Reflections on Free Thinking and Academic Practice

by Alistair Fraser


Last night, I did my first slot as one of the BBC’s ‘New Generation Thinkers’ for this year, on Radio 3’s Free Thinking. I had to put this rather grand-sounding title into practice; to generate some actual new thoughts and share them.

It wasn’t in a studio, and it wasn’t very glamorous. I was sat in a small room in Glasgow University, next to a box with flashing lights, with a Britney Spears-style headset on. To be fair, it was a pretty nice room. The sun was streaming in. People were wandering by, shooting the breeze as they left a meeting, while I was trying to get my game face on.

I’d had a little taste of radio before, on Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed last year (available here), and found it sort of magic – a way of talking to people as they made their tea. One of my old school-teachers got in touch after hearing it, saying she’d nearly dropped a plate. My 99 year-old grandpa listened to it and gave me feedback, including his frustration at the presenter ‘taking up too much of your time’. I took a little delight in passing this message on to Professor Taylor.

This time, though, I’d had a bit more preparation. The NGT scheme involves talking and writing for a non-academic audience, and is quite different to other kinds of writing. I’d been to a couple of training workshops and found some of the advice sort of daunting. We were told: ‘leave your colleagues at the door – you’re not talking to them any more’ ; ‘don’t be cautious and try and back everything up – be bold and state clear ideas’; ‘don’t be dull and grey – think colour and description’. The sub-text to all of this: ‘don’t be a boring academic’. No pressure then.

The broadcast involved a ‘postcard’, a 3-minute recorded monologue which tries to send a picture of a place, followed by a short interview. It was based around work I’ve done on youth gangs, especially an academic paper I co-wrote recently about gangs in Glasgow and Chicago (available open-access here). The paper involved ethnographic fieldnotes on my time in Chicago, and reflections on the way these experiences had reshaped the way I thought about gangs. I tried to tell the story of the paper, using the fieldnotes to paint a picture of it: ‘I was sitting on a stoop in Chicago when it happened…sitting on milk-crates, with clouds forming overhead, the man told me some of his life-story.’

I was fortunate to have fieldnotes to rely on. Quotes from interviews allow different voices and statistics can communicate brute facts, but first-hand observations I think work best to tell a story – whatever the audience.

It was over in a flash, and broadcast a few hours later. Afterwards, my Mum texted to say she’d listened to it with her pals up on a croft in Lewis. She liked the postcard. And now she was writing one herself.

You can hear the BBC Free Thinking podcast featuring postcard and a short interview here (from 13m14s):