2.2.5 | Collaborative Futures: Critical Reflections on Publicly Active Graduate Education

  • Post category:2.2 / Book Review
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By Cecilia Orphan and John Saltmarsh

Amanda Gilvin, Georgia M. Roberts, and Craig Martin (Eds.) 2012. Collaborative Futures: Critical Reflections on Publicly Active Graduate Education, Syracuse, N.Y.: The Graduate School Press, Syracuse University. (409 pages)

In the culture of the academy, unspoken messages have a powerful influence. Yet, as new, discordant narratives emerge, what was once unspoken now surfaces in ways that allow for discourse, critique, and the creation of a new narrative and a new set of cultural norms. This book is part of that critique, a shaping of a new narrative, and the catalyst for culture change in higher education.

Book Review: Collaborative Futures – Critical Reflections on Publicly Active Graduate Education

The traditional, hegemonic narrative is framed like this: “To become university-based public scholars, young people may have to put their ambition in cold storage for a decade and a half, go to graduate school, write a conventional dissertation, get a tenure-track job, publish in academic journals, give papers to small groups of fellow specialists, and comply with all the requirements of deference, conformity, and hoop-jumping that narrow the road to tenure while also narrowing the travelers on that road. Then, once tenured, these people will take up the applied work that appealed to them in the first place” (89).

The new narrative tells a story of scholars for whom public commitments shape their understanding of how knowledge is created (through collaboration and networked knowledge generation), by whom knowledge is created (both academics and non-academics), where it is created (on campus and in the community), and the purpose of this knowledge creation (for public problem-solving). A sense of public purpose also shapes their understanding of the role of the university in society, and the larger civic, democratic mission of higher education. Thus, these young scholars, increasingly representing historically underrepresented populations, look to the campus as a place where they can thrive in their careers, not as a place to be stifled. Not only are they unwilling to put off their scholarly passions until they achieve tenure, but also they see part of their role as being agents of change in altering the systems that they find limiting. They are reshaping the academy into a place where they can find a home. This book is a way to tell their stories.

Collaborative Futures is a collection of twenty-one chapters organized into three parts. Part One includes a context for “publicly active graduate education” in the United States. That context is conveyed through original essays as well as the reprinting of seminal writings such as the 1999 Kellogg Commission Report on “Engaged Institutions” of higher education and Ernest Boyer’s 1996 essay, “The Scholarship of Engagement.” Part Two, “Programs of Action,” offers essays that ground the work of publicly engaged scholars in the real worlds of their campuses and communities—and in particular their graduate programs. Part Three provides reflections on the personal and professional trajectories of publicly engaged scholars who are raising questions, recognizing the complexities of epistemologies and organizational change, and, fundamentally, offering hope.

Collaborative Futures originated out of the convergence of three distinct but interrelated efforts. First, it came about because of Imagining America, a national consortium of over 90 colleges and universities committed to publicly engaged scholarship in the arts, humanities, and design. Imagining America is one of the most innovative and path-breaking organizations leading the civic engagement movement in the United States. One of the bold and refreshing initiatives to come out of Imagining America in the early 2000s was the Tenure Team Initiative, the second key catalyst for this book, which produced the 2008 report, Scholarship in Public, examining the careers of engaged scholars and the institutional implications for advancing community engaged scholarship. The work of the Tenure Team Initiative had an important influence on the scholars contributing to Collaborative Futures. The third and most important grounding for the book was the Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) fellowship program at Imagining America. PAGE provides a space for young, publically engaged scholars to navigate and challenge the dominant narrative and find a collective to shape a new narrative of the future of higher education (Cecilia Orphan, one of the authors of this review, is a PAGE fellow).

The essays in this volume offer advice to graduate students and their advisors, describe publicly-active graduate experiences, and offer a conceptual, philosophic, and political grounding for public engagement in higher education. Importantly, most of the book was written by graduate students and early-career faculty members. This is likely why parts of it read like a survival guide for publicly engaged or activist graduate students—the authors are either near graduation or have recently graduated and the experience is still fresh in their memories.

