Illustration: Dillon Yeh
Illustration: Dillon Yeh

Late last May, Dr Peter Mackay, a lecturer in the School of English, was named one of BBC’s New Generation Thinkers. One of just 10 academics selected this year, and the only academic from Scotland, Dr Mackay will now have the opportunity to contribute to the network’s upcoming radio and TV programmes.

The scheme is in its fifth year and is presented by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). After a nationwide search, the best candidates are chosen as ‘broadcasters of the future’ and given the chance the share their forward-thinking scholarship with a broader audience. Alan Davey, a controller at BBC Radio 3, says: “Our New Generation Thinker partnership with the AHRC has given us access to fresh thinking and new approaches to ideas by scholars at the start of their careers. This helps us, as a broadcaster, to present fascinating and complex ideas in new ways, and I hope it will give our New Generation Thinkers a huge canvas to make a big impact with their work.”

As Dr Mackay notes, “There is an ever-increasing demand on academics to be able to talk to people other then just academics.” The scheme attempts to bridge the gap between the cloistered world of scholarship, and the much more accessible one of public broadcasting.

Dr Mackay’s own work is focused on Irish and Scottish poetry. A poet himself, he brings a unique perspective to literary analysis, which is perhaps one of the reasons why he was selected for this award. “One of the interesting things is if you come across practitioner critics and novelist critics, they tend to have a different approach to texts, and I would straddle both,” he says.

Dr Mackay has just finished an anthology of transgressive, erotic and pornographic Gaelic poetry from the last 500 years, which is due to be published in the next few months. While the content is quite old, his approach is the opposite. The anthology is intended for a popular audience, not academic one. Presenting the book as such certainly aligns with the New Generation Thinkers scheme’s goal to widen access to the newest academic research. Additionally, the poems themselves help to expose long-held misconceptions about Gaelic culture. “All of this sub rosa material shows that the stereotypes of either Presbyterianism or gross sentimentalism in Gaelic were mapped on to this quite bawdy, quite rowdy, quite explicit culture,” he says.

Dr Mackay is also a reader of literature in many different languages, including Scottish Gaelic, Scots and Irish Gaelic. “In Scottish Gaelic, which is one of my own first languages, you’ve got different ways of looking at the past. You’ve got different tenses. You’ve got different relationships between colour and emotion. And so, every single one of those offers a different way of looking at the world,” he says. “And if you like diversity for its sake, and I do, then that’s a good thing.”

These languages can feel totally opaque to those who are unfamiliar with them, but Dr Mackay believes that they hold value even in translation. He says: “I think the minute that you accept that our language is a system of flaws and faults and is incomplete, and that translation is mapping any two languages that are flawed onto each other, then the original text is fine to be translated. It’s going to be an entirely different thing and have different meanings and connotation, but not necessarily worse for it.”

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Many New Generation Thinkers, both this year and in the past, have distinguished themselves as interdisciplinary researchers. In fact, two other academics at St Andrews have also received this award, both of whom focused on the interstices between academic subjects. Dr Sarah Dillon was recognized in 2013 for her research on the reading habits of scientists, which showed how the literature read by scientists affected their work. She has since left the University to join the faculty of English at Cambridge. Dr Philip Roscoe is a reader in the School of Management and was named a New Generation Thinker in 2011 for his research on morality and economics.

Dr Mackay’s work is not interdisciplinary, but his own career has been quite varied. He completed undergraduate degrees in both English and Maths, and has participated in archaeological digs in Crete. He also worked as a producer for the BBC before coming to St Andrews two years ago. While his current research is not influenced much by these other fields, he does draw on these experiences in other ways. “Since I write poetry as well, I tend to find ways of shoehorning my other interests into my poetry, rather than into academic work,” he says.

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The process of being chosen as a New Generation Thinker occurs in two phases. Applicants must first submit a CV, writing samples, an idea for a television or radio programme and a review of anything beyond their field of expertise “to show how [they] can engage from a non-expert basis with the world,” Dr Mackay explains. Next, there is a series of workshops where candidates must give a presentation, participate in a panel discussion and review existing television and radio programmes. Judges are looking for strong analytical and debating skills as well as an appreciation for how these programmes are made.

Dr Mackay admits: “I have worked for the BBC before, as a broadcaster and as a news producer, so that did give me some help in the application process, just in knowing how one presents this stuff and how one pitches ideas in ways that are suitable for radio and television.”

As New Generation Thinkers, Dr Mackay and his fellow winners have the unique opportunity to share their work. However, it is not always a simple task to do so. “Being able to speak on radio for 40 seconds to two minutes is quite a different skill from being able to talk for 50 minutes in a lecture theatre,” Dr Mackay says. “You have to cut corners, which is why radio and TV are, in some ways, quite antithetical to the type of in-depth, long-term thinking that academic provides.” Condensing an 80,000-word monograph into a 20-second sound bite, with all the same conviction and integrity, is no easy feat.

Dr Dillon echoes this sentiment. In a 2013 article she wrote for the British Society for Literature in Science Newsletter, she reflected on being named a New Generation Thinker. ‘Academic scholarship and media broadcasting are radically different,’ she writes. ‘The former requires solitude, time, depth of focus, precision of reference and seriousness of argument and expression; the latter requires a lightness of touch, a responsiveness to the fashions of the moment and a careful balance of insight and entertainment. What the New Generation Thinkers scheme has taught me is that each can mutually enhance the other, but the trick is not to try to do both at the very same time.’

Of course, there are some parallels between academia and broadcasting, which is why this scheme is so well regarded. “If academia is going to have any value at all, then it should ask questions that haven’t been asked before,” Dr Mackay says. “What you would hope of anybody who ends up having to do writing for the public in any way – whether it is academic or journalistic or creative – is that they add some new parallel or twist on an idea that makes it interesting to another person.”

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Look out for Dr Mackay on the BBC Radio programme Free Thinking, where he will be appearing throughout the year as part of his involvement with the New Generation Thinkers scheme.

 

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