We interviewed faculty and staff about their experiences doing publicly-engaged research and teaching.1 Here are the questions we asked and what we learned:
What are the opportunities of practicing publicly-engaged scholarship?
- Serving as a Leader in Engaged Research and Teaching
- Interviewees are adamant that UC Davis has the potential to be a leader in publicly-engaged research and teaching. They cite UCD’s land grant mission and public funding as obligations for engagement. Interviewees expound that community engagement, when done correctly, is rigorous scholarship and generates knowledge as well as relationships that will become integral to the sustainability of the university. Interviewees add that in order to realize this vision, the university must ethically engage with non-university entities and listen to voices of those within the university, i.e., ethnic studies, and outside the university that are underrepresented in public policy and industry, and who remain excluded from conversations about institutional change.
- Reevaluating Promotion Criteria and University Titles
- Interviewees believe UCD is uniquely positioned to tailor merit and promotion criteria to facilitate excellence in research and teaching. The primary challenge interviewees experience is one of fitting the diversity of their work into current metrics for merit and promotion. This is compounded by the fact that recognition and incentives to carry out public forms of research and teaching is lacking. A related area that presents an opportunity to reassess research and instructional titles. University titles based on who is being taught and who does research are rapidly becoming cumbersome distinctions. For example, a Cooperative Extension Specialist may teach UC Davis undergraduates as well as professionals in agriculture; a tenure-track faculty member might teach workshops for K-12 educators.
- Supporting Interdisciplinary Collaboration
- Interviewees cite interdisciplinary collaboration as a key aspect of excellent publicly- engaged scholarship, and interviewees’ most successful, high-impact projects have been collaborative efforts, often through a UCD center or institute. Interviewees indicate that public scholarship should be considered in discussions about financially supporting interdisciplinary collaboration.
- Supporting Junior Scholars
- Interviewees also identify the opportunity for UCD to support junior colleagues and the next generation of scholars in rigorous publicly-engaged research. They suggest mentorship in community-engaged research and resources devoted to supporting junior faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates.
What are the perceived benefits of publicly-engaged scholarship?
- Serving Society and Communities
- One of the primary perceived benefits of engaging with non-university groups is the benefit to communities (entities outside the university), specifically serving the underserved and building relationships and capacity within communities. In addition to building community, interviewees perceive that engaging with non-university partners increases the likelihood of a project’s longevity and sustainability.
- Deepening Research and Learning
- With regard to teaching, interviewees pinpoint project-based classes, some in collaboration with a public or non-profit organization, as effective learning experiences for students. With regard to their own research, interviewees convey the benefits of increased personal reflection in the research process which leads to improved research questions and methods. It is worth noting that research and teaching often overlap in interviewees’ stories about public engagement.
- Creating Institutional Change in Higher Education
- Many interviewees cite public engagement as a means of practicing more effective diversity and inclusion in institutions of higher education. Interviewees raised questions about which community is being served, by whom, and for what purpose. Interviewees asked these questions as a way to draw attention to the history of the university in admitting some and excluding others. Many interviewees view public engagement as a means of addressing some of the persistent inequities in higher education.
What are the motivations for practicing publicly-engaged scholarship?
- Alternative Ways to Produce and Disseminate Knowledge
- Personal background, non-academic personal and childhood experiences, learning in community settings, and a desire to conduct practical and applied research are some of the primary reasons interviewees turn to non-university groups for research and teaching.
- Having an impact at a policy/industry level and at a personal level by solving particular social problems, addressing policy issues, or making a difference in the lives of people, are other important motivations for doing this type of work.
- Sense of Personal Obligation
- A number of interviewees find community engagement personally rewarding and are motivated by a personal sense of obligation given their position of privilege or seeing a need to support those that do not have that same privilege.
- Reward and Recognition
- Regardless of whether the university recognizes/values the work, interviewees indicate they are motivated by receiving validation for their work from outside the university in the form of grants/fellowships/funding, media attention, and/or awards.
For what purpose do interviewees interact with communities/the public?2
- Helping Populations Meet Their Needs
- Primarily, interviewees act with the purpose of helping a population or organization procure something it requires. This might be funding, recognition, a technology or material, or information.
