Re-thinking expertise…

Chair sculpture at grumpy studios
Chair sculpture at grumpy studios

As the fellowship progresses, another principle or way of working that is pertinent to me is this idea of ‘re-thinking expertise‘. But what do i mean by that?

Erinma learning to play piano
Erinma learning to play piano

I am learning to play the piano at the moment – i doubt i will ever become an expert in playing the piano, but, if i really wanted to, i could learn everything there was to know about the history of piano playing and become an expert in that.

The same is true of citizen science – i could get very good at doing citizen science and i could learn everything there is to know about citizen science. Those ‘expert academic‘ or ‘expert practitioner‘ approaches don’t really interest me – and is not what the fellowship is about. I am a social innovator – always looking to make a difference to society – re-mixing knowledge from one place, community or disciplines into another setting. What does this mean in practice? It may seem to some people that i am a very distracted person – always thinking about one thing and considering how it can be applied or serve a purpose elsewhere. This can drive some people crazy – but a few people now recognize this as my strength – one of my mentors, Professor Nancy Rothwell, wrote this about me:

Erinma is not like the many excellent people who deliver science to the public in a fantastic way. She is in fact much more valuable than that – as a real innovator in this area who will challenge our current approaches and drive a new agenda (for public engagement).”

I often return to this paragraph and re-read it when progress is slow or i face knockbacks from those not ready to try a different approach. However, an english teacher once wrote in one of my early school reports ‘Erinma’s wonderful ideas do not always hit the paper’.  And of course, its no good thinking ‘what if?’ in isolation and much more fun and useful to be doing this with other people and projects.

There is a certain type of collaborator I love working with – they listen as well as talk – they are not always sure where things are going and you can trust that you’ll go on a journey together.

I had a joyous series of ‘aha what if…‘ moments the other week sitting chatting at the Wellcome Trust with the other engagement fellow, Roger Kneebone. He was showing me some videos he’d made on his computer whilst sketching out his areas of interest for his fellowship in his notebook. As we were chatting and Roger was drawing and we were watching videos and looking at links on the internet – my brain was firing on all cylinders. Roger’s sketches meant it was easy to return to an earlier point in the conversation. Unlike Roger who has a team around him to make stuff happen – i don’t. It was a pleasure therefore to meet some of Roger’s team and to consider how we might collaborate during our fellowships.

Since starting the fellowship I’ve also joined a couple of research projects that are allowing me to explore ‘what if‘ type questions. Everyday Growing cultures explores what happens when open data activists and growing communities come together to share knowledge and expertise. My role is to look at that through making a film and contributing to the public engagement strategy of the research. The ‘what if‘ moment unfolded in the writing of the proposal – Farida Vis – who approached me to get involved – listened and integrated a few of my ‘what if‘ ideas into her original proposal. And now we are on this journey together to do the research project with a bunch of other very interesting folk.

From Jonas Mekas Archive
Image From Jonas Mekas Archive

So, what i am really excited about is developing a truly collaborative and interdisciplinary practice which goes beyond some of the usual ways in which teams work – sat round a meeting table or sat at desks hooked up to a computer. In fact, ever since Turing’s Sunflowers, where part of my role was to grow and nurture sunflowers, I’ve come to realise that life is way too short to be stuck at a desk or wired to the internet!

One of my favourite moments a couple of weeks back was moving into a new internet-free zone (free as in no internet!) studio space with the artist collective that i am part of. We had a session of invigorating the space together by sculpting an area of the studio with objects and ourselves over time. The session doesn’t require you to be an expert in anything – just to be someone that participates – what emerges is this wonderful series of moments over time where people and objects move in relation to one another in surprising, often fun ways that you might never have considered otherwise.

Playing games, dancing and disrupting the everyday monotony that working life can sometimes become has, i think a huge role to play in how human expertise might have a greater impact in solving global challenges.

The Harlem Shake meme (concept replicated and shared by lots of different people) encapsulates the essence of re-thinking expertise with regards mass participation – i can’t quite put it into words yet and the impact is not apparent – but I’ll return to that soon!

Reflecting on this blog post – I’ve been wondering about other ways to document the journey of the fellowship. My old favourite, lego is one plaything that keeps springing to mind…


3 thoughts on “Re-thinking expertise…

  1. Very interesting, as usual. Your final thought, on lego, made me think of David Gauntlett, who has used lego in a very innovative way to explore some of the issues around social media… he’s a theorist we draw on a lot with our Media students .. I’m sure you know him already

  2. Collaboration is so important. But so is dancing. When I look back at my earliest thoughts on work I remember thinking “I’d want to do anything that allows me to dance down the aisles”. I settled on writing and decorating because both allow me to listen to music all day and work from home (paramount requirements for spontaneous dancing sessions). I’d love to be able to dance in groups though. Or choreograph. Great post!

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