What is this scholarship of engagement?

Last week, I was in a meeting on campus with a steering committee related to community engagement. This is a group that has been meeting regularly since JMU applied for and received the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification in 2010. It was a spirited meeting, focusing primarily on the question of how do we as an institution define engagement? Like many campuses, this is an ongoing discussion. As one of the members of the steering committee noted, it seems like “Groundhog Day,” because every September we spend time trying once again to define engagement.

We had a great conversation about what engagement may mean at JMU, and left the meeting with at least some consensus that in terms of community engagement the Carnegie definition captured our efforts: “Community engagement describes collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity. The purpose of community engagement is the partnership of college and university knowledge and resources with those of the public and private sectors to enrich scholarship, research, and creative activity; enhance curriculum, teaching and learning; prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility; address critical societal issues; and contribute to the public good.”

As fate would have it, right after having this conversation, I find myself the very next week at the Engagement Scholarship Consortium meeting. (http://engagementscholarship.org/upload/conferences/2013/TTU%20ESC%20Program.pdf)

This meeting has been very interesting and helpful, but as I talk with people I find myself with more questions than answers related to the definition of engagement. So I thought I would do what I often do, which is thinking out loud through a Forays blog post. Warning: what follows is all about looking for a definition of engagement.

Rather than leaping right into the definition, I’ve spent some of my time capturing phrases that I’ve heard either in presentations and/or casual conversations. In some ways, thinking about these phrases helps me see the various components necessary for the scholarship of engagement.

“When you think about engagement, talk about the middle not the beginning and end.”

Yes, this makes sense to me. If we begin by talking about the beginning, it’s all about aspiration, what we hope to do. If we begin talking about the end, it becomes simply a good news story. But if we talk about the middle where the real work is done, where the project is more messy, and where we are learning by trial and error – that’s where I can learn a great deal. While we do like to tell our good stories, I am more interested in stories that didn’t work out and why they didn’t, and what steps can we take to move a possible failed engagement effort to a success story.

“Measuring the impact of engagement can take years.”

One of the difficulties with engagement goes well beyond defining it. Some institutions have found ways of counting engagement activities, but the real challenge is measuring the impact of these activities. Great engagement activities are not one-time efforts, they are sustained efforts that result in measurable impact. Many institutional reports show “what have we done this last year,” and while this shows activity, it doesn’t demonstrate impact. For example, we won’t know the impact of programs that target middle school students to help prepare for going to college for several years; how do we measure that impact? As I write this, two things occur to me: first, as institutions, we need to be cognizant and supportive of the fact that impact can often be measured only over time. And second, we need to take on the challenge of identifying intermediary measurable goals.

“What about those we serve?”

When measuring impact, we must include feedback from those we serve. If community engagement is a reciprocal relationship, a mutually beneficial effort, then including the voice of our community partner is a must.

Where is the scholarship?

There are a number of wonderful programs and activities that universities and colleges offer to their communities. In no way do I want to lessen the importance of these events, but when we think about the scholarship of engagement, it includes mutually beneficial partnerships with the community. In addition, that has to be “communicated to and validated by peers in academe and the community.” (North Carolina State) In other words, there is an effort to determine the success of the engagement and its impact. I am not saying this is easy to do – in fact, just the opposite. It is very difficult to do. However, it is this extra step, this validation that assures that it is scholarship.

As I learn more about engagement and the scholarship of engagement at this conference, it not only solidifies my belief that this is not an important pursuit for our universities, and it is so important that we need to find a way to reward it.

Next step: how do we do this? To be continued…

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2 Responses to What is this scholarship of engagement?

  1. Don Swoboda says:

    Fear not my friend, engagement is not a concept that will ever get completely defined. It is what it is. . . to me, to you, to an institution, to a partner, and on an on. All that you are talking about is correct, but never will you encompass everything to everyones satisfaction. Non the less keep talking about it, it keeps the concept alive and everyone thinking. Its about like defining the concept of American democracy, I thought everyone knew and agreed. However, as I watch the news every day I keep seeing that I’m the only one who has it defined correctly. . . but no one asks me.


    don s

    • shaeffjm says:

      Thanks Don. I agree the definition seems to be in the eye of the beholder. Take care my friend. Jim

      Sent from my iPhone James M. Shaeffer Sr.


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