup de grace was delivered by the second female comic, who delivered a routine about the utter hilarity of Picasso shagging his friends wives with the rib-busting hook of calling it “the fourth dimension” (and if that’s not comic gold, I don’t know what is). She wrapped it up by saying “Men, go home and find your fourth dimension. The woman in your life will appreciate it.”
First, the “woman” in my life is 6’7″ tall, has a penis and looks rubbish in a dress. Second, as far as I know women are allowed to initiate sexual contact with people people, so perhaps rather than relying on the convenient (hilarious) stereotype of women being passive and gratefully accepting pleasure from the male, it might be a woman wants to find her fourth dimension. Third, perhaps she wants to explore that with another woman, and not a man?
Normally, I’d just let this go over my head; after all we live in a heteronormative androcentric world in which it’s assumed that everyone is straight and that the archetypal human is male. Assumptions which form part of the everyday tapestry of life for myself and every other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered person, and for every woman. But this was at the end of a conference in which the desire to reach and engage with as many people as possible was espouse, dissected, rebuilt and promoted, and rightly so.
If Brightclub is intended to be a fun way of engaging with publics to inform them about science, and I can see that it could be a great informal way of bringing vaguely sciencey topics to a broad audience, it’s probably best not assume that everyone in the audience is heterosexual and subscribes to tired, old, inaccurate and ultimately demeaning stereotypes about normative behaviours. Again, this wasn’t intentional, but this failure to realise language can exclude people unintentionally is all too common. Where do gayers and women go for their dose of science humour when a careless word alienates them?
In the morning session, someone said “Identify the people who won’t like what you have to say: they’re not your audience.” The problem is, I am the sort of audience that shouldn’t be hard to reach, and I didn’t like what was said.
[edit: I put the points into the ordered list they were meant to be in and added an excerpt]
[edit 2: corrected Bright Club]