Making Use Of All Our Faculties: Public Scholarship And The Future Of Campus Compact

March 9, 2009

Making Use Of All Our Faculties: Public Scholarship And The Future Of Campus Compact

Theme: Embedding Engagement

By David Scobey, Donald W. and Ann M. Harward Professor of Community Partnerships and
Director, Harward Center For Community Partnerships
Bates College, ME

Constituent Group:Faculty

Last week — it is early July as I write? — I found myself in one of the textile mills that once formed the economic heart of Lewiston, Maine. The mills began closing in the 1970s, but now, after two decades of abandonment, the long brick buildings are being reclaimed by businesses and non-profits. I was visiting Museum L-A, a grass-roots initiative dedicated to creating a museum of labor and industry in Lewiston-Auburn — for the purposes of both cultural preservation and downtown renewal. At Bates College, where I direct the Harward Center For Community Partnerships, we have collaborated with Museum L-A for two years on a series of oral history and archival research projects. The partnership holds a special pleasure for me as a cultural historian and American Studies scholar. Over the past six months, I have worked with a team of students to research and script a traveling exhibit on the world of Lewiston millworkers from the Depression to deindustrialization. It will serve, I hope, as, a kind of “rough cut” for the larger story the permanent Museum will tell.

Today I am here to see Rachel Desgrosseilliers , Executive Director of Museum L-A; we meet amidst the photographs, union records, company newsletters, looms, and letters that she and others have carefully saved from the dumpster. The museum is open two mornings a week, but it is still more an attic than an exhibition-space, containing the raw material for a local museum with more than local meaning. Rachel has shown me the latest treasure, a manilla envelope of memorabilia given by Roland Gosselin, an elderly veteran of Bates Mill. There are family photos of parents and grandparents (all three generations worked in the mills) and of M. Gosselin in uniform during World War II; there are snapshots of the St. Jean-Baptiste Day parade floats he was famous in Lewiston for designing. Then I take a little breath with the kind of geeky thrill that only the adventures of research can bring. I have pulled out an invitation to a formal banquet from 1966. On the back is written, “Best wishes, Maurice Chevalier.”

When my academic career turned toward civic engagement in the late 1990s, Campus Compact had been leading the movement for more than a decade. Over those twenty years, I would argue, three of its accomplishments (by no means, its only ones) have been especially consequential for our movement. First, Compact mobilized a broad, visible, national coalition of academic leaders to renew the commitment of American higher education to the goals and skills of democratic citizenship. Second, Compact created an infrastructure of offices, staff, and programs that enabled colleges and universities to turn that commitment into practice?most of all, the practice of undergraduate service-learning. And finally Compact nurtured a stunning spread of service-learning pedagogy and course development among the faculty grass-roots. If this were a PowerPoint presentation, I’d distill these accomplishments in three numerical bullet-points: 975 (member presidents), 31 (state affiliates), and 22,000 (estimated faculty who currently integrate community work into their teaching).

Of course success has exposed new issues and catalyzed new debates about the next twenty years. Barbara Holland and Elizabeth Hollander rightly argue that the embedding of civic engagement more deeply across academic institutions remains one of our key unfinished tasks. We are well into a period of reflection and experimentation, it seems to me, about the values, programs, and practices that such embedding would entail. Recent Compact initiatives explore problem-based learning and departmental engagement as models that move beyond the atomized courses and student placements of early service-learning. John Saltmarsh and Harry Boyte, among others, seek to reframe academic engagement from a discourse of community service to one of civic learning and citizen action. Other voices (I count myself among them) have urged a parallel reframing of the core practices of the movement from course- and semester-based service-learning to longer-term, more sustained and integrative partnerships. Such multi-year “collaboratories,” as we call them at Bates, would be co-created by academic and community partners and grounded in the assumption that each collaborator brings resources, needs, plans, and critical reflection to the project. Their criteria of success would include not only public benefit “out there,” but also educational innovation “in here”: new courses (including those taught and team-taught by community practitioners), new curricular clusters and pathways, new interdisciplinary formations, new research questions, new scholarly projects informed by, and in turn informing, the public work.

It is this last issue that I want to underscore. If we are to embed engagement more deeply across academic institutions over the next twenty years, surely one core goal must be to take seriously, more seriously than we have, the intellectual and scholarly generativity of public work. Neither the mainstream professoriat nor even engaged faculty, I would argue, have truly committed ourselves to the academic (not only pedagogical) value of civic engagement. We have practiced community collaboration as a transformative medium of student learning much more intently than we have pursued it as a transformative medium of scholarly and artistic production. We dispatch our students to places like Museum L-A, where they do extraordinary work with and for our community partners. Yet too often we do not go ourselves, not with our own vocation of knowledge-making and meaning-making in mind. And so we do not bring to our public work our particular gifts as scholars and artists: intellectual curiosity, analytical subtlety, research craft, doggedness, passion, and playfulness.

This is one reason, it seems to me, that civic engagement remains marginal to faculty cultures (both institutional and disciplinary) and model pathways of academic careers. Until we trust (and demonstrate) the intellectual value of civic engagement, we will unwittingly collude in that marginalization; and we will hobble our efforts to embed the institutional changes that Holland and Hollander advocate. What’s more, we will shortchange our partners, depriving them of the full measure of our attention. And by missing the opportunity to include them in our community of inquiry, we deprive ourselves of the questions and discoveries that they catalyze — deprive ourselves of the encounter with Maurice Chevalier. It is because of Bates’ partnership with Museum L-A, after all, that I was able to open M. Gosselin’s envelope; it is because of my academic vocation that I can help make sense of what was inside.

