Research – we’re having a laugh…

Our research academics do important work that is genuinely changing lives and policy in a whole host of areas. Pulling them out of their comfort zone and in front of a non-academic audience isn’t always the easiest of tasks, but Alan Gow from our Psychology Department is no stranger to the stage. Alan is leading research on the effects of ageing on the brain and thinking skills and will be making his second Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas outing at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, along with Anna Sedda, who is presenting on her work on disgust. Alan told us a bit more about CODI.

An academic, a comedian and the public walk into a Fringe venue…

No, it’s not the setup to a joke, it’s the basis for the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. CODI, as it’s known, puts researchers at the heart of the world’s largest arts festival. The 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe marks CODI’s sixth year and the programme has just been released.

CODI is curated by Edinburgh Beltane, the public engagement network that links Edinburgh’s four universities, and is produced by Fair Pley. CODI has a simple concept: it’s about bringing research to the public but ensuring that’s in the context of having a chance to debate and discuss the topics, not just hear about them. There are a few simple rules. No PowerPoint. And at least half of the time should be given over to discussion or participation. Anyone straying too far into traditional lecture mode will be brought back to planet CODI by comedian Susan Morrison who comperes each show.

Given the diversity of topics in the programme, each CODI show is different: some might prefer to give a brief overview of a contentious topic or issue to generate a lively Q&A with and between the audience; others might have specific demonstrations to share new research findings in an accessible and engaging way that builds an overall summary of a research area.

Since 2013, CODI has grown year-on-year and is now an established presence. Last year’s CODI was the biggest programme yet, with two shows every day. That trend continues with the 2018 programme. Apparently you know you’ve made it when you get your own tab on the venue ticketing website, so CODI really has arrived!

My own CODI experience began in 2014 with ‘Brain Training on Trial’. Immediately after that first shot, I decided I’d be back, returning the following year with ‘The Great British Brain Off’. With that experience, I realised that while the effort of putting a show together for the second time was much less, there were a number of additional benefits that could come from that commitment too: I’ve integrated some of the PowerPoint-free demonstrations in my final year teaching to start that course off in a more interactive and hopefully engaging way; and now if I’m asked to participate at any public events, whether small groups or to larger audiences, I’ve got a back catalogue of demonstrations to call upon that can be manipulated to give anything from a 5-10 minute overview to the full hour-long version.

Over the years, Heriot-Watt has been well-represented at CODI, with contributions ranging from ‘Demolish Morningside!’ and ‘Exercise is Bad for you!’ to ‘Hearing loss or Deaf Gain?’ and ‘Send the Deaf to Orkney’. This year, I’ll be back with ‘What Keeps You Sharp?’, a show I performed twice in the CODI 2017 programme and that was recorded by BBC Radio Scotland to form the basis of an episode of their Brainwaves series.

More importantly, my Psychology colleague Anna Sedda will be making her CODI debut with ‘Disgust for Dummies’, which will take the audience on a journey through the things that revolt us, and why!

CODI_NTT What keeps you sharp - 2018 Flyer
CODI-NTT Disgust for Dummies - 2018 Flyer

Of course, there’s a whole programme to explore, with shows every afternoon (1.30pm) and evening (8.10pm) during the Fringe. If you’re curious about a topic, there are worse ways to get a taster; and if you’re curious about CODI, an experience as an audience member might just whet your appetite to sign up for the 2019 programme!

So, an academic, a comedian and the public walk into a Fringe venue…

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