- Accessing University Knowledge and Resources
- This is different from the purpose of supporting a population in fulfilling a need, in that the population is not described as articulating a need for this access and information, or the population does not seek out the university as a viable option for meeting its needs. In this interaction, interviewees serve as facilitators as they help non-university partners define needs and create avenues for addressing those needs.
- Informing Policy or Funding Decisions
- Interviewees often conduct research that informs policy decisions, budgeting, and/or funding decisions by government organizations.
In what ways do interviewees interact with communities/the public?
- Serving as Translators for Different Audiences
- Overwhelmingly, interviewees describe their role in a publicly-engaged project as one of a translator who communicates knowledge and information in different ways depending on the listener. Interviewees explain their publicly-engaged projects as having multiple outputs such as policy papers, peer-reviewed academic literature, curricula, websites, and art installations. In addition, interviewees give talks to people outside academia: policymakers, K-12 students, business professionals, activists, etc.
- Engaging in a Spirit of Humility and Commitment to a Population
- Interviewees also note how important it is to collaborate with non-university groups in a humble and committed way. They indicate that these collaborations were more than an exchange of resources; they were partnerships that in some cases continued for many years and influenced researchers’ career paths. Many interviewees describe how important it was to involve their non-university partners in every step of their research: from forming a research question, to analyzing the data, to publishing the research.
- Creating Conversations in Different Public Spheres
- Similar to their role as translators, interviewees often describe themselves as conversation facilitators or creators of conversational spaces. Related, interviewees create spaces physically outside of the university. These include classrooms, mobile workshops, and studios that, despite bearing names associated with the campus, are often more flexible spaces of co-learning. Often, interviewees struggle to maintain those spaces with grant money and administrative permissions.
- Going Beyond the Walls of the University
- Related to the previous theme, interviewees identify the importance of going outside the university, as universities often appear inaccessible to certain populations. Interviewees go to community centers, bars, K-12 schools, houses of worship, street corners, wildernesses, the ocean, and homes not only to meet people where they are, but to experience a different perspective that is not accessible at a desk, office, library, or university classroom.
What are the challenges to practicing publicly-engaged scholarship?
- Valuing Public Scholarship and Giving Recognition
- Interviewees question how much value and recognition public scholarship receives in university merit and promotion processes. They view their public scholarship as including rigorous research and teaching, yet find that many departments or committees view it merely as “service.” Interviewees also cite the differing criteria across disciplines for merit and promotion assessment as a hindrance to interdisciplinary collaboration.
- Receiving Financial Support
- Additionally, interviewees express a need for financial support targeted toward collaboration and sustained interaction. Specific funding is needed to compensate the time of their non-university collaborators, graduate student research positions, and facilitation of interdisciplinary projects, specifically in the form of course releases. With regard to funding for sustained interaction, interviewees suggest funding that is targeted to relationship-building at the beginning of projects, or funds that bring a group of people together to determine a relevant research question.
- Ensuring Institutional Leadership
- Finally, there was a prominent call for greater leadership to support public engagement, as well as university coordination across disciplinary and institutional divides. Interviewees acknowledge that individual coordination is insufficient in initiating more system-wide implementation, as communicating as an institution sends a more intentional message not only to non-university entities, but also groups and individuals within the university.
- 1. Between November 2017 and February 2018, fifty-three hour-long interviews were conducted with individuals holding academic titles in the Academic Senate and Academic Federation. Proposed interview questions focused on the interviewee’s experience doing engaged research and teaching. Most interviews focused on a reflection of the interviewee’s research and teaching at UC Davis, and the joys and challenges of working in an academic institution. The interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed based on four major questions: What are the motivations for practicing publicly-engaged scholarship?; What are its perceived benefits?; In what ways do interviewees interact with communities and for what purpose?; What are the opportunities and challenges to practicing publicly-engaged scholarship?
- 2. “Purpose” is distinct from “motivation” in that “motivation” refers to an interviewee’s reason for repeatedly engaging outside the university despite university hindrances and/ or lack of resources, and is more based on individual impetus. “Purpose” refers to what interviewees articulate as their immediate reason for engaging with a specific group, and is based more on the partnership between the interviewee and the individuals or entities with which they engage.