Sunday, November 2, 2014

Knowledge Transfer - it just makes sense

I've been thinking a lot about the concept of knowledge transfer at the moment as I write the hardest piece of academic writing I have ever attempted. It's a chapter for a book and it was due weeks ago, in fact maybe it's too late, which is perhaps the price I'll pay for how this has rocked my psyche. The struggle with the chapter has been squarely focused on my own fear that I am using oppression as a game-strategy, rather than honouring the lived experience of people who are working beyond it by exercising their agency. It's a chapter that ponders the value of reciprocity in the dynamic and, sadly, sometimes dyadic environment of university and community. Knowledge transfer, at some point, hijacked the writing, and it took me the last week of activities to truly understand why.

A few things happened in the last week that helped me out and that has me back on track to complete the writing this weekend. First of all, I was asked to be Academic in Residence at James Cook University's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Centre, as they ran their annual research candidates workshop. I've been to a lot of these kinds of programs over more than twenty years, and they're always great. You get to learn a lot, hear a lot and engage with wonderful people who are on a remarkable journey. This workshop did all of that and more, and I've had a day or so to reflect on why it really changed some of my thinking... and of course helped me with this difficult chapter.

The JCU Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Centre (Note: new name, used to be a school) is an innovative space and there's excellence happening across their research programs that reflects this. Professor Yvonne Cadet-James who heads up the Centre, Aunty Valda Wallace who provides support to students and staff, and the head of their research training area, Dr Felecia Watkin Lui, are all brilliant and innovative in different and complementary ways. I've known Professor Cadet-James for a number of years, since her time as the Chancellor of Batchelor Institute. When Felecia contacted me she explained that they were bringing their students together, that they were mostly early on in their research programs, and that input would be welcomed across disciplines. Which disciplines? Environment science, maths, other areas of the physical sciences, ecosystems, ethnobotany, business, engineering and governance.

If you work across Indigenous research training contexts, you know how mind-blowing the end of the last paragraph is. Many of us across the academy spend a great deal of energy trying to encourage Indigenous students to engage in these disciplines... at an undergraduate level our participation in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Maths) areas, for instance, is a fraction of our non-Indigenous counterparts. So when Felecia explained there would be students across these broad areas, I figured I would be delivering the Office for Learning and Teaching program that I've been working on since 2009 where I talk about The Long Career (an idea that I've been writing about that supports a mapping of postdoctoral work) and the importance of disseminating your research. When the disciplines are well outside of my areas, I usually contribute a little about the shape of the program or provide some advice about support structures (get together a community of practice, engage critical friends etc). But something was different at this workshop. The students - research candidates entering into a PhD or Masters at the university - all *seemed* to be doing work that overlapped no matter how disparate the areas.

I say *seemed* because, under further analysis, most of them are unconnected, in fact some of the students didn't even know one another as they were new to the program. On further reflection it was clear that the programs were about very different topics from self-sustaining national organisations to project prioritisation in information markets to the power of protected areas across multiple countries to a beginning ethnobotany program. But what they all shared, across focus and discipline, across communities and markets, was the idea that knowledge transfer, rather than being an afterthought, led the development of their research.

A participant in the program was the newly completed Dr Cass Hunter, who has been successful in acquiring National Competitive (ARC) Funding for her participatory tool for estimating future impacts on ecosystem services and livelihoods in Torres Strait program. Her contribution at the workshop was a solid reminder that there are leaders being grown across the disciplines at JCU. Her work will support the application of her overlapping science and maths disciplines for an outcome that is led by the needs and engagement of Torres Strait communities. Cass is a shining example of the program of support that JCU offers its Indigenous candidates in making their research meaningful and ensuring that it is led by something other than the hope and aspiration. Knowledge transfer is the promise that the research outcomes will be meaningful and it drives students to understand their research better, and to imagine not just a submission of a thesis, but the delivery of an outcome that can effect change.
Me and Josephine Bourne, a PhD Candidate and colleague who is working within the discipline of Indigenous Governance. 

There were also some bonus presentations over the week that I got to experience. We got to hear about Patrick Cook's Mona Aboriginal Corporation in Mt Isa... an award winning intervention program that helps our kids find an alternative to drugs and suicide by getting them engaged in horse-riding. We got to hear about the work that Professor Sigmund Grønmo is doing at the Sami University College in Norway. We had Dr Liz Tynan's workshop on how to write... and I definitely learned a thing or two. Some remarkable presentations, including by the candidates themselves. 10 minutes was all they had to talk about their project, and those who had properly begun the program were able to articulate exactly what they planned to do, how they planned to do it, and to ask and seek input on making their work better. After two decades of attending these kinds of workshops, this was a standout, and it was a reminder that while knowledge transfer is a great idea, it only works if people are both willing to share knowledge and receive it.

Just as an end note, I was fortunate to have the participants reflect on my contribution and it was a lovely gift. It was affirming and it reminded me that while I may have had an expectation that I was turning up there to be an expert support person... knowledge transfer is a little more complex than that, and it doesn't always take the path you expect.
A gift. The sentiment was not lost.

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