Collaborative Futures is an effort to fill a gap in civic engagement literature that largely ignores the graduate student experience. With a few notable exceptions (O’Meara, 2007, 2008; Stanton, 2006), most existing studies of community engagement focus on the undergraduate experience. Another significant contribution of this book is its at times radical exploration of unspoken topics about higher education and the graduate experience. The first is the socialization process students experience, including the messages that are sent about what kind of work is often valued (single-author, peer-review, traditional) and where graduates should end up after graduation (at elite, high research productivity, private or flagship universities).

Yet, not everyone pursuing a doctorate wants to do “traditional” research, nor does everyone want a linear career path to the professorate. This leads into the next unspoken topic: nonacademic career paths for recent graduates, specifically those in administration, nonprofit, or the public sector. The gold standard for a newly minted PhD is a tenure-track job, yet given the overproduction of PhDs and the disappearing nature of these positions, for many this is an unattainable and often undesirable goal.

This book also explores issues of diversity that extend beyond the trendiness of diversity initiatives and explores the relationship of underrepresented populations (students and faculty) to public commitments and engaged scholarship. It also raises questions about institutional self-interest, and asks hard questions about how institutions benefit from this work (reputation, diversified public relations, and funding). This isn’t to say that institutions should not benefit—but these benefits must be weighed against some of the often damaging aspects of service initiatives and unequal power structures within partnerships in marginalized communities.

Most importantly, though, this book offers a direct challenge to the positivist aspirations of the academy and makes an effort to include often-excluded voices. Perhaps the most robust and concise articulation of these efforts is in the foreword by Kevin Bott (Associate Director of Imagining America) in which he describes, through a process of self-reflection, the way in which the dominant framing in service learning imposes a disempowering orientation of the university towards the community. Bott grapples with the process he went through in graduate school, the internal conflict caused by the academic socialization process, and his own deep desire to do meaningful, public work while finding unity of his academic and civic impulses. Bott forces readers to continue to ponder the important question of how to keep higher education affordable for all people in our ever-diversifying society. Finally, he challenges those in the higher education community to ground efforts to reclaim the civic mission of higher education within a “broader theory of change related to the revival of robust participatory democracy at large” (p. xxvii).

One of the authors of this book review (Orphan) is currently a graduate student going through a similar experience in her program. Her advisor and the faculty in her program are deeply supportive of her desire for a publicly active graduate education, yet she receives messages at every turn that are incongruent with a publicly active academic life. Messages about what is valued are narrow and exclusive (single-author, peer-review scholarship, tenure at very high research universities, etc.). Graduate students are considered a failure by some if they do not secure a tenure-track job at a research university even when that is not where most of the jobs are or where most of the graduates will end up in academic positions. Aside from a scarcity of opportunity in the traditional realm, some of these students (the graduate student author of this review included) do not want that life, professionally or personally.

The essays in this book were deeply resonant (for Orphan) because they are grounded in experience in ways that explore the challenges in these dimensions of the graduate student and early career faculty experience. The chapter by Curtis, Rose, and Bross (Chapter 4) explores the reshaping of the graduate student experience as fundamental to the broader civic changes needed in higher education. They are not waiting for tenure—they want higher education institutions that create legitimate space for a new generation of publicly active scholars. They also call out false assumptions about the lack of rigor of service-learning pedagogy and engaged research and advocate for equal inclusion of these methods within the canon of acceptable scholarly production. They also roundly reject the notion that as aspiring academics, we must put off our public work until we graduate, have tenure, or publish our first books.

