Outreach at the Parkes Institute: an Interview with Dr Helen Spurling

In today’s instalment of our series on the Parkes institute’s outreach activities we meet Dr Helen Spurling. Helen is the Ian Karten Outreach Fellow and the head of the Parkes Institute’s outreach activities. In this interview, Helen tells us a little more about her work and the outreach activities of Parkes.

Tell us about yourself – how did you first become interested in outreach work?

I am the first person in my family to go to university, but I was also a recipient of an assisted place whereby the government paid for me to attend an independent school. This mixed background has allowed me to see what opportunity can bring but also made me aware of the challenges of widening participation. Living in Leicester for eighteen years also showed me the benefits and challenges of a genuinely multicultural society. I pursued an academic career, but have always valued the importance of outreach – both in terms of widening participation and raising awareness of issues in Jewish/non-Jewish relations – and so the position at the Parkes Institute was ideal for me as a way to continue with my research and teaching but also develop and contribute to a substantial outreach programme.

What is it about outreach that inspires and motivates you?

I feel very privileged and fortunate to have a role that allows me to undertake such profoundly rewarding and worthwhile work with the wider community. From my perspective, outreach is all about making an impact whether aspiration raising or furthering knowledge and understanding, and particularly promoting better understanding of Jewish/non-Jewish relations. I am deeply committed to public engagement and see it as an essential part of university life. It is also very important to me to encourage and realise progression to higher education, and I do all I can to support the principles of widening participation amongst potential undergraduates and postgraduates, and in Lifelong Learning.

What’s your role in the Parkes outreach programme?

I joined the Parkes Institute four years ago and am responsible for coordinating and delivering the Parkes outreach programme. I am also very lucky to have the assistance of two junior outreach fellows for the first time this year, which has really helped to expand the reach of our programme.

What activities have you been involved in with local schools and colleges?

Our programme of activities is very diverse and involves working with both students and teachers across the South of England. Schools can request lectures, seminars and workshops based on our areas of expertise and we also hold an annual summer school – this year on multiculturalism – which is a fantastic opportunity to engage with students on topics in Jewish Studies. We also encourage teachers to get in touch to arrange bespoke study days for individual teachers or colleges.

What other outreach work are you involved in?

In addition to working with schools and colleges, we also have a vibrant Lifelong Learning programme, involving evening classes and study days. I was particularly delighted to teach a Hebrew evening class this year and am looking forward to continuing with this next year. Our study days are also particularly enjoyable as a way of engaging in discussion with the wider community about our work. Alongside our adult education programme, we also hold a number of public events such as for commemoration of Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Day and Interfaith Week. I am also responsible for the History department’s outreach and it is a joy to see the growing interest in outreach across the university.

How does outreach relate to your academic work?

All of our outreach programmes are research-led. I think it is fundamentally important to share research as widely as possible beyond the university arena, and as part of this to highlight the relevance of research, especially in Jewish/non-Jewish relations, to wider society. One of my main research projects at the moment looks at Jewish apocalypticism in Late Antiquity and what it shows about Jewish life at that time, but also attitudes to key historical events and other societal groups. Linked to this, one of my favourite outreach activities this year has been a day long project on apocalypticism that I designed and delivered for sixthformers. The day involves an introductory lecture on apocalypticism, a session on research skills, followed by the opportunity for students to work with primary and secondary sources and present their views at the end of the day. In this way, I have the opportunity to share my research, hear students’ views on the significance of the topic and also help students with transition to university life.

Thanks Helen! In the next instalment of our outreach series we meet Dr Tom Plant, the Karten Postdoctoral Outreach Fellow at the Institute.

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