COLA faculty, students and staff share strategies for community outreach
Faculty, staff and students in the College of Liberal Arts work with a variety of audiences and partners outside of the university in teaching, research and service activities that bring new ideas and new knowledge into the public sphere.
Since campus “public intellectuals” rarely have the opportunity to meet and learn from each other’s outreach experiences, the college’s Office of the Associate Dean for Research & Graduate Studies hosted a day-long workshop, “Engaging Academia: A Spotlight on Public Scholarship” on Dec. 10, 2013 at the Julius Glickman Conference Center in the College of Liberal Arts Building.
Sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Bringing Theory to Practice initiative, the workshop brought together faculty, students and staff from a variety of disciplines in the college, and included a keynote address by Michael Gillette, executive director of Humanities Texas.
Dean Randy Diehl opened the workshop by stressing the need for faculty and students to take the time to address issues of general importance to the public.
“UT Austin must have public intellectuals in order to be a university of the highest order,” Diehl said. “The public needs to reconnect the value of public scholarship to the greater good. They need to feel a sense of ownership and believe that the university is a valuable asset to society that they must invest in and protect.”
American Studies Professor Randy Lewis, who led a morning panel discussion, said faculty are already doing public scholarship by virtue of the fact that they have chosen careers at public institutions. He said it is idealism that brings faculty into academia, and noted the “inherent egalitarianism” that inspires them to seek careers at public institutions. He added, however, that the idea of public scholarship is not always well defined or understood.
“What is the public that we are talking about, and what are we supposed to give them? It can be tricky to figure out the proper approach,” said Lewis, who noted that the role of public scholarship is not well defined in a faculty member’s career. “Should we reward public scholarship in hiring and promotion? Should it be part of the graduate curriculum? If we are committed to public scholarship, how will we know when we do it well?”
Panelist Polly Strong, director of the college’s Humanities Institute, observed that public scholarship is more than just visibility. It requires strong institutional support.
“It is not visibility alone that we need. Public Affairs does a good job of this,” she said. “We are visible. What we need is stable institutional support—space, staff, graduate student support, and recognition of public scholarship in a reward system.” She added that public scholarship is an excellent way to prepare students for positions that require research and communication skills.
Strong cited the leadership of Imagining America, a consortium of universities seeking to engage people in the work of “democratizing civic culture in the United States and in the world.” She said scholars at UT would benefit from the opportunity to work with public scholars from other institutions.
Panelist Joan Neuberger, professor of history and editor of the Not Even Past website, said the popular website demonstrates that anyone can do online public scholarship with “hard work and curiosity.”
Not Even Past is an interactive history website that connects the ideas and work of history faculty with the general public. For example, the website promotes the work of Texas middle-and high-school students in Texas History Day competitions, and it provides important resources to teachers, students and history buffs through such innovative offerings as its 15 Minute History podcast, which routinely tops the charts in iTunes U.
According to Neuberger, Chris Rose, a graduate student in history, conceived of the podcast as way for history scholars to speak to the public and provide good experiences for graduate students who write book reviews for the site. It gives them an opportunity to think about public scholarship and how to make a book review accessible to a general readership.
Neuberger said the public popularity of Not Even Past and related projects demonstrates that scholarship and public outreach shouldn’t be perceived as separate things.
“Don’t decouple scholarship from the work that we do for the public,” she said. “We must have support for scholarly work first; then we can turn it into accessible content.”
Panelist Jim Henson, associate director of Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS) and director of the Texas Politics Project, said LAITS offerings including free online language resources, online classes and the Texas Poll, all of which were designed with public scholarship in mind.
Henson said there is “a dynamic space out there” for figuring out how the university is going to interface with the public, and such outreach efforts provide important experience for graduate students.
“A lot of these projects provide students with skills and tools, and a broader of view of what they bring to the world,” said Henson, who argued that more thought needs to be applied to how students and faculty are rewarded for these efforts.
“We want to match initiative and improvisation,” he said. “It is an entrepreneurial environment, and we have to encourage that. You get a lot done here.”
American Studies doctoral student Sean Cashbaugh works with a committee of graduate students on The End of Austin, a digital humanities project that explores urban identity in Austin, spearheaded by Randy Lewis.
Cashbaugh said The End of Austin “dismantles and reconstructs public scholarship,” noting that scholarship is not something that needs translation, but rather something that comes from the public.
He echoed Neuberger’s observation that UT and “the public” are not separate entities: “The public is not external to UT, and UT is not separate from Austin; it is an essential part of it.” As an active stakeholder in the city, Cashbaugh said The End of Austin is not concerned with reaching the public because it is already part of the public.
Cashbaugh said he was concerned about the tension between public engagement and academic careers and was unclear how this type of work will be valued on the job market.
Randy Diehl observed that “standards are going to change inevitably,” and that it will take the rise of younger faculty expressing their views to move the field.
Workshop participant Zach Elkins, an associate professor of government and co-director of the Comparative Constitutions Project said faculty should use a journalistic style to get people “to read beyond the third page of an article.”
Elkins, who also teaches a course on writing for graduate students, tells students to stop worrying about being “authorities” and write in ways that keep audiences interested. He said academic writers need to think about being cogent and visibly appealing in their writing, creating an experience that people want to come back to and invest time in.
The workshop featured afternoon break-away sessions to identify goals for addressing public scholarship in several topic areas including cultural institutions, open access and online education, writing for broad audiences, public intellectuals, and reclamation and cultural property. Among issues identified as possible takeaways:
- Creating a better understanding of the value of public scholarship among university administrators.
- Using new technologies to engage the public (MOOCs, recorded events and lectures, quality open-access materials from libraries and archives). The public is already familiar with UT museum collections (Benson, Briscoe, HRC, Blanton etc.), but how can these entities coordinate their efforts to reach wider audiences?
- Encouraging professional groups in the different disciplines to better appreciate and reward public scholarship; increasing the credibility of open access journals.
- Embracing risk in scholarly writing for broad audiences—it is important not to underestimate the audience; One should not draw a division between scholarly and accessible writing too distinctly, but consider instead “what is good writing?”
- Providing links and other references to further readings and further research when promoting scholarly work. The scholar should tie pieces together, and show how the work is relevant to past and current research.
- Articulating the importance of basic research, no matter how esoteric the subject may be. Scholars should promote the long view of benefits to culture and society.
- Pairing graduate students and faculty with writing mentors with journalistic or trade publication backgrounds.
- Providing media training to help faculty and students promote their scholarship efforts among the broad public.
The conversation will continue with a series of “Liberal Arts at Work” summer courses and workshops designed to help graduate students in the College of Liberal Arts achieve their research goals, develop professional and academic skills, and participate in engaged and cutting edge research. Also planned is an interdisciplinary graduate seminar that will explore the quickly evolving landscape of public scholarship in the digital age.