Workshop Reflections: Shelley Butler and Mary Caple on Ron Rudin’s “Making Knowledge Public”

CEREV’s Acting Director Shelley Butler and Administrative Assistant Mary Caple recently attended a “master class” on Making Knowledge Public, led by Concordia public historian Ron Rudin, as part of Trudeau Foundation Week in Montreal. Below are their reflections.

How do scholars make research public? What audiences do we reach? Which ones could we reach better by working with other medias and writing styles? How do we measure the public impact of our work? What subjects lend themselves to public discourse, collaboration, and interaction? How do we assess risks and benefits of going public? These questions were at the heart of a “master class,” led by Concordia University public historian Ron Rudin on November 18th as part of Trudeau Foundation Week in Montreal.

Quickly dispensing with the “master class” model of humiliating critique that we associate with scary images of piano lessons, Ron offered a “master seminar” on Making Knowledge Public. Its most unusual quality was the way in which a group of scholars from different disciplines and fields – both inside the humanities and out – were able to have a shared and productive conversation about their work. The seminar was structured around brief presentations by four Trudeau Scholars – Nathan Bennett, Francois Bourque, Katrin Wittig, and Zoe Todd – whose research addresses, respectively: environmental conservation and poverty in Thailand; ethnic minority migration and psychosis in Europe; the political integration of rebel groups in post-conflict Burundi; and the impact of mining on women’s subsistence fishing in the Northwest Territories.

Nathan Bennett’s comments explored the factors that enable the most effective knowledge mobilization. Having experimented with blogs, websites, policy reports, workshops, conference presentations, academic article, he questioned how we assess various efforts at knowledge mobilization. While Google Analytics might be helpful for statistical purposes, our discussion explored how researchers, through professional and fieldwork networks, can strategically target specific audiences, such as key policy makers. Also acknowledged was the satisfaction involved in offering community co-learning workshops, a point which underlines the significance of ethical acts of “giving back” to communities with whom we work. But clearly, pushing one’s work outside the university must involve multiple tracks, via communities and academic and policy-making networks. Commenting on this, Mary noted the way in which websites can create “nodes” for participatory knowledge creation, reflection, and dissemination.

The question of risk was heightened in Francois Bourque’s description of his sensitive research on migration and mental illness in three European countries. His findings and meta-analysis of academic scholarship on the subject suggests that visible minority migrants are much more likely to experience severe mental illnesses than their native-born counterparts. As a student of psychiatry, Francois recognizes the need for an interdisciplinary, societal analysis of these findings. Further, if this societal context could be addressed in the context of public education and culture, perhaps host countries’ responses to visible minorities would be debated and changed. But there is an inherent risk in linking ethnicity and mental illness. Right wing political constituencies who seek to curb immigration mobilize the same data that Bourque uses. Ron offered the idea of using alternative, participatory media – such as life stories theatre projects – as ways of telling stories to larger publics. There was a consensus that despite the many challenges of making this story public, it is a necessary goal that, if successful, may help alleviate the pain suffered by visible minorities as they attempt to build new lives in Europe.

Katrin Wittig’s discussion of her work with former female combatants in Burundi also alluded to an ethical and personal need to give something back to the women with whom she worked, many of whom face stigmatization and difficult economic challenges. While she hopes that her thesis will contribute to creating more sustainable post-conflict societal transitions, Katrin recognized another need to act at an inter-personal level. The ensuing discussion clarified that advocacy and “giving back” are different activities, each of which demands accountability and responsibility.

Zoe Todd, a student of anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, framed her thoughts on making knowledge public by discussing the complex community politics and power relations that she negotiates as she works in Potatuck, in the Northwest Territories, and how this complicates ideals of collaborative research. It became apparent that the challenge of knowledge mobilization could not be decoupled from these fundamental issues of collaboration. While Zoe agrees with the primal importance of attaining permission to conduct research in indigenous communities, she questioned the impact of gatekeeping and factions that she has encountered. She underlined her own vulnerability and responsibility as a researcher — especially as she encountered stories of residential schools that, while not directly related to her research on mining and women’s subsistence fishing, are part of the community’s fabric. For Zoe, artistic expression is a method for processing her personally challenging research experiences. Reflecting on working through difficult materials, the work of Dwayne Donald and Antjie Krog, Nosisi Mpolweni, and Kopano Ratele’s work There was this Goat: Investigating the Truth Commission Testimony of Notrose Nobomvu Konile were pointed to as inspirational resources.

The presentations at Making Knowledge Public, and Ron Rudin’s interactions with the attendees, highlighted the issue that finding ways to engage with one’s scholarly research outside academe is not limited to work in the humanities. Rather, an interdisciplinary approach to brainstorming public interaction and collaboration can foster innovative ways to reconsider one’s work.

Related links:

Center for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence