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Humanities at McMaster: Serving the Community

On May 6, 2013, the Faculty of Humanities hosted McMaster’s first workshop on knowledge mobilization in order to share some of the important work currently being done by Humanities researchers and their community partners. For video footage of the day’s discussions, visit Research@McMaster’s Knowledge Mobilization in the Humanities page.

Moderated panel discussions involved twelve Humanities researchers and their project partners sharing lessons and insights regarding how they have developed mutually beneficial relationships that have resulted in the co-creation and application of research in spheres within and beyond the University.

President and Vice-Chancellor Patrick Deane commented, “These are all examples of mobilization which aim to make the world a better place and to transform our society in a positive way through the fundamental and transformative influence of the Humanities. … I think this is a sign of the great vitality in the Faculty the Humanities, and gives an indication of how the influence of the work we do is going to grow and be more broadly and decisively felt across society in the years to come.”

What is Knowledge Mobilization?

Knowledge Mobilization is defined by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada as “moving knowledge into active service for the broadest possible common good.” It can refer to a range of activities from public education to stakeholder consultation to community capacity building. A common message that emerged from the vibrant discussions during the full-day event was that Humanities researchers are committed to evolving new ways to share knowledge and ensuring such knowledge works to “serve the social, cultural, and economic needs of our community and our society”—a core element of McMaster University’s mission statement.

A significant factor enabling Humanities faculty and students to mobilize their research in the service of the public interest has been to connect with knowledge leaders in the community and form networks with business, not-for-profit, and public sector organizations. A keynote talk delivered by Ted Hewitt, executive vice-president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, emphasized the significance of building partnerships in order “to expand the bounds of knowledge generation and dissemination far beyond the traditional means and audiences.”

Humanities at McMaster

Past and ongoing research projects—at local, national, and international levels—have benefited in important ways from partnerships established by Humanities scholars. The projects showcased by the workshop illuminated the diversity and innovation of the research currently taking place in the Humanities: applied brain injury and cognitive language research; public communications management in health care systems; activist theatre in support of international development and water rights awareness; computer-assisted data analysis involving musical performance and digital music technology; curation and the exhibition of artistic and archival holdings; French language education and curriculum development for elementary school teachers; working with publishers to develop research into trade books for general audiences; major national and international research partnerships that employ shared governance models; and community-based advocacy in support of anti-racist and feminist education, cultural communities, sex worker rights, urban cycling initiatives, and First Nation language preservation.

A main focus of the workshop revolved around the unique contribution that Humanities researchers bring to the expanding field of university-community collaboration and engaged scholarship more generally. Historically, the Humanities have favoured interdisciplinary and cross-cultural scholarship that incorporate multiple perspectives, rather than scholarship that might focus on just one perspective, knowledge system, or world view. This disciplinary breadth is well-suited to conceptualizing and addressing complex social problems in and creative ways.

Catherine Graham, Associate Professor in the School of the Arts, explained: “Because of the kind of training we as academics have, not just to listen to what’s being said, but to listen to what are the cultural or intellectual structures that are driving the way we are looking at this problem, it’s sometimes I think possible to intervene. … On the other hand, I think there’s a huge benefit for academics in working with [community partners]. On the broadest level, they have huge networks and huge experiences of how things actually play out on the ground. … I’ve learned things about how to run theatre workshops that I could never have learned by reading books or even by attending training sessions, just by being constantly in touch.”

Humanities Research and the Community

Innovative research and knowledge mobilization projects in the Humanities at McMaster are exploring how community members can play a vital role in the process—not only by sharing their experiences and ways of understanding, but also by being actively involved in shaping the objectives, meanings, and outcomes of the research. Workshop participants foregrounded ethical approaches to community involvement in research—which included thinking about knowledge mobilization beyond simply the communication of research outcomes to wider audiences.

The humanistic lens that informs Humanities research draws much needed attention to hierarchies of power and assumptions about what kinds of knowledge are valued, both inside and outside of the academy. This questioning stance, rather than closing off opportunities for collaboration, opens up space for more equitable, transparent, and sustained relationships to emerge between university researchers and prospective community partners. It was generally agreed that issues of trust, responsibility, and reciprocity should be raised to a level of conscious awareness in the pursuit of university-community partnerships.

Research projects that integrate knowledge mobilization into their design from the very beginning demonstrate respect for how community members can play a vital role in the process—not only by sharing their experiences and ways of understanding, but also by being actively involved in shaping the objectives, meanings, and outcomes of the research. Seasoned researchers pointed out that community-engaged knowledge mobilization projects take considerable time and energy on both sides in order to establish a foundation that resonates with and honours a diversity of stakeholder voices.

Professor Nancy Doubleday, HOPE Chair in Peace and Health, further emphasised this ethical framework, explaining how many Humanities researchers view themselves as agents of change and are well positioned to promote human agency and active citizenship as part of local, national, and global efforts to build sustainable and vibrant communities. All collaborating partners—academic and non-academic alike—stand to benefit from the meaningful experiences that arise when university initiatives seek the participation and development of the communities being engaged.

For video footage of the day’s discussions, visit Research@McMaster’s Knowledge Mobilization in the Humanities page.

Website graphic resized 2 July 2015