'But Does It Count?'

We have a problem with how we define and value the many ways in which faculty members engage with the public

June 23, 2014

There’s no such thing as the ivory tower. Today, colleges and universities are not isolated enclaves, and they probably never were. Public engagement is, and always has been, an essential part of the mission of higher education. The trouble is: Lots of people inside and outside of academe just don’t believe that.

Here are three points to set the stakes:

  • First, academics of all sorts are already deeply engaged with the public in many different ways.
  • Second, many universities explicitly recognize public engagement as a category that may count toward hiring, tenure, or promotion.
  • Third, in the United States and in academe itself, the widespread perception is that most faculty members do not engage with the public—either because they don’t want to or because they know they won’t be rewarded for it.

The contradiction between the first two points and the third reveals that we can do a better job communicating to the public how we already connect our work inside the institution with the world outside it. Before we can disseminate our message, however, we need to have some internal conversations.

I suggest we start those conversations by asking how our institutions integrate public engagement into hiring, tenure, and promotion guidelines. We need to think about "sustained public engagement" as its own category of evaluation, something that doesn’t quite fit into the standard boxes of scholarship or service. The goal here is not to force public engagement on anyone, but rather to carve out a place for it in the faculty career by encouraging, assessing, and counting diverse kinds of work.

The advent of web journalism and social media has created countless modes for academics to reach a broader audience. As a profession, we have responded. Spend a few hours reading news and opinion pieces, surfing interesting blogs, or dipping into conference-based hashtags on Twitter, and you will find academic voices speaking out—everywhere. Even more academics are busy organizing, advocating, sharing their findings, and doing the kinds of community-based work that long predated blogging.

Outside of a few specific fields, such as law, public history, social work, and agricultural extension programs, the perception is that this kind of engagement doesn’t "count." Patricia Limerick, president of the Organization of American Historians, recently put out a call to locate scholars who do public work. In response, Matthew G. Schoenbachler, a professor of history at the University of North Alabama, wrote that all such efforts are just "pro bono—the entire academic system of incentives and rewards militates against such activities."

That was my attitude, too. When I started writing for mass media, I was regularly asked by colleagues, "Does it count?" "No," I would reply, laughing.

Oddly enough, it probably could count. My university includes "scholarship of engagement"—a phrase that emerged from the expansive taxonomy of scholarship pioneered by Ernest Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching—as one of the types of scholarship that count for tenure or promotion. Syracuse University employs the phrase "publicly engaged scholarship" in its tenure and promotion documents. The University of Illinois uses both "public engagement" and "public service" in its tenure-and-promotion policies, recognizing the problem of categorizing diverse acts of engagement in the standard framework of teaching, research, and service.

Other universities categorize such activity solely as service. Portland State University, for example, uses the phrase "community outreach." Two-year colleges routinely link service to tenure and promotion, with the potential for that service to be done outside the university. At Central Oregon Community College, for example, full professors will "regularly serve the community as an expert resource."

Just having the category in campus policies does not necessarily mean faculty members will engage with the public. An associate professor at a mid-American public research university wrote me that her institution did consider "excellence in service and outreach," including community outreach, for promotion. In her department, however, she was told that her "actual job breakdown is made up of ‘60 percent teaching and 40 percent research’—i.e., technically no service. So service wasn’t seen as very important to getting tenure." Wisely, she spent her time on her teaching and research.

We live in an era of shifting workloads and a ratcheting up of requirements for tenure and promotion, even as new administrative duties and assessment eat away at the time many faculty members once used for teaching and scholarship. Meanwhile, the fraught nature of the job market enables credential inflation. Research universities demand more and better publications. Teaching-oriented institutions, even those with heavy teaching loads, require peer-reviewed scholarship. We’re not at the point where you need a book contract to get an adjunct gig, but that feels like the direction we are headed.

In this world, administrators and academics can pile on new requirements, new tasks, and new obligations, all without changing the reward structure. Academics can also become more conservative in their work, chasing after increasingly scarce markers of prestige such as elite publications and rare grants. In such a context, to innovate in form means to risk one’s career.

These pressures also create a false dichotomy between peer-reviewed scholarship and public engagement (written or otherwise), as if to do one requires you to eschew the other. Emphasizing the potential of public engagement does not have to diminish the vast social good that comes from our core activities of teaching and scholarship. In fact, publicizing the importance of college teaching and specialized scholarship is a major aspect of the scholarship of engagement. People defending research should want more incentives, not fewer, for doing this kind of work.

Still, snobbery in academe persists. Junior scholars worry about listing their blogs on their CVs lest they get condemned for spending time on something frivolous. David Leonard, an associate professor and chair of the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University, who also writes on occasion for The Chronicle, once heard an administrator compare public writing to playing video games. I myself have encountered plenty of questions from fellow academics about when I’ll get back to doing my "real" work. If one must be either a popularizer or a "true" scholar, no wonder many faculty members react harshly to the former.

Fortunately, one can do both, especially if we better integrate engagement into the reward structures of our profession.

Here are some next steps I propose:

  • Start by figuring out just what your institution and program does and does not count for tenure and promotion.
  • Within our diverse disciplines, begin conversations about protecting and rewarding public engagement. We need to do this as faculty members. In fact, that’s what many administrators want. For example, Kriste Lindenmeyer, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences and the graduate school at Rutgers University at Camden, told me that while she can advocate for public engagement, it is in fact faculty groups that set tenure-and-promotion standards at her campus. Faculty have to take the lead.
  • Go to your national professional organizations and ask them to continue or start discussions about how "sustained public engagement" might be defined, assessed, and valorized within your discipline and type of institution.
  • Finally, if the circumstances of your life and job permit it, think about the ways in which your expertise might serve and be served by engagement with the public.

The myth of the ivory tower dismisses the public academic as an aberration and the specialized scholar as detached. Neither is true. But we do have a problem with how we define, count, and value many types of public engagement. If we can improve this and tear down the mythic tower, we can make sure that all of our varied but important types of work get the credit they deserve.

David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University. He will be writing a series of columns on the ways in which the people and institutions of higher education are engaging the public. Follow him on Twitter: @lollardfish.