Somewhat more controversial is Chapter 9, in which Day, Becerra, Ruiz, and Power explore non-academic career options for recent graduates. This refreshing chapter includes stories of many publicly active graduate students who went on to find employment in community organizations, government, and public life. The authors also observe that despite increased efforts to recruit and retain academics of color, many of these scholars end up taking jobs outside of higher education. One potential reason for this is the lack of respect for the civic impulses of these scholars. Dixon and Shotwell (in Chapter 18) offer recommendations for radicalizing the graduate experience in order to preserve political activism as one avenue for engagement. They write, “Grad school often creates exhausted, insecure, status-conscious people who distrust their own judgments and are thus more susceptible to the prevailing norms and styles of the academy” (p. 335). In order to resist these negative dynamics, the authors suggest that graduate students view the university as a tool for organizing, work with undergraduate students, organize their fellow graduate students, publicly question professionalization and individualism, and build accountability to larger movements into academic life. In particular, the authors’ discussion centers on the socialization process in graduate school and how it perpetuates academic norms that are undemocratic and unsupportive of the public mission of higher education.

This is a nice complement to the advice to advisors of graduate students given by Krabil (Chapter 15). The title of the chapter, “Graduate Mentoring Against Common Sense,” begins by invoking Antonio Gramsci to the effect that common sense is the detritus of accepted truth from past eras. Graduate students, to continue with Gramsci, receive hegemonic messages that perpetuate the dominant ideology and “the inertia of the institution” (p. 286). The “common sense” advice is:

Public scholarship is great, but wait until you have a tenure track job to do it. (286)

Public scholarship takes too long and is too complicated to complete for your

dissertation. (286)

Public scholarship is fine, but you need to do it in addition to, rather than in place

of, more traditional scholarship. (287)

Public scholarship is great if you don’t mind teaching at a school that isn’t as

good. (288)

Public scholarship is great, but you need to write about it I a way that makes it

legible to traditional academics. (289)

Krabil and other publicly active graduate students challenge this kind of “pernicious advice” offered to graduate students to claim a different kind of academic identity – a counterhegemonic academic identity – that includes “becoming an agent of institutional change” (p. 294). Challenging common sense “presents an immense opportunity to rethink higher education and its possibilities” (p. 294). For publicly engaged graduate students, they pursue community engagement as a way of advancing knowledge. They pursue community engagement is perhaps the best way of advancing knowledge in ways that fulfill the democratic purposes of higher education. They pursue community engagement as perhaps the best way of addressing and solving global social problems as they are manifest locally. And they seek advisors that share in a vision of radically transformed higher education. This chapter is a must-read for mentors who want to effectively support the public work of their advisees. If we continue to socialize graduate students to put off public work instead of training them to embrace the civic dimensions of their roles as academics, we will never truly transform the culture of higher education.

For much of her time in graduate school, Orphan has felt she has had to consciously resist the dominant socialization process, and that the formal mentoring of her advisor and other key faculty in her program has been important in her ability to shape an academic identity as a publicly engaged scholar. Also important, as Shaffer describes (in Chapter 2), has been the informal mentoring through peers and colleagues within national networks such as the Next Generation Engagement project of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education (NERCHE), the Graduate Student Network of the International Association for Research and Scholarship on Service Learning and Community Engagement (IARSLCE), and Imagining America’s PAGE program. Ultimately, surviving the dominant trends within graduate school has been a deliberate process of making connections between our personal and political lives, finding ways to effectively participate in and change the politics of knowledge within the academy. This politics captures the competing interests of power and privilege in determining whose voices are heard, which communities are included and excluded, and who ultimately will thrive within the academy. It is time we diversify not just the students and faculty coming into higher education but also the potential roles, research agendas, and ways of being.

While the stories and the voices that come forward in this book provide a new narrative that disrupts the dominant narrative in higher education, there is a missed opportunity for critical analysis as part of advancing the critical discourse on engagement. Most of the stories emerge out of a context of experiences in Land Grant universities and private research universities. The voices that are left out are from the public comprehensive universities with institutional identities as “stewards of place” that educate the majority of four-year undergraduates and 50% of teachers, as well as many other graduate students in professional schools. Their experiences in graduate school need to be brought into this conversation.

