Engaged Disciplines
One association’s efforts to encourage community involvement
By James L. Applegate and Sherwyn P. Morreale

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
Communicating Common Ground (CCG), a joint project of NCA, AAHE, Campus Compact, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, is one example of these engagement activities. The project teams faculty members and students from college-level communication programs with P–12 schools and community groups to implement programs that foster respect for diversity and combat prejudice in communities across the United States. College students and faculty members lead younger students in learning activities designed to advance multicultural education, appreciation of diversity, and the creation of communities in which hate, hate speech, and hate crimes are not tolerated.

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.

  1. To educate youth to embrace the advantages of a diverse society.
  2. To foster engagement between higher education and elementary/secondary education, and between educational institutions and communities.
  3. To promote service-learning as an effective method for enhancing student learning and civic responsibility.
  4. To promote diversity and tolerance through communication instruction.
  5. To increase understanding of the development of communication abilities required in a diverse social environment.

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
Engaged research and teaching will take different forms in the arts, humanities, and the social, physical, and biological sciences. Defining its disciplinary form requires simultaneously creating forums for discourse about engagement and highly visible projects that provide concrete examples to inform that discourse. National newsletters; international, national, regional, and state convention programs; and special publications should all be used. In some, if not many, cases, there may be a need to redefine the discipline’s conception of basic and applied research. “Basic” researchers at Research I institutions often do not see the relevance of engagement to their work. Some may fear engagement means compromising academic integrity in service to the needs of other constituencies. These issues should be openly debated, and the arguments must address the relevance of engagement to both research and teaching.

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.

  • First, we are addressing the racial divide that threatens the success of a diverse society. The CCG project links teachers interested in diversity education to researchers studying intercultural communication, mass media, and communication development.
  • Second, we have focused on the digital divide. Connected to issues of race and ethnicity, this effort promises to bring the work of our best scholars studying communication technology to bear on equity issues in an information society.
  • Third, we are focused on the civic divide and the role of communication educators and political communication researchers in understanding and enhancing civic engagement in a 21st century environment.
  • Last, some our most successful funded scholars work in the area of health communication. Their success in addressing public health problems through effective communication provides a model for how our fundamental research can improve the quality of life. Promoting and rewarding engaged work in these areas focuses on the strengths of our discipline and aligns with public priorities. It gives us powerful friends both inside and outside the discipline.

Strategy 2: Find Friends and Involve Influential People
Creating a critical mass of engaged scholars may be more difficult in some disciplines than others. Success will require involving people from both inside and outside the discipline. Our experience suggests that government funding agencies, nonprofits, business/industry groups, and even other disciplinary associations are awash with programs and people who want to support engagement efforts (once they recover from the shock of an academic group actually approaching them to propose a partnership to address problems they care about).

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
Professional associations have the power to reward the engaged scholar’s work. High-quality engaged scholarship must be promoted and rewarded at every turn, if it is to survive. For most members, recognition and awards at national meetings are valued. Recently NCA recognized, in partnership with Campus Compact, several departments for their programs of engagement. Their campus leaders were involved in the recognition process. Departments and faculty involved in the CCG project have received broad positive coverage as a result of NCA’s promotion of the project.

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
Seeing with new eyes is no easy task. It takes pressure and support from internal and external constituencies, campus leadership to alter tenure and reward structures, and a redefinition of the role of disciplinary associations.

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 smorreale@natcom.org.

Copyright © 2008 - American Association for Higher Education and Accreditation