Outreach at the Parkes Institute: an Interview with Dr Tom Plant

In today’s instalment of our series on the Parkes institute’s outreach activities we meet Dr Tom Plant. Tom is the Karten Postdoctoral Outreach Fellow at the Institute and one of two junior outreach fellows under Dr Spurling. In this interview, Tom tells us a little more about his work at the Parkes Institute.

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

I don’t come from what is now called a non-traditional background – both of my parents went to university – but growing up in Sheffield I lived in an area and attended a school in which most of the people my age did not have a family history of university education. My school arranged for a group of us to attend an outreach scheme at the University of Sheffield that encouraged us all to look at university as a serious and viable option, and I know that many of my friends went to university and on to their dream jobs as a result of our school and the University of Sheffield’s widening participation programme. Similarly when I came to the University of Southampton as an undergraduate I made many friends for whom the University had opened the doors of life – in terms of their careers of course, but also in terms of social and cultural opportunities. These experiences made me committed to working towards all those who wish to being able to attend university and share in the benefits that I and my friends have received, and so I jumped at the chance to combine this with my academic career in Jewish/non-Jewish relations as a Parkes Institute outreach fellow.

What is it about outreach that inspires and motivates you?

Like Helen I feel very privileged to be able to take part in outreach work, but I’m also very aware of my own privileges in being the beneficiary of a traditional background and postgraduate education, and this has made me passionate about sharing these privileges with others. As Helen has said, outreach work is not only about widening participation and raising aspirations, but also about furthering knowledge and understanding. As a teacher what motivates me is helping my students explore a topic and seeing their excitement as their knowledge and awareness grows.

What’s your role in the Parkes outreach programme?

I’m the Karten Postdoctoral Outreach fellow at the Parkes Institute, one of two junior outreach fellows working under Helen Spurling. I first came to the University of Southampton as an undergraduate in 2005, and joined the Parkes Institute as an MA student in its Jewish History and Culture programme in 2008. I first became involved in outreach work at the University in early 2012 before starting my outreach position in September 2012.

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

As Helen mentioned last week, our outreach work is incredibly varied and diverse. So far this academic year I’ve given workshops at Farnborough Sixth Form College (on teenagers in post-war Britain) and Itchen Sixth Form College (on youth in austerity Britain 1945-51). These were bespoke sessions arranged and were designed to complement the students’ curriculum. I also recently led a workshop session at our hugely successful summer school on multiculturalism which encouraged students to think critically about multiculturalism in modern Britain. I’ve also taken part in the University’s Learn with US scheme, giving workshops for its TEAtime series as well as leading a masterclass for Year Nine students and several Year Eight workshops.

What other outreach work are you involved in?

During October-January I convened the Parkes Institute’s Lifelong Learning evening class, Approaches to Jewish History and Culture, which was team taught by Parkes scholars and in which I led seminars on Jewish music and Jewish topographies. I’ve also been heavily involved, together with Helen Spurling and Sarah Shawyer, in helping to organise the Institute’s study days. Alongside this, I was involved in the organising committee for Southampton’s 2013 Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Day commemorations and in the University’s contributions to Interfaith Week. I also run the Parkes social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and this blog!

How does outreach relate to your academic work?

All of my outreach work is driven by my research. Whenever I go to a school or college, or when we have an on-campus visit, my presentations, lectures and workshops are all based on material drawn from my research into Jewish and non-Jewish youths in the 1950s and 1960s.  This means that in our outreach sessions the students have access to the latest ground-breaking research in the lecturer’s field and are able to analyse and engage with sources and materials that, in many cases, they are amongst the first to have seen since the documents were archived. I often also find that preparing material for different outreach classes triggers new interpretations of the evidence, new lines of enquiry and new theories that benefit my academic work. One of the things that I enjoy so much about outreach is this mutually beneficial process, one that suggests that there is less of a divide between public engagement/outreach and research than many might think.

Thanks Tom! In the next post of this series we’ll be meeting Sarah Shawyer, the third member of our outreach team.

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