Community-Engaged Humanities Research: The Funding Landscape

Submitted by Kimberley Yates on Tue, 07/03/2018 - 15:18

by Kim Yates

The Jackman Humanities Institute partnered with the Centre for Community Partnerships and the Office of the Vice-President, Research and Innovation to develop an event for faculty members who do research with outside individuals and organizations. The day was divided neatly into a morning session on building relationships, and an afternoon session on developing them, including a look at the University of Toronto’s research vision and its specific supports for humanities researchers who work with community partners. This workshop coalesced from presentations this year at the Institute by Martin Taylor (7 December), David Perry (6 February), and Steven Hermans (24 November, 20 April, and 2 May).

The JHI is committed to public-facing research, the work of moving humanistic knowledges among individuals and groups of peoples.  There are many ways for humanities researchers to work ‘outside the walls’ -- this is translational scholarship, which can instantiate scholarly research in community practice and vice versa. It can mean training an academic partner in the traditional knowledges of a community; cultural organizing; production of audience-oriented performances; and maker activities such as art, music, and theatre. The public humanities are most visibly constituted by practitioners in museums, libraries, archives, arts organizations, and other community organizations. Public-facing humanities researchers are by necessity community-engaged researchers, with a commitment to work happening both outside of the university and between the university and those communities. The day was designed to showcase the diverse range of community-engaged humanities research at the University of Toronto and to provide tips and ideas to support you in the development of opportunities for building relationships with community partners and to offer some guidance for facilitating research projects through building community partnerships that reflect both the partner’s needs and the researcher's own interests and expertise.

The morning panel, Building Relationships, featured Keren Rice, Chair of the FAS Department of Linguistics, who has worked for years with northern Indigenous communities to revitalize the Slavey language of the Dene people; Kathleen Gallagher, Distinguished Professor of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at OISE, whose research into theatre pedagogy and its lessons for the classroom has evolved through an ever-expanding circle of partners around the world; and Alexandra Gillespie, Chair of the UTM Department of English and Drama, whose research lab Old Books New Science has become a self-sustaining collective of researchers interested in digital humanities, new media, and medieval books. The speakers each provided a an overview of how their partnered research had developed and how they saw their roles in these partnerships. Keren Rice emphasized that “respect, relevance, reciprocity, and responsibility” are key concepts; roles will shift as the project develops, and the researcher must be able to listen and learn, to think locally, and to allow the perspective of time to make the impacts of the work visible. Kathleen Gallagher described her research as a weather system, a swirling non-linear narrative of encounters and possibilities. She emphasized the importance of improvisation, of thinking beyond simple partner-to-partner reciprocity outward to the needs of your partner’s partners and the various publics that they can reach. 

Kathleen Gallagher
Kathleen Gallagher illustrates the complexities of community-exchange research

Alexandra Gillespie emphasized the human relationships that underpin the work of community building, saying “be a person that people want to work with; start small; learn to communicate across boundaries, play well with others, and say yes on short notice; anticipate failures and learn from them; encourage diversity and be inclusive; identify real needs and not assumed ones; listen, be flexible, and document everything.” She expanded on this in the questions by emphasizing the need for researchers to decentre themselves, which works against the inherited expectations in the humanities disciplines of research as the product of a solitary genius. Gallagher noted that her work has made her a better listener and more aware of the ways that she can affect the world outside the university.  Rice said her research has made her a better member of her own community, affecting her roles as mother and teacher by making her focus on where she fits and what her obligations are in every context.

Vivek Goel
Vivek Goel outlines the ways that community-exchange research fits with the President’s 3 Priorities

The panel discussion was followed by a talk by Vivek Goel, Vice-President of Research and Innovation, who provided an overview of the research and funding landscape at the University of Toronto. He noted that community exchange research can touch all three of the President’s Three Priorities, and hoped for increasing awareness of how researchers can bring value to the communities they work with, and he assured the room that the University is working to provide better training to administrators to recognize and support community research.
The afternoon session, From Relationships to Partnerships, began with information about what the University can offer in terms of support for community engaged humanities researchers. Isabelle Kim, Director of the Centre for Community Partnerships, outlined the resources that unit offers, and its plans for the future. Drew Gyorke, Director of Agency and Foundation Funding for Research Services, provided a frank look at the challenges of preparing a competitive application for SSHRC funding at three levels: engagement, partnership development, and full partnership. He noted that Research Services will soon be hiring a Partnership Development officer (a new role) to advise on these grants, and that the UofT now provides a multidisciplinary internal peer review process with interviews for researchers and partners to prepare them for what they will face in the evaluation of their funding proposals.

