By Tyler Shores
One of the contradictions of doing an English Literature PhD is that you have to be the kind of person who is fascinated by other people and their stories, but you also have to be willing to spend much of your time alone in libraries or at your desk. ThinkLab has provided me with incredible opportunities to put my creative skills and my interest in public engagement into practice. It has helped me balance my time between lone research and useful outputs designed to reach far beyond the ivory tower.
I came across ThinkLab in the summer of my first year of the PhD when a project was advertised to work with the Cambridge Festival. A group of researchers from across the university was selected, and we were tasked with improving the festival’s outputs with a focus on a hybrid format suitable for a post-pandemic world. We were also given free rein to explore all sorts of innovative ways of reaching the public in Cambridge and beyond.
“With the backing of ThinkLab, we were able to have a go at something quite experimental and were given the space, time, and resources, to develop all sorts of new skills.”
Myself and another PhD researcher, Ella Brown, formed a sub-group working on an idea we called the ‘Cambridge Festival Creatives’ which aimed to get students more involved in the festival. If you grab a passing undergraduate on King’s Parade and ask “What and when is the Cambridge Festival?” they’ll give you a vacant stare and cycle away as quickly as they can. It’s such a shame that the student body is not more engaged with what is one of the University’s largest public events for all audiences. The purpose of the festival is to make the research and the resources of Cambridge accessible, and to allow the public to share in opportunities for learning, wonder, and fun. Why not involve more students in that process?
Ella and I pitched our idea to the festival team and were astonished to realise how easily ThinkLab could facilitate us putting it into practice. After the project itself was completed, ThinkLab found us the funding and contacts to put together a trial year of working alongside the festival to create opportunities for students.
In our first year, the Cambridge Festival Creatives managed to contribute sixty student-led creative outputs to the festival programme. From Instagram live tours to behind-the-scenes photos and clips of exhibits and archives, we brought together groups of students and filmed with the Fitzwilliam Museum, The Polar Museum, the Botanic Garden, Kettle’s Yard, the Whipple Museum, the Zoology Museum, AstraZeneca, the University Farm, and more.
A particular success was our podcast ‘Say That Again, Slowly, where researchers who had contributed academic talks to the festival sat down with students to answer simpler questions in a more casual and conversational manner. This proved incredibly popular and we were able to partner with the Cambridge University Press Bookshop, again with the help of the ThinkLab team.
This year we have been allowed to run our own events that will see, among other things, student costume designers recreating a polar-themed party dress from 1923 to be displayed in the Polar Museum, and student puppet makers building a replica of a magical puppet from a sixteenth century play to be used by historian of puppetry Nicole Sheriko.
Since Ella is no longer based in Cambridge, I proposed a new shorter-term ThinkLab programme to gather ideas and insights about how the Cambridge Festival Student Creative Team might build itself more infrastructure. It is my hope that the project will outlast my time in Cambridge and that after I graduate someone will still be making sure that creativity-led events will be providing opportunities for students through the Cambridge Festival for years to come. Lisa Bernhardt was assigned to help me run this mini-ThinkLab which has just finished, resulting in a comprehensive handbook containing all the information needed to run the CFSCT. It’s incredibly satisfying to have left a legacy for students who, like me, enjoy the change of pace that a creative opportunity or public engagement event provides.
If we had somehow come up with the idea of a student festival team entirely independently, without the support and influence of ThinkLab, most doors would have remained closed. With the backing of ThinkLab, we were able to have a go at something quite experimental and were given the space, time, and resources, to develop all sorts of new skills. I’ve been able to try presenting to camera, editing videos, interviewing experts, and have learned how to oversee the practical aspects of an ambitious creative project of this kind.
I am hugely thankful to Tyler Shores and Catherine Hasted who have built into ThinkLab an encouraging and enthusiastic attitude towards new ideas. I’m also incredibly grateful to Ella Brown and Lisa Bernhardt for partnering with me at various stages. Probably the best part of working through ThinkLab has been the feeling of unlimited potential that hovers at the edges of our conversations. If you have an inkling of a good idea, they’ll not only let you run with it but will run alongside you and get even more excited than you are.
I still love spending a day in silence at my desk getting stuck into a complicated bit of transcription or poring over an obscure text that shines new light on my thesis. Even getting lost for hours in the library looking for a shelf mark that seems to have vanished into thin air (as I did yesterday) is no great hardship; I’m so incredibly lucky to be studying a subject I love at one of the best universities in the world. Having the opportunity to develop other skills through ThinkLab, to meet fascinating people and spearhead projects that will reach far more people than my PhD is the icing on the cake, and I hope more Cambridge researchers will take advantage of this incredible resource on their doorstep.