“I refer to much of academia as intellectual masturbation,” says Martin Glynn, criminology lecturer at Birmingham City University. He’s discussing the role of research and how its results are rarely heard outside of academic circles. “In this respect, it exists only to serve – to please – those within academia.”
This poses a particular problem when the focus of the research concerns disaffected communities in Britain who have no access to the data that concerns their lives.
Glynn hopes data verbalisation – a new method where detailed research is summarised, rhymed and spoken over music to be shared online – can change that. It translates research into a format that is easy to understand, and places it directly into the hands (or ears) of the general public. He says it gives him a way of developing messages that he knows will resonate on “the street”. “I can bypass heads of departments, and even politicians,” he adds.
Glynn first used the method in his own work, translating a “10,000-word conference speech” about the mass incarceration of black men into a 12-minute track. He worked with young music producers from Birmingham, who helped get it played in shops and online.
“It went ballistic,” recalls Glynn. “It was being played on radio hip-hop shows. Busta Rhymes tweeted it. Black Lives Matter got hold of it.” After seeing how popular it had become, he and his collaborators decided to officially release the track on iTunes.
It’s an unconventional story, but everything about Glynn is unconventional. He grew up in Nottingham in “a modern slum” to a white mother and black father, at a time when there was “a lot of hostility toward black people”. “I knew about my difference,” he says. “I was always arguing with people because I hated the fact they called me names. The only way I could cope with the external world was [through] the world of my imagination.”
Glynn would lose himself in radio plays and comedy, and as a child he’d perform in people’s houses and youth productions. By 15, he was the first black head boy of his school, and became known within his community as someone who would make a name for himself. “Everyone knew I was going to be involved with writing or acting someday,” he says.
But formal acting training didn’t interest Glynn, who was becoming engaged with social justice movements. Instead he chose satirical, sometimes politically charged, standup comedy, calling it a natural progression from “the street, where you could use comedy to get out of trouble”.
Glynn was also developing his poetry. “I became a spokesperson through my poetry, whether it was conferences or street corners,” he says. “But I noticed a lot of my friends I grew up on the streets with weren’t going to conferences, they weren’t in those intellectual spaces. A lot of my friends were going to prison.”
Around this time he met Linda Thurston, an activist who’d worked with Malcolm X in Boston. “She said if I really wanted to be involved in revolutionary struggle, I should start with prison.” That was the beginning of some 30 years of work with the prison system, encompassing a huge range ofroles including arts facilitator and writer in residence. “I didn’t realise what I’d been doing until years later,” he explains. “I was doing rehabilitative work that had a profound impact on prisoner behaviour.”
Such work meant that despite not holding a degree, Glynn was accepted on to a master’s in criminology. “On my first day, I asked, ‘Do you teach anything to do with black people and crime?’ They said no, so I said ‘Okay – I will.’ I ended up teaching on the master’s even though I was studying on it.”
Glynn’s work took him to Baltimore to study street gangs, but he found himself uncomfortable with the detachment of the ivory tower. “When I became an academic, I couldn’t adjust because the artistic side – the street side – of me was too strong. I hated being told how an academic has to be.
“People on the streets would say, ‘Yo Martin, you’re doing all this research but where can we get a copy of it?’, or ‘Even if we get a copy, we can’t read it.’ So I’d present it in a way that people in a barbers or dumpling shop could understand.”
In 2015, Glynn was invited to deliver a speech at a conference in New Orleans. “I thought it would be obscene not to use jazz to present a paper,” he remembers. By converting that speech into a track, data verbalisation was born.
His new book, Speaking Data and Telling Stories: Data Verbalization for Researchers, explains how and why the approach works. “Anyone can learn the method, it’s very mathematical. The only issue would be confidence. But we should move the word away from ‘performance’. If you took a great speech like Martin Luther King’s, you could put a backbeat behind it.”
For Glynn, educators need to ask themselves what education is for. “We have a privileged education system. Research is not about social transformation, it’s more like a barometer for the academic institution itself.”
He hopes data verbalisation will “present information that’s accessible to everybody, not just the elite privileged few”. This year, he will be setting up the data verbalisation lab, “where I can travel around the world and work with anybody”. He has become less interested in academia and more interested in pedagogy and understanding the ways we learn. “I realised my legacy to academia is not my research,” he says. “It’s a method to disseminate research.
“If you look at the journey that I’ve started, it starts with this little boy in his bedroom listening to the radio, trying to find a way to communicate to a world that ignored him. I’m still doing the same thing.”
Martin’s data verbalisation