How is it that Roland Gosselin came to have a card signed by the famed cabaret singer Maurice Chevalier? Even before pulling it out, I knew part of the answer; several interviewees had boasted about Chevalier’s appearance at the centennial banquet of Bates Mill. Yet the invitation itself, with its heavy stock, embossed script, and scrawled autograph, added layers of meaning to the fact of the visit; it made clear the cultural ambition of the Twin Cities’ Francophone community in its heyday and the pride with which its achievements are recalled today. As M. Gosselin knew in bringing it to the Museum, the card added gravitas, the aura of the real object, to our planned exhibition. George Washington slept here; Maurice Chevalier sang here.

Yet for me, the heft of the document involved more than just the authenticity with which it invested our story-telling. The card raised complex interpretive questions about the interaction between local community and mass culture, about the distinctively ethnic and regional ways in which people lived a supposedly homogenizing modernity. Was Chevalier’s appearance in Lewiston part of a Francophone geography that linked Quebec, Franco-America, France, and other places in a common cultural archipelago? Did it point to the penetration of mass culture into Maine milltowns, or conversely to the distinctive agency of “provincial” places within the landscape of celebrity and entertainment? (It was about just the same time that Muhammed Ali defended his world heavyweight title in Lewiston.) Were Franco-Mainers paying homage to Chevalier, to the influence of Hollywood, Paris, and Manhattan? Or was the singer paying his dues to the local worlds within which he had to seek a following?

These are an academic’s questions, far from the concerns of Roland Gosselin and Rachel Desgrosseilliers. They are provoked by my peculiar position on the borderlands, so to speak, between my community partners and my scholarly colleagues. The civic engagement movement needs to inhabit those borderlands not only for teaching and public problem-solving, but also (or rather consequently) for scholarly work. If the story of M. Gosselin’s card shows us anything, it is that community collaboration provokes academics to see new connections, ask new questions, hear critiques of old paradigms. In making our partners part of our community of inquiry, we can return the favor, giving back new contexts and understandings. The researcher’s lens can be diminishing and reductionist, we know. Yet if framed by an ethics of collaboration, it can also be illuminating, empowering, and bracing. In the particular case of M. Gosselin’s card, it seems to me, a cultural historian can challenge a received picture of Lewiston and the Franco-Maine experience as local, provincial, insular, and defensive — a picture shared by both its critics and its partisans. Chevalier’s autograph suggests a different reality: a complex weaving of local and global, ethnic and cosmopolitan. A Francophone mill community celebrated its resilience in the global economy with a long-lived French star, mobilizing his urbanity for its own local purposes.

As this story suggests, pursuing engaged scholarship does not mean focusing primarily on what Ernest Boyer called “the scholarship of engagement.” To be sure, rigorous research into the process, methods, and outcomes of community engagement is essential to our work, and venues like the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning have been invaluable in catalyzing and disseminating it. Over the next twenty years, we will need more such sites: other journals, regular convenings, forums for theory and debate. And yet I would argue that the full promise of public scholarship will come not with the maturing of a professional apparatus dedicated to community-based teaching and research (as useful as that will be). It will come when we have disseminated a commitment to the intellectual generativity of civic engagement across the whole domain of Boyer’s “scholarship of inquiry,” making knowledge about the world in new ways by making it for and with public collaborators.

I hope it is clear that what I am not advocating is the academicization of the civic engagement movement, a coup d’etat by the research professoriat. Nor am I calling for a model of the public dissemination or translation of scholarship, for the dispensing of academic wisdom or critique out (or down) to the lay public in bite-sized morsels. To the contrary: if we are to heed Holland and Hollander’s call to deeply embed engagement in faculty careers and scholarly practices, it will mean institutionalizing new kinds of careers and practices. We will want to evolve not only new and rigorous models of tenure and promotion, but also a host of smaller-scale practices that lie under the rock of the tenure question: new habits by which research projects are intuited, conceptualized, undertaken, and ended, new opportunities to fund community-based research and train students to take part in it. We will want to create times and spaces for reflective conversation with community interlocutors about the intellectual implications of our partnerships. We will want to experiment with new genres of writing and new practices of assessment and critique. We will want to revisit the ethics of research, amending policies — for instance, those on intellectual property and human subjects — that presume the autonomy of the research scholar and the passivity of the research subject. (“Roland Gosselin” and “Rachel Desgrosseilliers” are not pseudonyms but the names of actual partners and peers, whose story I tell with their permission.)

Indeed the risk of embracing the intellectual importance of civic engagement is not that it will challenge academic practice too little, but it may seem too much. It asks faculty to reconceive the social compact that governs our labor and our access to resources, making public engagement not a goal of every scholar’s work but a legitimizing commitment of our institutions. And so it is important to remember, as we undertake the long march that Holland and Hollander advocate, that engaged scholarship will be a joy as well as a responsibility, calling on us to be playful, exploratory, curious, and rigorous. Anyone who has taught a service-learning class knows the exhilaration that our students express when “get out of the bubble,” as the saying goes, activating their liberal learning in the practice of public life. We too will be energized by closing the circuit between our intellectual vocation and our civic life.

A few days after my meeting at Museum L-A, I drive to Canton, Maine, a town some twenty miles north of Lewiston, at the invitation of Sue Gammon, the leader of a local citizens’ committee. Canton has suffered from job losses and repeated floods in the past decade. It received federal and state funding to relocate dozens of families from the flood plain of Whitney Brook to the town’s upland hills; at the same time, it seeks ways of reversing the area’s economic decline by redeveloping the flood plain as an environmental and educational resource. Sue wants to know how Bates College might help. “Maybe we can create a recreational corridor or an environmental education center,” she tells me on a drive through town. “What do you think?” I do not know and tell her so, but I start making a list of colleagues — an environmental economist, an archaeologist, a hydrologist — to contact.

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