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Teaching IS Academic Engagement in the Public Sphere
May 6, 2014 - 8:42pm

Today’s post in the University of Venus’s on-going  Scholars Strike Back series comes from Laura S. Logan, Assistant Professor, and Stephanie Furrer, Associate Professor, both at Hastings College in Nebraska. Using their experiences of engagement in the academy and the community, Drs Logan and Furrer highlight an important component that is often overlooked in debates about public scholarship: teaching.

We read with interest Kristof’s February, “Professors, We Need You!” op-ed in the NYT, in which he offered a critique and a plea rolled into one, essentially arguing that too few professors are public intellectuals. Although Kristof casts a wide net of blame, it is professors he targets, leading readers to the tired stereotype of scholars in book-laden ivory towers hunched silently over statistical models that only five other professors on the planet understand. Respectfully, we find this critique utterly disconnected from the work we do.

We are two professors at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. Although teaching is our priority, we are both actively engaged in producing research as well. Moreover, the work we do as teachers, scholars and researchers flows together, and without question makes us stronger and more effective community members. Among the many rebuttals to Kristof’s characterization of professors, few have focused on teaching in higher education and how that contributes to public dialogue about important issues and leads to direct action informed by intellectual knowledge imparted in and out of the classroom. Countless numbers of college teachers (on and off the tenure track) are influencing public discourse and addressing critical problems within their communities. Not only did Kristof overlook teaching as a form of bridging the academic/public divide; he seemed to forget that public intellectuals often work in local communities – not on the national stage and not on Kristof’s radar.

Examples from our own experience include Dr. Laura S. Logan’s recent course on the School to Prison Pipeline. Her students – many of whom aspire to be educators, criminal justice workers, and policymakers – were not limited by the narrow disciplinarian silos to which Kristof refers, but rather learned about the School to Prison Pipeline through course material from history, criminology, public policy, law, education, critical race studies, and sociology. The final academic project called for small groups of students to collaborate and develop research-based Fact Sheets for specific stakeholders, such as lawmakers, school administrators and teachers, youth and parents, and law enforcement. On the last day of class, students mailed their Fact Sheets directly to stakeholders, including our state’s judiciary (which was at that time considering amending a law widely viewed by parents and advocates as contributing to the pipeline). In the fall, sociology students in Logan’s Applied Sociology in the Human Services course will learn grant-writing by writing a grant for a student run organization that provides food to low-income families in our community. In methods courses, students at our college routinely conduct research for non-profit community organizations, illuminating not only important social issues but also measuring the effectiveness of strategies used to address those issues. Teaching IS academic engagement in the public sphere.

Dr. Stephanie Furrer teaches developmental psychology courses to undergraduates who intend to be early child care professionals, teachers, counselors, nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and most likely, parents. In most courses, students are expected to extend theory and research that they are learning in the classroom to related issues within the community. For example, in Psychology of Aging, students are paired with members of a local assisted living/retirement community and spend several hours each week engaged with their community partners, not only discussing issues related to economics, politics, and religion, but also relating theory and research to their experiences with these aging individuals. In addition, stemming from a course titled, Get Outside: The Benefits of Nature on Child Development, Dr. Furrer works with undergraduate research assistants, partnering with a local agricultural center, Prairie Loft, to examine what it is about nature that positively affects attention and mood in elementary students. In Developmental Psychology, students examine food insecurity issues in America, and volunteer for a local food assistance program, Food4Thought, that sends bags of food home over the weekend with children whose families qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. To gain further insight into this particular program and the low-income families who utilize it, Dr. Furrer and her students recently completed a study that demonstrates not only the benefits of food assistance for school-aged children, but also dispels common misconceptions about parents who receive food assistance. Research from these projects has been presented both locally and regionally at research conferences, as well as to local public school administrators and community members. Teaching IS academic engagement in the public sphere.  

As individuals, we send letters to legislators and policymakers, roll up our sleeves to help our communities, and are active members of local, regional, and national organizations that regularly bridge the academic/public divide. Through these actions, we serve as positive, engaged role models for our students.  However, our most valuable contributions as public intellectuals surfaces from the work we do as teachers. Through instruction, mentoring and support, students learn how to evaluate social problems; how to conduct research that makes public issues visible; and how to make research accessible to their communities. Our students – and students all over the nation and globe – learn how to examine social issues from multiple perspectives, and how to work with others to collaboratively use their knowledge to articulate informed strategies to address those problems. Many of our students also put that knowledge into direct action. Students at our small college performed approximately 33,000 hours of community service during the last school year alone (2012-2013). We don’t just bridge the divide, we teach students how to be public intellectuals

We have not been on CNN or written an op-ed for the NYT but we, and teacher-scholars near and far, are quite unlike the image of the cloistered medieval monks to which Kristof likened professors. Teaching IS academic engagement in the public sphere. Kristof and other critics should take note.

Dr. Laura S. Logan is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Hastings College. Dr. Stephanie Furrer is Associate Professor of Psychology at Hastings College.

If you are interested in participating in our Scholars Strike Back series, please contact assistant editor, Gwendolyn Beetham.

 

 

 

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