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Are students universities’ most effective means of mobilizing knowledge?

by Shari Graydon

SSHRC’s 2018 Storytellers at a workshop led by Shari Graydon aimed at supporting them in making research more accessible to a lay audience.

Now that Russian interference in the US election has been clearly established, many are concerned about the implications for democracy. But universities and researchers should be paying attention to another contributing factor to Hillary Clinton’s loss.

By all objective criteria, she was more experienced and more knowledgeable, less narcissistic and less impulsive. She was also extremely well-briefed on economic, environmental and international issues, and able to offer detailed analyses of the policy implications of one course of action over another.

This challenge is one that many well-educated and knowledgeable people face. But at a time when objective fact and the role of an independent news media is under attack,

it’s more crucial than ever that scientists and researchers share evidence-based insights in ways that will both engage the broader public, and illuminate issues that have a critical impact on all of our futures.

Unfortunately, we don’t typically offer scholars support in mastering the skills necessary to do this. However, I know from experience that smart people can learn how to communicate more effectively to those who don’t share their base of knowledge.

Many hundreds of the scholars and other experts we’ve trained to translate their research and analysis into accessible commentary have done so successfully. Editors of dozens of daily newspapers and online hubs across Canada have published their op eds.  Thousands of our workshop participants have said they felt better equipped to speak to journalists as a result of the training we offer, and collectively they’ve reached tens of millions of Canadians through interviews with print, broadcast and digital journalists. In the process, they’ve positioned themselves and their institutions as reliable sources of information, enlightened citizens about complex issues, and sometimes influenced public policy.

To date, most of those workshops have targeted SSHRC or NSERC-funded scholars and other university faculty. But we’ve noticed that younger, emerging researchers, grad students and even under-grads are showing up in our sessions. And SSHRC’s annual Storytellers competition is doing an excellent job of cultivating and supporting knowledge mobilization at an early stage. Indeed, having had the privilege of working with the Storytellers since the contest’s inception as a workshop leader and contest adjudicator, I’ve been struck by how well-placed many students are to engage in this way.

Consider the fact that young people who’ve grown up with social media are often both more comfortable and more adept at sharing their opinions with a broader audience. Secondly, the longer a person spends mastering a discipline’s exclusive vocabulary and the passive voice sentence construction favoured by academic journals, the harder it is for her to write or speak about the issues she’s studying in ways that the rest of us will find interesting or accessible. Finally,

the value of inculcating a knowledge mobilization mind set in emerging scholars is that you seed their inclination to disseminate beyond the ivory tower early on, increasing the chances that they continue the practice throughout their career.

Everyone benefits from that: scientists and researchers experience enormous gratification from seeing others gain from their knowledge; universities employing them increase their ability to demonstrate their relevance to the broader community; and citizens get insights into issues that affect their lives. Not incidentally, those outcomes all make it easier to convince governments to invest in research in the first place.

Over the past eight years, we’ve partnered with more than two dozen universities and research agencies to help scholars develop practical communications skills. Our focus has been on training faculty to write op eds and become more comfortable controlling the conversation in media interviews. But delivering an annual workshop to finalists in SSHRC’s annual Storyteller competition has reinforced for me the wisdom in SSHRC’s initiative.

Indeed, more than 30 Canadian institutions are now hosting a 3-Minute Thesis competition every year, encouraging PhD students to communicate their research in lay language. And in 2017, Concordia launched a Public Scholars program, aimed at offering intensive training to a small cohort of PhD candidates prepared to connect and share their knowledge with the wider community. I’ve had the great pleasure of supporting these young scholars in writing newspaper commentaries, and seeing them offer valuable insights on everything from how to effectively reduce online bullying and manage work in a gig economy to make sense of history, and integrate sustainability into corporate financial goals.

As a result, and in response to a request from Queen’s University (which had two students in this year’s top 25, one of them a winner), I’ve adapted what I do for the Storytellers into a 3-hour session aimed at motivating and equipping students to engage broader public audiences with research stories (description posted below).

If you think this kind of educational session would be of value at your institution, let us know. Although our fall calendar is starting to fill up, we still have openings.

ENGAGING AUDIENCES BEYOND THE IVORY TOWER

This interactive and applied 3-hour workshop provides scholars across disciplines with practical tools and research-supported communication strategies aimed at increasing their capacity to make clear the value of their research and ideas. Mastery of subject matter is less useful if it can’t be successfully relayed to non-experts in a way that compels engagement. Convincing decision-makers and funders not already concerned about your issue, or familiar with its nuances, to care requires more than data. This session helps participants to think differently about their research, and to identify ways to share its potential impact more accessibly and creatively. Content covered includes:

  • Why your future depends upon being able to reach beyond the “ivory tower”
  • How to overcome “imposter syndrome”
  • Four principles of effective messaging and how to apply them
  • How to structure presentations, and marry data with stories to engage and persuade

To book a workshop or enquire about sliding scale rates, contact samantha@informedopinions.org.

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