Engaged Scholarship Generating New Enthusiasm and Promise in A&S

Submitted by Cate Fosl, Associate Professor of Women's and Gender Studies and Director of the Anne Braden Institute


What is “Engaged Scholarship” in the liberal arts and sciences? In part, it is merely a new way of thinking about and synthesizing approaches to academic research and practice that have gone on for a very long time.

Two principles lie at the core of Engaged Scholarship: 1) it is done in partnership with urban, state, regional, national, and/or global communities; and 2) it involves a shared authority at all stages of the research process, from defining a problem, choosing theories/methods to address it, conducting research, developing outcomes, and evaluating the products produced.  From the very start, that collaborative process differs from a more traditional research agenda-- in which a scholar identifies a topic or problem, generates a set of questions and a methodology through which to examine it, and from the findings produces conclusions which contribute to knowledge in his or her field.

Engaged Scholarship is a long-valued tradition that evolved along with some liberal arts disciplines, such as anthropology, and in interdisciplinary fields like urban studies, women’s and gender studies, and Pan-African studies.  Its insights have been basic to the new energy in fields like cultural geography.  A&S has several professors whose careers have been devoted to this kind of engaged research, and newer hires such as those in public history for whom Engaged Scholarship is pivotal to their work.   While a considerable proportion of Engaged Scholarship comes out of the social sciences, some of the most exciting projects nationally over the last decade have emerged from the arts and humanities (see an exciting new online peer-reviewed journal showcasing this work)-- and even the natural sciences.

The idea of Engaged Scholarship has generated new enthusiasm and promise across the College of Arts and Sciences this past year.  In part, this impetus has been building quietly for quite a while, at least since UofL received the Carnegie Foundation classification as a “community-engaged institution” in 2008—one of only 108 institutions of higher learning to hold that designation.  The renewal of that certification for 2014 has heightened the conversations further.

Most A&S professors would agree that engaged research is positive.  But how to evaluate its outcomes in annual reviews and for promotion and tenure remains controversial.  The results of Engaged Scholarship may be peer-reviewed in a broader sense, but their dissemination does not always take the form of a published scholarly journal article, instead perhaps a policy paper or a public art installation.  A&S faculty and administrators have long been grappling with the issue of evaluation at the individual or department level.  On April 5, 2013, the College hosted its first-ever faculty roundtable discussion on the subject, entitled “Engaged Scholarship:  what is it and how does it impact your career?”  About 25 faculty members—from untenured assistant professors to chairs—gathered for a discussion moderated by Cate Fosl as part of an internship in the A&S Dean's Office of International, Diversity, and Outreach programs, mentored by A&S Associate Dean Nefertiti Burton. Kicking off the discussion were four faculty members who have been leaders in Engaged Scholarship within the College and within their fields.  These include:

  1. Dr. Theresa Rajack-Talley (then) Chair of Pan-African Studies, discussing the imperative for those with intellectual and material resources to bring them to bear on social problems.  As an example, Dr. Talley described her work with the Ministry of National Security of Trinidad and Tobago, aiming to contribute to crime and violence reduction in twenty-two highest-crime communities by evaluating social interventions and investments commissioned to NGO's and CBO's as part of a community action component to the program;
  2. Dr. Lisa Markowitz, Chair of Anthropology, discussing the complexities of bringing a class to work with a statewide nonprofit, Community Farm Alliance, gathering data on the status of Louisville access to healthy foods for a report to which she was also a major contributor (see Markowitz's more recent work on community food in the Winter 2013 special issue of UofL's Sustain Magazine, which she guest edited.)
  3. Dr. Lauren Heberle, Assistant Professor of Sociology, discussing her work as Associate Director of UofL’s Center for Environmental Policy and Management (CEPM), which seeks to provide research and technical assistance to local, state, and tribal governments, businesses, and non-profit organizations regarding sustainable environmental policy and program development and evaluation. Because community engagement in environmental decision-making is central to CEPM's mission, all of the projects Heberle oversees involve some level of community and stakeholder partnerships.  Locally, for example, she and her team work closely with government and nonprofit groups on issues of sustainability, environmental justice and protection in West Louisville, specifically Park Hill.  Heberle's presentation outlined the multiple roles and relationships essential to success in these collaborations, from grant writing to partner advocacy. (For a full list of CEPM projects, visit their website);
  4. Dr. Daniel Vivian, Assistant Professor of History and Director of the public history program, discussing his Spring 2012 Historic Preservation Field Work course, in which public history graduate students conducted a historic survey of the Sadieville, postbellum railroad town in Scott County.  Leaders of the town, renowned as one of the early departure points for the African American "exoduster" westward migration movement in the late 1870s, had long wanted a listing in the National Register of Historic Places, but because of limited funding and competing priorities, they did not get very far on their own.  Vivian's students prepared architectural documentation forms on sixty-six buildings in and around Sadieville; researched and wrote a twenty page narrative history of the community using original sources; and prepared a National Register nomination for a historic district encompassing about 2/3rds of the town.  The architectural survey forms are now part of the permanent collections of the Kentucky Heritage Commission.  The class also prepared a report to the city of Sadieville with recommendations for historic preservation initiatives. The project was successful, earning a commendation from the Sadieville town government and generating considerable positive publicity.  Moreover, on July 30, 2013, Sadieville received a National Register of Historic Places designation. More information

These professors and the other participants in the forum expressed passion and enthusiasm for Engaged Scholarship but also frustration with how it can be undervalued and its complexity misunderstood. Those present agreed the wider university community should be encouraged to understand the labor and expertise involved in these endeavors, while engaged scholars for their part must recognize the importance of including traditional scholarship in their early career and fully documenting their projects from process to product in greater detail.

In addition, those in attendance agreed that the College needs more "consciousness-raising" discussions on this subject. Suggested next steps included a plan to hold more educational sessions on Engaged Scholarship in 2013-14.  In September, the provost and Faculty Senate sponsored a Faculty Engagement Symposium which had significant A&S participation.

Stay tuned for more College action on Engaged Scholarship in 2013-14!