Monday, June 23, 2014

Sustained Public Engagement

I have a new piece up at the Chronicle on public engagement in higher education. I've written about public engagement both here and on various sites before, but now I am starting a series of columns for the advice/careers section of the Chronicle. I will be writing about how both individuals and institutions could be engaging and are engaging, and some of the lessons we might draw from this. Next month, for example, I will discuss Catholic universities and undocumented students.

This piece, however, has been in the making for months, especially with my response to Nicholas Kristof.

Here are the points I make today:
  1. First, academics of all sorts are already deeply engaged with the public in many different ways.
  2. Second, many universities explicitly recognize public engagement as a category that may count toward hiring, tenure, or promotion.
  3. Third, in the United States and in academe itself, the widespread perception is that most faculty members do not engage with the public—either because they don’t want to or because they know they won’t be rewarded for it.
If you read this blog, you knew point 1 already. Many of you are, in fact, the very evidence of point 1. Academics are already in public, not just as writers, but as organizers, activists, outreach coordinators, and so much more. 

Point two surprised me. I set out to write this column as a screed, to shout, "count this!" In fact, many universities have ways of counting it, though standards and types vary. 

Point three, then, is the conundrum. If one and two are true, shouldn't we all know it? What's going on? 

I think we have a problem of discourse. We somehow perpetuate the idea both that academics don't do public engagement and that specialized scholarship is useless to the broader world, neither of which is true, though they function very differently. 

Here are two steps I think we might take.
  1. Be smarter than me. What does your institution count?
  2. Start disciplinary conversations. I think this might be a great function for the MLA, AHA, AAR, CAA, etc. They have no power over institutions, but that's not the step here. The step is to persuade other faculty that we could do more to count and measure public engagement.
I finish with the following:
The myth of the ivory tower dismisses the public academic as an aberration and the specialized scholar as detached. Neither is true. But we do have a problem with how we define, count, and value many types of public engagement. If we can improve this and tear down the mythic tower, we can make sure that all of our varied but important types of work get the credit they deserve.
And now, the sources I cite in the piece.
  • Patricia Limerick, president of the Organization of American Historians, recently put out a call to locate scholars who do public work.
  • In response, Matthew G. Schoenbachler, professor of History at the University of North Alabama, wrote that all such efforts are just “pro bono - the entire academic system of incentives and rewards militates against such activities.”
  • My university includes “scholarship of engagement” as one of the types of scholarship that count for tenure or promotion, a phrase that emerged from the expansive taxonomy of scholarship pioneered by Ernest Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation. 
  • Syracuse employs the phrase “publicly engaged scholarship” in their tenure and promotion documents.
  • The University of Illinois uses “public engagement” and “public service,” recognizing the problem of categorizing diverse acts of engagement in our standard tenure and promotion framework.
  • Other universities categorize such activity solely as service. Portland State, for example, uses the phrase “community outreach.” 
  • Community colleges routinely link service to tenure and promotion, with the potential for that service to be outside the university. At the Central Oregon Community Colleges, for example, full professors will “regularly serve the community as an expert resource.”
  • Also, I link to this (now slightly outdated) study on shifting workloads.

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