‘What do Universities actually do?’: Some thoughts on Interdisciplinary Knowledge Exchange and Creative Arts Collaborations.

‘What do Universities actually do?’ was the question our partner Graeme at The Stables, Milton Keynes had most wanted an answer to, before we began collaborating together. This was a very valid question and provided me with a focus for this blog. It’s a co-authored blog, since universities often try very hard to imagine ‘what partners want’, but don’t always succeed in hitting the nail on the head until a true and meaningful collaboration develops over time. 

The question ‘What do Universities do?’ got me to thinking specifically around what we did and are doing at The Open University with our ENSEMBLE project (PI Dr Simon Holland) to further Knowledge Exchange (KE).

Through the ENSEMBLE research project we are exploring how haptic technologies (technologies relating to a sense of touch, in this case little, non-invasive vibrating devices) can improve musical participation in community-focussed settings. Our NCACE ‘micro-commission’ was a seed corn initiative for ENSEMBLE to collaborate with The Stables on their community engagement programme and specifically with hearing and hearing-impaired musical experts. We ultimately want to explore how technologies designed by the OU’s Music and Computing lab can help send signals to co-ordinate drumming ensembles with performers that are hearing impaired. We are combining the haptic technologies with physical and other non-auditory cues to see how well they could work at engaging a variety of musical participants. 

The dream is to, eventually, have a mixed drumming ensemble with hearing and hearing impaired musicians who together can make music to a high standard. We hope this will generate enjoyment for musicians and audiences alike, a sense of accomplishment for our performers and at a later stage perhaps, an opportunity to expand the technologies beyond the hearing-impaired community to engage interested participants with other accessibility requirements.

Universities would classify the community engagement part of our work as KE. The research team from the Music and Computing Lab is learning from musical experts (both D/deaf and hearing musicians) how well their technologies support performance practice and what tweaks need to be made for the technologies to maximise rhythmic co-ordination in mixed groups. The musical experts in turn, learn about how new technologies might support increased and inclusive participation in music making in community settings. Lastly, through KE universities come to understand what partners really need, when it comes to community engagement.

There is also an element of research in ENSEMBLE (even though the project was designed to support knowledge exchange work initially). To evaluate and evidence the KE progress being made, it was decided to document workshops using film and photography and to capture and transcribe the conversations that detailed the learning that was taking place, in ‘real-time’. An analysis of this processes of participatory, practice-based learning will form part of an applied ethnomusicological investigation on how interdisciplinarity, different working ‘cultures’ and musical embodied knowledge can all inform and enhance the outcomes of a KE initiative for the arts.

Eventually, this might lead to what the sector calls ‘Impact’ where we can show how universities are able to generate research which if shared appropriately, influences, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia. If things continue going well, and the ENSEMBLE team successfully achieves their goal of increasing musical participation for a wide variety of participants with accessibility requirements, then that would make an excellent case study for research impact.

So aside from teaching, universities also do research, they facilitate knowledge exchange and public engagement, which eventually leads to impact of some kind. But that’s not all. As part of the KE process universities support the professional administration of these activities. Much of our joint learning across the entire ENSEMBLE team, including our partners, involved aspects of: contract and data management; exploring the ethical implications of KE/research work and tying that to agendas of responsible innovation and really getting to grips with how equality, diversity and inclusion matter during KE initiatives. In our project for example, we came to better understand the level of diversity within the hearing-impaired community and their receptiveness to musical KE initiatives, which are by no means uniform.

So, to conclude, here at the OU we certainly learnt quite a lot, in a short space of time and our collaboration continues. Already plans are being made for future work with The Stables, which will allow us to build on what we have achieved to date.

The question ‘What do universities actually do’ was for us , as an venue based music and arts organisation, a short hand and perhaps deliberately naive way of asking what is the wider impact on arts and cultural organisations of HE KE work, and more specifically what could it do to help us in our audience engagement and participation aims

The corresponding challenge for us was to think about what of value could we bring to this KE project; what could we meaningfully contribute in practical terms that a HEI could not get through it’s normal research practices. We were also concerned with how to be a genuine and equal partner with impact on both the specific research question and on wider KE, and not being just ‘research data’. 

At one level our collaboration could be seen as a small research project research investigating how haptics could be used, to support learning and participation by D/Deaf and hearing impaired people in in a community music project. But this very practical ‘experiment’ also worked at other levels and allowed us to explore wider issues in KE between HE & A&C, including what changes and learning happen for both partners as a result.

