Case Study: Professor Graham Turner

Chair in Translation & Interpreting Studies, Heriot-Watt University

Graham began his career in the Deaf Studies Research Unit, University of Durham. There he worked on research projects (principally in the areas of British Sign Language (BSL) lexicography and interpreting) and taught on postgraduate and professional development courses. In 1995, he moved to the University of Central Lancashire where he led the Postgraduate Diploma in BSL/English Interpreting & Translation and taught on a range of Deaf Studies and BSL/English Interpreting courses.  He maintains research interests in social and applied areas of sign language studies and in interpreting studies more broadly, and has managed a variety of research and knowledge exchange projects.

What is your research area?

I carry out research around the topic of sign language. I started over 20 years ago. The research unit I worked at then was very outward facing. Academics working with minority language communities tend to seek out lines of communication with those communities, and are often energised by the prospect of seeking policy change relating to those languages. So I started doing public engagement from the outset without realising that it might be described as ‘public engagement’.

What is your public engagement experience?

There has been a strong strand in British applied linguistics that has prioritised empowering models of research – i.e., research on, for and with a wide range of stakeholders and partners. I’ve tried to work within that tradition. I’ve had my shins kicked by Deaf children on school playgrounds – that’s the sharp end of engagement! – taken part in various public debates (eg a recent event in Cardiff looking at public attitudes to genetic counselling for deafness which also led to a Radio 4 ‘Moral Maze’ appearance by a Deaf research associate), and given workshops and presentations in all sorts of community and allied professional contexts. I have participated in relevant extra-mural committees over the years and tried to raise a voice to pass on what I’ve learned as a scholar. People are often willing to stop and consider their position when their assumptions – in this case, about things like the nature of language, and the character of what we think of as ‘disability’ – are constructively questioned.

How has your public engagement experience affected your research?

Because I was ‘accidentally’ doing public engagement from the start, I was always networking with stakeholders. From that point, I have been aware of the benefit of engaging with those involved, and it has been self-replicating and self-generating. People from outside academia now approach me for research – charities and third sector organisations, local authorities, Government. Academics know there is no shortage of important questions that are worth asking, so it’s great when you find mutual identification of a problem to be addressed.

What training or support did you receive for your public engagement?

I had no particular training, I learnt on the job. I would have liked some media training. I have experienced reporters coming with an idea of their story and not listening or genuinely engaging in a dialogue. To me, though, ‘engaging’ primarily means accepting that others bring their own agendas and knowledge to the table and seeing this as a rich resource.

Do you feel that public engagement has hindered or helped your research?

It has helped. If knowledge is worth having, it’s worth sharing, and sharing means increasing the flow of ideas and information in all possible directions. I currently have funding from the Scottish Funding Council as part of the pilot SPIRIT initiative for knowledge exchange and public policy, which has meant that we can develop and deepen dialogue with a wider range of stakeholders. All of this is what working in a University should always mean, in my view.