Knowledge Brokers and the Metaphors They Love

The following is a guest blog from Jason Guriel. A Research Assistant in the Knowledge Mobilization Unit at York University, Jason works to summarize and communicate the results of York research. He is also a PhD Candidate in English at York and has published two collections of poems.
As a graduate student at York University, the Knowledge Mobilization (KM) Unit has provided not just summer work but an opportunity to learn about some of the more policy-relevant research being carried out on campus. But as a PhD candidate in York’s Department of English, my relationship to KM is a bit murkier. Scholars, critics, professors, and graduate students who study literature are not typically engaged in research that is obviously policy relevant or that has much of a direct, material impact on, say, a local community. The same is probably true of academics in other areas, such as the fine arts. KM encompasses a pretty broad suite of services, but what can it offer disciplines like English – disciplines where research, though valuable in and of itself, does not necessarily always aim to have an explicit social use?
SilosWell, one thing KM offers – or, at least, one thing it has offered me – is a better understanding of the nature of collaboration. There’s a lot of chatter, in the world of research, about the need to break through the silos in which academics are often isolated, and to bring these supposed hermits blinking into the light, into contact with others. Of course, the image of the researcher in the silo has become a cliché, and clichés can grate a bit, especially when you study poetry, as I’m fortunate enough to do. (Poetry, see, often tries to avoid clichés in pursuit of some more memorable way to say what amounts to the same old thing.) But when I really think about the cliché of the silo, I can’t help but picture an academic in an actual grain silo, up to his Adam’s apple in sorghum or something. As I picture it, this poor professor (or graduate student, or researcher) is talking and talking, saying important things even though the words remain trapped in the silo, caroming around, echoing uselessly. Outside of the silo, passing pedestrians hear only muffled noises, if they hear anything at all – if they even notice the silo! The silo, I should add, isn’t necessarily the academic’s fault; it may be the result of a discipline’s insularity, or the rigidity of institutional barriers, or any number of roadblocks for which there may be good reasons.
Knowledge brokers would seem to be those folks intent on knocking some holes into the silo – not just to let some beams of light in but also to let some beams of light out: out of the silo and into the community. They don’t want to dismantle the silo per se; they just want to help spread the sorghum. Or something.
SilosSo the silo metaphor, though a little cliché and unwieldy, is not so bad, if you really think about it (and, by doing so, rehabilitate it). And KM people, like poetry people, are always, it seems, thinking in metaphors and analogies and similes. One of the better metaphors sees knowledge brokers as agnostics: in other words, they believe in collaboration but have no firm, orthodox ideas about the form that collaboration should take. Another good one: knowledge brokers are especially imaginative matchmakers. They’re always looking to manufacture novel matches between researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners. They’re open to different, Twister®-like relationships.
Whatever else KM represents – and this may include many things – it surely represents the potential of two-way relationships, the potential to learn from others even as they learn from you, the opportunity not just to mobilize knowledge (like the cliché of the rolling, moss-less stone) but to share knowledge. To engage in activities that are mutually beneficial. To make, I suppose, metaphors. A metaphor, after all, enables us to see one thing in terms of another. It enables a connection.