Bright Club: A Twitter Chat with Dr Martin Austwick

After posting my initial post on the Bright Club, Dr Martin Austwick (@sociablephysics) and I had a conversation on Twitter in response to my post. I’ve got his permission to post a transcript of the conversation as I think it allows both “sides” to explore what the other “side” intended. As you can see, it turns out there wasn’t a huge amount of disagreement, and the discussion allowed us to see the position of others.

The transcript is not direct as that would be impossible to read; Twitter conversations can often evolve into what is effectively a multi-stream oral discussion where points are not picked up in order and are addressed separately. I have arranged it into a coherent stream which should make it comprehensible, correctly misspellings, grammar and a couple of cognitive typos. I don’t believe I have missed any pertinent contributions, and any errors are mine alone.

MA: The two female performers are researchers and not professional comedians and I felt you were being oversensitive about a talk which accused heterosexual men of being “one-dimensional”.

DW: I don’t think heterosexual men are one-dimensional and didn’t intend to convey that (goes to prove the impact of language)

MA: Me neither – but if I had taken offence to that I think I would have had more cause!

DW: That’s a really good point which I am guilty of missing; such stereotypes also harm straight men by being over-simplistic

MA: I felt that any overgeneralizations were simply the result of inexperienced performers trying to find their comedic voice and we should have cut them some slack!

DW: That’s a fair enough point, I think. But if true, does it not raise questions about appropriateness as a method of public engagement?

MA: comedy is specific because people have different senses of humour and appropriateness.

DW: *nods* But that raises interesting points about humour and comedic boundaries

MA: But everything offends *someone*. I don’t want to see young researchers put off communication by fear of failure, even offence.

DW: I completely agree. My point is they could have been *more* successful by considering use of language

MA: Is it necessary for every form of public engagement to connect with everyone? (Which is different from the question “Should public engagement as a whole attempt to connect with everyone?”)

DW: no, completely not, and I’m fine with not being in any particular target group. But the venue surely influences them [the performers]

MA: I should say that I don’t agree that they were particularly insensitive and I thought that your reaction was quite strong

DW: as to personal sensitivity, I was quite worried I was “over-reacting” and ran it past a few people first, but the broad consensus was that as a broad issues (not just about Bright Club, but about public engagement) is that it’s a legitimate issue. In addition, my background includes outreach work with young LGBT people, so I’d guess my personal experience has influenced my sensitivity.

MA: Well, accusing someone of having no sense of humour if they are offended by something is an easy reply .. 🙂

DW: Indeed, and a reply someone has already made. And saying I’m less intelligent than the rest of the audience 😉

MA: I did see that, yep. From a gay man who didn’t feel excluded, and I think you both make the point that yours is an individual and not monolithic [ie. attempting to represent the entire gay community’s] viewpoint.

DW: Completely and utterly agree. I also think the conference was actually very good, and said so in the piece 😀

MA: This is the nature of performance art and the fact that it’s public engagement is not the issue but, even if they did get it a bit wrong, they should have the freedom to experiment, fail and improve.

DW: That it’s *also* public engagement should also bring other expectations to bear. Performance art is notorious for challenging boundaries

I don’t think “fail” is the right word, and I would love to see an evolved iteration of those acts.

MA: I should also say that I do Bright Club podcast so have a bias. Which is why I hadn’t commented before…

DW: I wouldn’t have known that if you hadn’t said. I think we’re broadly in agreement, though. I don’t think what I said was particularly controversial. I’d just like science communicators to be self-reflective to improve what they do, regardless of medium. If a performer was told they’d upset someone and replied “yes, I intended to insult group X” that wouldn’t be an acceptable outcome; reflexivity is a way to avoid that ever becoming an issue, and to improve if it does.

MA: Agreed. Perhaps I read your blog as more negative than it was intended. I am keen to see researchers step outside their comfort zone and do scary things like science stand-up. It’s important that the criticism doesn’t destroy their self-confidence

DW: I would hope it didn’t. I thought the 4th dimension thing was clever, and a minor tweak would resolve my observation. The initial bit was clearly getting into the patter at the beginning of the show (and anyone who lectures can say that is the most difficult part of any performance).

By the way, I have had to review my presentations in the light of subsequent comments on a session I taught once, and I apologised and improved the session plan as a result.

MA: Also, Bright Club is generally a more diverse night. You saw 2 acts and a compere. There have been dozens of performers at the regular night, which starts to represent a more diverse community.

DW: Of course.

MA: Thanks for chatting, sorry I didn’t engage directly to begin with, but felt I was too partisan 🙂

DW: Partisanship is only an issue when you don’t acknowledge it’s influencing your perspective. Thanks for constructive contribution.


About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

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