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Louise Creechan - BBC New Generation Thinker

Every year, BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) hold a nationwide search for academics with new ideas that will resonate with a wider audience. These New Generation Thinkers represent some of the brightest scholars in the country and their research has the potential to redefine our understanding of an array of topics, from our history to the way we speak.

For the researchers selected this represents a career changing opportunity recognising them as ten of the UK’s most promising and exciting early career researchers. Each New Generation Thinker will be given the opportunity to share their pioneering research by making programmes for BBC Radio 3. 


Pioneering research on Neurodiversity and education – the Dunces’ Hat


Dr Louise Creechan has been selected as a New Generation Thinker for her pioneering research on neurodiversity, illiteracy, education and disability studies.

She is a lecturer in Victorian Literature in the Department of English Studies at Durham University. She also works with the Institute for Medical Humanitiesconvening the exciting new module ‘Neurodiversity and the Humanities’ as part of next year’s new Masters programmes on Critical Medical Humanities.

Louise’s current research project 'The Dunce's Hat', investigates Victorian constructs of intelligence and reveals that defining students who have difficulty with reading and writing as stupid and different began during the Victorian era. Victoria education was entirely funded by the results of the students and it was the start of monitoring children’s success and progress at school. Children who fell behind the others were labelled as stupid, demonized, mocked and threatened with the Dunces Hat. This is a discourse that still happens in our classrooms and shapes the experience of children with learning disabilities.

Dr Louise Creechan said:

‘I am so delighted to have been named one of this year’s BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers. If I had to give one anecdote to describe my work, I’d share my first memory of learning about the Victorians. I remember distinctly being sat in a primary school classroom and learning about the dunce’s hat, a visual marker of a child’s failure to reach the intellectual standards of the class. I had this awful feeling of recognition that were it 1896, instead of 1996, I would have been wearing the hat. This memory sparked my interest in looking at the intersecting histories of conditions we might recognise as dyslexia, illiteracy, and wider nineteenth-century discourses on educational attainment and intellectual normalcy.

Essentially, my research is all about questioning how we have come to think about intelligence and how we have been encouraged to value some forms of knowledge production over others. I am so excited to have been given this opportunity to share my research with the wider public, partly to increase the visibility of the work being done my myself and other neurodivergent academics to find ways of making higher education more accessible for people with learning difficulties, and partly to encourage folk to think about where our understanding of ‘stupidity’ comes from and what the lasting legacy of Victorian educationalism might be.’

Louise identifies as a neurodivergent academic and she credits her lived experience of multiple diagnoses, including dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADHD, as the inspiration for much of her research on neurodiversity. She has found that a lot of the ideas developed in the Victorian era have not changed, the idea of ostracising students for not being able to perform in certain tasks because of our idea of intelligence being closely linked to ability to read and write. By ostracising neurodivergent students we lose a sense of alternative perspectives and ways of being in the world.

Louise’s research insights will feed directly into a new Masters in Medical Humanities at Durham University starting in October 2022 through the new module ‘Neurodiversity and the Humanities’ which is the first of its kind in the UK and, we believe, only the second worldwide.

BBC Radio 3 announcement

Names of the 2022 New Generation Thinkers were announced on 31st March as part of a special episode of Free Thinking on BBC Radio 3, introduced by Laurence Scott, one of the first New Generation Thinkers in 2010.

Featuring all ten researchers, the episode is now available to listen to on demand on BBC Sounds and as and Arts & Ideas podcast. You can hear Louise discussing her research on the Victorian Dunce at 19:20 minutes into the programme.

In addition to Louise’ pioneering research the other 9 New Generation Thinkers selected will bring new insights into diverse topics such as the impact of language on the experience of miscarriage, the power of song and “vagabonds” on eighteenth century streets, an exploration of sea monsters, changing attitudes to soil to South African modernism, how history can help us explore ideas about censorship today, and the exploration of unknown figures in history such as the 'Che Guevara of Bolton'.

The New Generation Thinkers scheme

The 2022 New Generation Thinkers have been recognised for their ability to communicate complex ideas and for their research into timely issues such as anti-racism, the impact of language on the experience of miscarriage, and how history can help us explore ideas about censorship today.

The successful ten were selected from hundreds of applications from researchers at the start of their careers. They have all demonstrated a passion for communicating their work and a skill for making complex areas of study engaging, accessible, and enlightening.

The New Generation Thinkers will have the prestigious opportunity to communicate their research by making programmes for BBC Radio 3. They will also be provided with unique access to training and support from AHRC and the BBC. New Generation Thinkers alumni have gone on to become prominent public figures in their fields, as well as the face of major documentaries, TV series, and regular figures in public debate.

The final ten academics taking part in the scheme were chosen after a four-month selection process, including a series of day-long workshops. They have undergone training and development with the AHRC and will spend a year being mentored by producers from Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme, where they will appear to take part in discussions about a wide range of topics throughout the year.

They will also be working on episodes of The Essay to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 next spring.  Meanwhile you can find examples of other programmes made by New Generation Thinkers in a playlist on the Free Thinking website and on air with The Essay and Sunday Feature slots in the current BBC Radio 3 schedules.

Professor Christopher Smith, AHRC Executive Chair says:  

“We are delighted to join again with the BBC to support the New Generation Thinkers scheme - one of the major ways that AHRC inspires arts and humanities researchers across the UK to engage with a wider audience. 

“This prestigious partnership offers an opportunity for early career researchers to develop the confidence and skills to work with diverse audiences, and our New Generation Thinkers lead the way in building the public impact of arts and humanities.”

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