The panel discussion featured the research projects of Ann Komaromi (Comparative Literature), a specialist in Soviet dissident literature, Heidi Bohaker (History), whose work on the GRASAC project compiles information about objects of the Indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes that are held in museums around the world, and David Hulchanski (Social Work), who studies neighborhood change.

Komaromi works with community partners and has created an online database of unpublished dissident journals. Her research has led her from archives into digital humanities work, and has created international partnerships with the community organizations that have preserved the material she studies, but she noted that the online format has turned out to be less interactive than she had initially hoped, and that her partners’ needs are better served by a print edition, which is in progress.  Heidi Bohaker brought her faculty successor, Cara Krmpotich (Museum Studies, Faculty of Information) and a representative from the community she works with, Alan Corbiere. The Great Lakes Research Alliance for Study of Aboriginal Arts & Cultures (GRASAC) is a network of over 500 partners based at Carleton University. GRASAC is a multi-year entity that has developed through many grants at multiple institutions, and Bohaker’s current focus is in creating a stable and decentred funding model that will move funds more easily into the communities that GRASAC serves, and prevent leadership from becoming a function of holding the current research grant. Krmpotich highlighted GRASAC’s work in developing a model for collaborations for museums and emphasized that the role of a partner in this kind of a relation is often hard and unglamourous work, saying “I have developed deep friendships with my partners. There are risks and sacrifices that both sides must make. Co-authoring, mentoring, and caring for the next generation are essential, and I have put in plenty of affection, time, and baking.” Corbiere described his experience as a community partner, emphasizing the values of equity, equality, and empowerment: partners should always share in the funds, the governance, and the co-author credits of research that is produced in a partnership. Corbiere’s career has been deeply affected by this partnership, to the extent that he embarked on his own doctoral study in order to cross the divide between researcher and partner. David Hulchanski described the arc of his career, beginning with service learning, and developing through what was then called a CURA grant, which matched him with community partners in Parkdale. He emphasized the tremendous impact that community research can have in time, and encouraged researchers who are considering making application for grant funding to go big, because there are supports and because the results can be major change. He highlighted the role that the media has played in getting his results out in ways that go far beyond the often-paywalled academic journals.

The questions after this session quickly zeroed in on how researchers can develop connections into partnerships. Hulchanski recommended a small team of committed researchers, consideration of everyone’s time constraints, and a nice lunch.  Krmpotich recommended that researchers think of their partners as a level of peer review, saying everything they write should be read back to the person whom it is about before it is finalized: “The eyes of your subject stare back at you when you work with partners.” Corbiere suggested that researchers establish relations first with a grassroots advocate, talk about their work, and then allow the agenda for any partnership to develop as the community figures out what it needs from the researcher.

The closing remarks by Susan McCahan, Vice-Provost of Innovations in Undergraduate Education, highlighted the close administrative connections between community-engaged research and the broader mission of the University of Toronto. She also hoped that researchers who do this work would bring their work back to the classroom because research can be transformational for students, and she mentioned the University of Toronto’s LEAF funding program for curriculum development. She closed with the hope that everyone would take inspiration from this event.

Community-Exchange Humanities Research: The Funding Landscape opened up the experiences of researchers and even a few partners to faculty and staff members who are interested in being involved. It provided lots of practical advice, and over and over, it emphasized that the unique characteristic of community partnerships in academic research is time and change.  These partnerships take time to develop, they develop and change in time, and they bring change and have deep impacts on the trajectory of the researchers and the partners. They require patience, humility, and flexibility, and they can be tremendously powerful drivers of change for everyone involved. The event was live-tweeted using the hashtag #cehr and the threaded result of those tweets is available on the JHI account @JHIevents.