From the May 2001 AAHE Bulletin
The scholarship of engagement redefines our research and teaching missions to include research that addresses real-world problems and pedagogy that creates involved and committed citizens. In order for these mandates for greater engagement and increased partnerships to succeed, changes in higher education must involve disciplinary societies and the faculty who comprise them. How, then, do we create disciplines populated by faculty with an interest in the scholarship of engagement?
The National Communication Association (NCA) is in the midst of a sustained effort to support its members’ engagement activities. NCA members are increasingly involved in partnerships with colleagues in other disciplines, with interdisciplinary societies such as AAHE, and with government, businesses, and nonprofit organizations.
The Scholarship of Engagement
In its first year, the CCG project began with 30 partnerships on campuses across the country. These partners include research universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and a diverse group of community organizations. We anticipate doubling the number this year and dramatically increasing grant funding.
CCG has a five-pronged mission, which reflects the interests of its sponsoring organizations.
The curricular activities of CCG are adapted to the local contexts of pilot-site participants and are based on proposals from communication faculty and their P–12 and community partners. In addition, teaching materials from the Teaching Tolerance program of the Southern Poverty Law Center are made available to participants for adoption or adaptation. All activities involve college students in service-learning, which the project defines as practicing what they are learning in their disciplines in community settings where their work benefits others.
Pilot sites are pursuing a wide range of activities, including teaching conflict resolution skills to preschoolers; working collaboratively with middle-school faculty members to develop a cross-disciplinary unit on the Holocaust that will teach students about concepts such as in-group identity, conformity, stereotyping, obedience to authority, and propaganda; and increasing and improving communication between blind/visually impaired and sighted adolescents.
The CCG project also includes a significant research component. Researchers will assess the effects of the CCG programs and thereby contribute to our understanding of the cognitive and behavioral skills necessary for effective communication in a diverse society. The CCG project embodies the following three strategies of NCA’s larger engagement initiative.
Strategy 1: Create a Clear Definition of Engagement Adapted to Disciplinary Culture
Disciplinary adaptation must also take into account the reward structures of the campus cultures in which members reside. Opportunities to participate in national initiatives to create engaged teaching through service-learning will have greater meaning for members at teaching institutions. Efforts to link engagement to funded research projects and partnerships with highly respected foundations and agencies have more relevance on other research-oriented campuses.
In adapting engagement to disciplinary culture, early successes are important. Each discipline or campus should identify areas of teaching and research that are most sensibly and immediately amenable to engaged work. In communication, we started our engagement effort by linking our engaged research and teaching to four problems that attract scholars from across the discipline and for which communication is a key part of the solution.
Strategy 2: Find Friends and Involve Influential People
Despite the more than 4,000 members who attended our national engagement conference this year, it was difficult to walk far without meeting leaders from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Carnegie Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, dot-coms, the American Library Association, AAHE, the American Council on Education, nonprofits focused on public health, environmental, race, and computer access issues, and business people. They enthusiastically participated in workshops and seminars both on site and in the local community. Finding such external partners for engagement initiatives is crucial to creating the necessary visibility and status for this effort.
Similarly, involving colleagues within the discipline is essential. Often a discipline has traditions in teaching or research that offer natural internal constituencies for engaged scholarship. For example, communication has a long history of commitment to the study of teaching and learning. The practice of service-learning is well represented among our engaged teachers. NCA was able to create a national network of more than 200 communication scholars, supported by a small grant from AAHE and Campus Compact, who are now aggressively pursuing a number of service-learning projects, including a toolkit for engaging in service-learning, a national online resource bank, and assessment resources for service-learning projects. This group also provides assistance to our CCG project and collaborates with a similar national NCA network working with a funded project to promote the scholarship of teaching and learning in the discipline.
Senior faculty members and department chairs are two other disciplinary groups that hold promise as influential adopters of engagement efforts. Finding prominent senior scholars to lead engagement initiatives as part of their leadership roles in the organization has made all the difference in NCA’s ability to sustain a credible engagement effort. Senior faculty members are, in fact, recognized as change agents given the changing priorities that come with maturity.
NCA also conducts professional development seminars for department chairs and other program leaders. This year, NCA assembled senior university leaders from our discipline with other national figures who are rethinking the proper relationship between academia and society in ways that anticipate new forms of engagement. The response was so enthusiastic that plans are under way for an extended summer workshop on the issue. The scholarship of engagement becomes less risky for young scholars when their chair or a senior colleague sitting on a tenure-review committee understands the personal and programmatic value of engagement work.
NCA also has held meetings with divisional leaders (who construct convention programming, among other things), elected association leadership, and journal editors to build support for engaged scholarship. Unless this scholarship can be presented and published in traditional outlets, it cannot survive, except on those few isolated campuses whose leaders are willing to buck the academic status quo. This conversational work with influential colleagues must be ongoing if sustained commitment is the goal. However, with ongoing discussion of the value of engaged work, association leadership can create a consistent agenda that enables the staff of the association to pursue the long-term work it takes to build successful partnerships for the association.
Strategy 3: Celebrate Your Success
Celebrating progress in large and small steps is crucial to advancing engaged scholarship. However, the focus must always be on high-quality work that significantly advances our understanding of key concepts in the discipline knowledge matrix, the relevance of the work to society, and produces significant outcomes. To do otherwise runs the risk of damaging perceptions of engaged scholarship in much the same way as some early teaching award programs distorted the view of a scholarly teacher. Still, a disciplinary association can, on a large stage, recognize models and best practices of engagement that enhance the merit of the entire initiative in the field.
Reaching the Tipping Point
After barely three years, NCA is not there yet. As a membership- driven association, we cannot move too far ahead of member preferences without great risk. However, we are receiving more pressure from members to direct association resources toward efforts to conduct engaged research and teaching. We are finding that partnerships with those we serve (even when the partnership involves critiquing our partners’ practices) adds energy to our work and provides synergy in producing significant outcomes. These are all positive signs.
Key elements to success include consistent commitment from leadership, multiyear grants for engagement activities from outside agencies, and involvement of more members (especially senior scholars) in visible engagement initiatives sponsored by the disciplinary association. These goals are consistent with Malcolm Gladwell’s analysis in The Tipping Point — that broad change can be accomplished by a few people properly placed, promoting the idea of engagement adapted to disciplinary culture, in a context where society’s expectations and need for our energy is growing daily.
Other disciplinary societies are moving in the same direction. The network of change agents inside higher education is growing.
James L. Applegate is president of the National Communication Association. Contact him at Jim.Applegate@mail.state.ky.us.
Sherwyn P. Morreale is associate director of the National Communication Association. Contact her at email@example.com.
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