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May 28, 2008

tenure, promotion, and civic engagement

"Scholarship in Public" (pdf) is a very important new paper published by Imagining America on behalf of a strong group called the Tenure Team that includes the historian Thomas Bender, Dean Nicholas Lemann of the Columbia Journalism School, several college presidents, and many of the smartest people who think about public engagement.

"Publicly engaged academic work" means various kinds of collaborations between university-based scholars or artists and laypeople in their communities. It generates public products, such as museum exhibitions, radio programs, k-12 curricula (and sometimes even whole schools), databases, maps, and websites--as well as peer-reviewed journal articles and books. It often involves comprehensive projects that generate numerous artifacts for different audiences--in contrast to standard academic work, which tends to produce one publication at a time. These projects create knowledge and understanding that we cannot obtain anywhere else, while strengthening culture, community, and democracy.

Public engagement also serves some professors' valid and worthy personal objectives. Craig Calhoun, a Tenure Team member and one of the most insightful people in the business, notes an enthusiasm in our culture today for "making things, .... making and building institutions, rather than only commenting on the institutions." He says, "You have a lot of the smartest young people trying to build something, and I think that carries over to academia, where people are saying, 'I want to do that. I want to create.'"

But public engagement must be done well. Even ambitious, well-intentioned, and labor-intensive projects can fail, just as books and lab experiments can fail. Public engagement can also be superficial or trivial. I know departments in which some scholars labor hard in the library or lab in the hopes of being able to make presentations at international scholarly conferences. Others give occasional lectures--which they might also present to their own undergraduates--at local churches or civic groups. These local lectures or performances may be covered in the local press, but they are not scholarship. Rewarding such superficial projects with promotion, tenure, and other awards is unfair. Worse, it submerges the much more difficult and ambitious work that deserves the name of "public scholarship" or "public art."

As Calhoun says, "This is about making scholarship better, making knowledge better. It is not about concessions in the quality of scholarship and knowledge." That means that public scholarship must be critically assessed, not given a pass because it is well-intentioned. Critical assessment will require new techniques, and the report suggests several: use community partners as peer-reviewers; evaluate projects rather than individual publications; allow professors to assemble portfolios; develop plans for projects and evaluation when new professors are hired.

The report also tackles a sensitive and important issue within this field, which is the role of minority professors. Obviously, academics who are African American, Native American, or Latino may want to pursue highly academic and theoretical research. But a disproportionate number of minority scholars are involved in community-engaged work, because they tend to be motivated to change society; they often have roots and networks outside academia; and they may have cultural skills that allow them to "cross over" effectively. If these scholars work in partnerships with laypeople, and such work is not rewarded, their careers suffer. This is also a problem for whites, but scholars of color face an extra layer of obstacles. The negative stereotypes that persist against them in academia often take the form of an assumption that it is just to hire a person of color even if his or her academic work is weaker. That's highly patronizing to the individual scholar. And if a minority professor's work takes the form of community projects, then the stereotype about minorities reinforces the stereotype about civic engagement, and vice-versa, adding up to an almost insurmountable barrier to success.

The solution, again, is to create rigorous, independent, tough measures of quality for civic engagement. Then any professor, including a scholar of color, can choose to try public projects, and the ambitious and successful ones will bring just rewards.

May 28, 2008 11:24 AM | category: academia | Comments


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