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Ask Dr. Editor

Against utility and instrumentalization: knowledge mobilization for the humanities

You needn’t put on armour or start a podcast to come up with ways to “mobilize knowledge.”

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | FEB 24 2022

Question:

I study poetry; my research is not practical, actionable, or quantifiable. In every SSHRC application, I make a plan for “knowledge mobilization,” but the truth is that I’m not interested in starting a podcast, and I don’t think there’s a public audience for the poets I study. How do people who don’t do utility-oriented humanities research and write about knowledge mobilization? Or is SSHRC simply not for us anymore?

– Anonymous, English

Dr. Editor’s response:

This question merits more space than I have in this column dear letter-writer, so I’ll narrow my response to suggest some strategies you might consider implementing when you write your next SSHRC application — should you choose to continue to apply. As you make that choice, I hope you’ll remember that your audience when you write a SSHRC proposal is a selection committee of peer reviewers from your discipline, and so is made of up folks who have wrestled with this same question themselves: “it is of course impossible and absurd for all humanities work to be ‘policy relevant’ or “‘fit to face the current challenges’ perceived by society” (Ward 2016); “If the humanities are to make a difference in public life, does that mean we have to say that they are instrumental to some other social good?” (Butler 2014).

Everyone with a background in the humanities — myself included — knows that the dichotomy between academy and community is a false one, that the classroom is as real as the world beyond its walls, and that we must first construct a unified “public” that is separate from the humanities researcher in order to “mobilize knowledge” among them.

Such a claim — that the humanities “scholar” is already “public” — of course has a flip side, and I’d argue that the reverse is also true: the public may also be scholar, and may have knowledge to mobilize within the academy. Of course, scholars of Indigenous literatures have long known that Knowledge Keepers do not need to hold PhDs; as Daniel Justice said, “expertise [is] something one gets not only through academic credentials, but through lived and professional experiences” (Agrba 2021). Even medievalists have acknowledged the limited understanding that the archive and library carrel provides:

But you needn’t put on armour or start a podcast to come up with ways to “mobilize knowledge.” You also shouldn’t feel like you are instrumentalizing or rendering your work as utilitarian. Some options you may consider, which extend beyond a 3,800-character SSHRC plan:

1. Develop collaborations among people with expertise

I assume you study your poets because you care about some high-level thing: the representation of race, class, capital, nature, the nation-state, heteronormativity, colonialism, or another abstract concept. Find people equally interested in that high-level thing.

If you study the representation of dead queer bodies in Christopher Marlowe, find people who also care about the representation of dead queer bodies — maybe the folks at Buddies in Bad Times might be open to having a coffee or a Zoom call with you. Take inspiration from the Institute for Women Surfers, a public humanities collaboration that assumes that scholars, surfers, scholar-surfers and surfer-scholars have something to teach one another about the representation of gender.

I’m not suggesting that you treat these people as your “public audience,” dear letter-writer, or that you stage an exhibition or develop a podcast for them. Instead, I’m suggesting that you work with them, from the early stages of your project.

Connect with these people and develop collaborations with them before you have finished working through the knowledge that you want to mobilize. Consider that they may have perspectives or information that you wouldn’t be able to access without them, and talk with them about your interests before you have finished a study or project. Be open to having them mobilize their knowledge within your work.

If you’re not sure who to connect with, talk with your institution’s community engagement office, and find out who they know who may care about the broader societal concepts that also concern you.

2. Plan to evaluate your knowledge mobilization activities

“The institution cannot love you,” Tressie McMillan Cottom reminds us, but the institution can and does love metrics. Develop some for your SSHRC Knowledge Mobilization Plan. Call them qualitative, quantitative, or mixed-methods; ask your favourite reference librarian for help in making them work right.

Maybe you track hours of meetings, or maybe you track stakeholder person-hours, or event size, or the length of time spent in Q & A. Determine some kind of measure that can show your research collaboration is growing, scaling, impactful — whatever jargon term is trendy at the moment. At worst, your numbers will show that you can play the game; at best, you’ll track meaningful feedback that will allow you to gradually improve your relationship with your collaborators and to ensure an equitable flow of information and benefits among you all.

3. Budget accordingly

The kind of collaboration that I’m suggesting is more substantial than a talk at the local public library, and so needs to be supported with the appropriate allocation of resources. If you’re asking people to volunteer their time, provide them with honorariums that cover more than the cost of an hour’s childcare. If you’re consulting with Indigenous Elders, pay them at the rate you’d pay a lawyer. If you’re collaborating with an organization, consider asking for a part-time secondment of one of their staff who can serve as a knowledge broker — a job title I’m here stealing from the health sciences. Allocate line items for time, transportation and supplies that your collaborators identify as crucial.

I know that SSHRC’s Guidelines for Knowledge Mobilization don’t read as if they may be relevant for someone who studies dead poets — but that’s only the case if you think of yourself as only a studier of dead poets. If you instead position yourself as an expert on representations of gender or class or whatever it is you care about, then you will (I hope) recognize that such expertise is not the exclusive domain of academia and so enable yourself to develop collaborations that can result in new, deep, expansive, democratic — potentially inclusive or even decolonized — forms of knowledge.

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at shortishard.ca/contact or on Twitter @shortishard.
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  1. Ann Reynolds / March 8, 2022 at 15:25

    I enjoyed this question and answer very much. Another way of approaching the subject of being a knowledge broker is how the knowledge you gain in one field can be applied to another. This may not work in a SSHRC application, but, as a Classicist, I applied the ancient mathematician Euclid to an archaeological dig (to make square pits when there was too much barbed wire for compasses to work), and then used grids for drawing I learned in archaeology to map a very large artifact when I worked in a museum. In the Humanities, whether you are working on dead poets or ancient history, you learn to problem-solve and you can apply what you learn to any aspect of life.