Saturday, May 26, 2012

Academics and Public Engagement


I spent today and all day Thursday at an international academic conference that just happened to be held in my home city

I talked to many people about "community engagement" by academics.

There are some academics in my field who primarily see community engagement in relation to their teaching and their research (which few people who are not academics actually read).

However, there are many of my colleagues who want to be engaged actively with their communities.

Some in my discipline are getting involved in local non-governmental, non-profit organizations aimed at increasing and improving citizen participation in local policy deliberations.

The goal is to get citizens to meet and discuss issues and then cooperatively suggest policy proposals or even produce papers outlining key issues and debates to help inform others in their communities.

One of my colleagues has spent considerable time studying successful cooperative movements and can provide struggling cooperatives with some helpful suggestions based on his research.

I really applaud these efforts.

Mostly, however, it seems that academics don't really know how to "do" public engagement and do not seem very aware of the 'public pulse.'

On the one hand, we might ask why we would expect academics, as opposed to some other profession, to be "engaged"?

However, on the other hand, most of us academics work in public universities paid by tax dollars.

Although we "teach," it is a reasonable question to ask whether we have some responsibility to share our research findings or academic skills with communities that might benefit from them?

The film Inside Job demonstrated how academics in the disciplines of business and economics have benefited financially from their too-cozy relationships with the corporate sphere.

Indeed, the film cast the academic profession as self-interested and corrupted.

I agree that it definitely can be both corrupt and self-interested; but, more often than not I think it is simply too insular.

So, how can the academic profession redeem itself through community engagement?

How can academics productively engage with wider communities, not just elite interests?

I started blogging because I wanted to employ my research skills to a project that would reach a wider audience, but is that community engagement?

What does it mean to be engaged and how can we do it better, and more responsibly?

I hope that some of the readers of this post can share their thoughts and recommendations.


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