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Jordan McNeill is a doctoral student in special education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter at @jordanmcneill89.

How will my work matter?

When I decided to pursue a doctoral degree at a research-intensive university, this was the question at the forefront of my mind. As a practitioner, I was familiar with the criticism of researchers in the ivory tower, conducting study after study without ever really impacting anyone or anything outside the lab. I wanted to dedicate myself to research and work that meant something, that mattered, but how? Luckily, my adviser and mentors prioritized engaged scholarship and introduced it into my vocabulary early on in my studies. Now I see engaged scholarship as a nonnegotiable part of my own academic pursuits and believe it should be similarly nonnegotiable for the academic community as a whole.

Like much of the jargon of academia, engaged scholarship takes on different forms and names depending upon the discipline and the individual. Community-based participatory research, public scholarship and action research are just a few examples. It is most often thought of within the context of community engaged research but can also occur within teaching or service activities. As depicted by Jeffrey Howard’s Venn diagram above, engaged scholarship occurs at the intersection of community involvement, community benefit and scholarly advancement. Beyond those primary elements, the content and method of engagement can vary widely.

To avoid reducing engagement to an academic buzzword, it is helpful to begin with what it isn’t. Engagement is not synonymous with simple volunteerism. It is not using a community to recruit participants for a pre-existing research study or imposing an academic agenda onto a group. And, although public dissemination of research is important, engagement is not a one-way transfer of information. In fact, engaged scholarship actively counters each of these oversimplifications. In its truest form, engagement should be collaborative, transformative, responsive and mutually beneficial. Community partners are just that -- partners in every step of the research or project process. These partners are integral to developing research questions, determining interventions or action steps, and evaluating the impact of the scholarship on the community.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate in a community engagement fellowship at my university. The experience allowed my research partner and me to implement an engaged research project while taking part in seminars with a group of like-minded graduate students. I was so inspired by my colleagues’ work, including projects to develop a youth mental health support program, to address racial inequities in local schools and to evaluate an HIV prevention program in China. The fellowship group highlighted how engagement cuts across fields and disciplines, with scholars representing health, education, anthropology, social work, geography and more. The support of such a group proved invaluable in growing my understanding of and commitment to meaningful, engaged scholarship.

This experience presented the opportunity to combine my research with my service by improving the accessibility of educational programming at the zoological park at which I have volunteered for many years. By beginning with a needs assessment, our research team quickly discovered that the capacity-building needs of the organization were far different from our original ideas. We had thought too big, too fast, but listening to our partners led us to action steps that were necessary and feasible. Although this changed the direction we had originally anticipated, it highlighted the responsive nature of engaged scholarship and the importance of meeting the needs of an identified community. Our research often felt messy, with our questions and methods continually evolving as the organization changed and new needs developed. But in the end, we saw our research make a difference -- we implemented staff trainings, assisted in policy development, saw shifts in knowledge and attitudes, and shared our process with other similar organizations. Fully participating in engaged scholarship convinced me that I could, unquestionably, do work that matters.

Engagement is necessary for the very purpose of higher education. Chances are, if you take a moment to pull up the mission statement of your university, you will find some sort of language along the lines of public good, societal benefit or community development. Such scholarship responds to critics who question the value of universities by addressing real problems in the real world through a scholarly lens. Unfortunately, faculty and students who prioritize engaged scholarship often remain marginalized by evaluation and tenure processes that fail to rank engagement alongside traditional measures of success like publication numbers and citations. If higher education truly endeavors to address problems of social relevance beyond its own laboratories and campuses, institutions must re-envision the types of scholarship they esteem and reward. Those of us choosing to identify as engaged scholars must seek out universities, mentors and programs sharing that commitment, but I fully believe it is worth the extra effort to engage in something meaningful for us and for our communities. Our work does matter.

How do you engage in scholarship that matters? Let us know in the comments!