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The art of letters: Academics ask pen pals to re-imagine research through creative arts


Researchers at Newcastle University have enlisted the help of members of the public who would like to get involved with their research – by becoming their pen pal. 

‘Academic WLTM pen pal for creative correspondence. Must have a passion for learning,’ the ad might have said.

A new project matches academics across the University with members of the public and encourages them to write letters to each other. It is hoped the collaboration will help researchers understand what the general public thinks of their work, and help the public engage with the latest thinking and discoveries.

And by getting involved, people could even influence current research in areas such as how the brain changes how it makes sense of sound and vision as we age, and how identity and age can change our attachment to places.

Six researchers are taking part from a number of departments across the university, ranging from the Institute of Neuroscience, to the School of Marine Science and Technology, right through to the School of Arts and Culture.

The project, called ‘Letters for Learners’ and funded by the Newcastle University Institute of Creative Arts Practice, is being delivered in partnership with Newcastle-based theatre company Cap-a-Pie. When someone receives a letter from the researcher they’ve been paired with, they will then be asked to do something creative in response such as drawing, creative writing, or even collage making.

Michael Richardson (pictured), Lecturer in Human Geography, is one of the researchers taking part. He says: “Many academics feel a sense of responsibility to communicate publically-funded research. This project aims to help us do that, by creating an opportunity to communicate the relevance of our work and helping people feeling connected to it.

“A letter is more personal and immediate than reading about something in a magazine or even seeing someone talk about it at a public event. And the creative tasks that Cap-a-Pie have helped us devise will ensure we keep it engaging. I can’t wait to write to my pen pal, and see what they make of my research and what they create in response!”

In preparation for the project, Cap-a-Pie have been working with the six researchers to help them think about the best way to explain their work in a letter. The company worked with Dr Paul Cowie, from the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University earlier this year, to stage ‘The Town Meeting’, which combined theatre and research and has just finished a sell-out tour.

Brad McCormick, Artistic Director at Cap-a-Pie, said, “I’m really excited to be working on this project. At Cap-a-Pie we’re passionate about giving academics and members of the public the opportunity to interact and share knowledge and this is a really innovative framework in which to do this. I hope it’s useful and interesting for all involved”

Initially being run as a pilot study, it is hoped that the feedback from those involved in ‘Letters for Learners’ will lead to the project being run again, with more participants.  There are also plans for a research paper looking at the role for creative engagement in communicating academic research.

published on: 27 May 2015