As a minimum we hoped to learn something about university level research and how its methods and results might help us, but there were surprises along the way in terms of our new understanding and what the impacts on us were.

One surprise was just how much Knowledge Exchange is defined, required and evaluated in Higher Education. We learned how it is increasingly a requirement for justifying research and forms part of funding applications, how the idea of ‘impact’ is changing, and how important  non-academic  partners are in all of this. It also required a bit of work from us to understand some of the drivers and context for universities - this included some of the administrative processes needed and well as the context provided by frameworks such as REF (Research Excellence Framework), Public Engagement in Research, KEF (Knowledge Exchange Framework) 

We also benefited from the cross-discipline and collaboration possibilities and practice  that  exist in HE. Bringing other disciplines to the table can bring areas of knowledge and research to the partners, that gives new reference points, insights, and resources to support their work. In our case as a cultural organisation working  in music, this was the introduction of an Ethno-musicology research approach and framework, particularly around to ethics and evaluation. This impacted on us as arts practitioners and as a delivery organisation, as we realised that we could think of what we do as a kind of ‘Applied Ethno-musicology’. That helps us feel more like equal partners and points to possible future collaborations.

We also began to understand some of the overlap and difference in approaches to ethics in research and participation.

In arts participation we are of course concerned with ‘doing safely’.

We are not unethical and intrinsically believe that the arts participation is good and ethical – in that it brings benefits to participants (this assumes the basics of duty of care and safeguarding are there, which for any competent  organisation they should be). So, in some ways, we just get on with the job. 

In HE research there seems to be a more involved and technical ethics approval process, with frameworks, committees, formal approvals and sign-offs that HE researchers need to navigate. Learning about and understanding that process can bring a new level of reflection and analysis of our ethics and our motives.

This is another area where cross-discipline HE practices influence our learning. The HE ethical research framework seems to draw on and be consistent with ethical practice in other fields including sociological, medical and other research. This can add more dimensions to the ethical considerations we may not have considered before – including that some of this ethical framework and consideration is not just applied to others as participants or research subjects, but is also applied to us as a partner in the project.  

We had to think about who ‘owns’ the research ideas and outputs, the ‘Intellectual Property’, who picks the research ‘topic’, is it a true partnership where the topic grows out of the arts organisations ideas as much as the research needs of the HE partner. Both partners need to think about the timing and nature of the reporting of research results - for example  does the HE partner want to protect the publication rights and be first to publication, whereas the arts partner wants to share with others as soon as possible, and wants to protect free future use by themselves and others of any new results or methods. Both of these can align if you work through an ethical process. 

Evaluation was another area where we had to explore and understand our different needs and perspectives. At its best, for arts practitioners, evaluation is a reflection and feedback that informs future practice in constructive ways. When it is not so good is when it overly focussed on producing data, measuring outputs, reporting outcomes to funders primarily to justify their investment.

Finding outputs for a research paper is not necessarily the same as finding the reflections a practitioner needs, and for many practitioners their own evaluation methods are more than enough, and fit for purpose. But our surprise learning was that the evaluation a practitioner does is legitimate research and the two approaches can be brought together to give deeper insight.

From our side this KE partnership, there are some key learnings and conclusions;

  • For a first time partnership the KE is as much about learning about each other’s culture and processes as addressing the actual ‘subject’ of the research. 
  • It’s important to take time to grow the partnership and take time to develop the ‘research questions’ methods, and outcomes. 
  • It needs to be a dynamic process of co-creation, where some of your research questions may change as the project evolves.  
  • Understand how your partners have to report, publish and justify their work and funding to others. 
  • Take the chance along the way to discover as much as you can about your partners world – why and how they do their work.
  • Welcome the opportunity for other departments and disciplines to contribute.

The boundary between Public Engagement, Knowledge Exchange and participatory arts and engagement is thinner than imagined. KE between arts & cultural organisations and universities can be about ‘policy’ level concerns they can also be something very practical, about delivery, participation, creating a ‘working method’, developing new technology and practice. 

Our partnership started as a very practical research question - how can haptics be use in a community music setting, to support learning and participation by d/Deaf people, in community music making. We are not there yet – there is still lots of work to  do to extend the use of haptics into real situations of practice, and further developments of the technology needed. But it has also opened up a new understanding of what a partnership with a university could be, what Knowledge Exchange can be and how it can bring benefits to us, our audiences and participants. 

Image credit: Graeme Surtees