While there is an intuitive sense that Land Grant campuses, because of their historical mission and purpose, will be more engaged, the history is more complicated. Tim Shaffer, a graduate student at Cornell University, does a terrific job (in Chapter 2) of teasing out the contradiction of these institutions created as democracy colleges and now struggling to reconcile an expert-driven form of agricultural extension with a new model of reciprocal engagement—and to reconcile the prestige culture of being a high research institution with the imperative of local engagement. Instead of including the reprinting of the Kellogg Commission Report on Land Grant campuses in the 20th Century as a stand-alone piece (Chapter 5), it would have been helpful to have Shaffer contextualize it for us as representative of the struggle of Land Grants in making the transition from extension to engagement. Written in 1999, the report identifies the kinds of core cultural changes that are needed for Land Grant universities to implement an “engagement agenda” (p. 105) in which “the purpose of engagement is not to provide the university’s superior expertise to the community but to encourage joint academic-community definitions of problems, solutions, and definitions of success” (p. 108). Over a decade later, how has this transition fared? What is the experience of graduate students at these campuses? Shaffer writes that “graduate students mature into young scholars under the discipline of an ‘expert’ model that tolerates service to society but discourages active engagement with civic life” (p. 67-68). The Kellogg Commission Report, he writes, was a “challenge to this approach” (p. 68). Shaffer could have been asked to provide reflection on the impact of the report and what needs to happen at Land Grant universities for engagement to move from the margins to the mainstream of institutional life.

The book has a number of these historical pieces reprinted either as chapters or “interchapters.” These are important documents in understanding the emergence of the civic-engagement movement in higher education, but the lack of critical analysis raises questions about why they are important and if there are others that might be more important. The piece by Ivan Illich, “To Hell with Good Intentions” (Chapter 3), written in 1968, speaks with weighty skepticism as to the ability of the U.S. to do good in the world as it destroys countries in Southeast Asia. While his “indictment of paternalism speaks to” an “animating concern” of today’s public scholarship movement (p. 75), it would have been perhaps more useful to use his piece as a way of drawing the distinctions between the overseas “service” of “volunteers” and the public work of engaged scholars domestically and globally. In a context of mutuality and reciprocity, there is a different kind of relationship established with different intentions and outcomes. Illich’s essay could have opened the door to a critical analysis of the dimensions of power, privilege, and politics in the current engagement movement, but that opportunity is missed.

In the case of the chapter by Behm and Roen on “Publicly Engaged Scholarship and Academic Freedom: Rights and Responsibilities” (Chapter 6), the focus is on documents of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) as central for emerging scholars to “ensure appropriate credit for their work and minimize the possibility of conducting scholarship that makes their institutions and stakeholders vulnerable to negative consequences” (p. 112). The “Interchapter” reprints the AAUP “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” along with an AAUP statement on professional ethics and one on graduate students. Here, again, there was a missed opportunity to put these documents in context and critically consider their relationship to the current engagement movement. Further, we are not convinced that these documents provide the protections for engagement suggested or even a rationale for public engagement by academics. The 1940 Statement, the 1925 Statement that preceded it, and other policy documents are inherently conservative documents representing a narrowing of academic freedom and a retreat from public concerns in the context of constraints on intellectual freedom during two world wars. While the authors mention the founding 1915 statement by the AAUP, they missed an opportunity to bring it forward as a way to reclaim the public role of the scholar and the public purposes of higher education. It is the 1915 statement, not the others, that makes a claim for “the social function discharged by the professional scholar” (p. 294) and that boldly and clearly states that “the responsibility of the university teacher is primarily to the public itself” (p. 295). This is the basis for a rationale for what the 1915 statement calls “the nature of the academic calling” (p. 294) that is a calling of public engagement.

The book also reprints Ernest Boyer’s 1996 essay, “The Scholarship of Engagement.” This is a piece that is widely cited and poorly understood, both generally among engaged academics and in this book. Here again was an opportunity to contribute to the literature and engage in critical analysis to advance the movement. Instead of just reprinting the essay, it would have been useful to provide some context. In 1990, Boyer, as the President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, writes the widely read report Scholarship Reconsidered (1990). In that report, he wants to crack the intransigence of higher education to improve undergraduate education, and comes to the conclusion that the way to do that is to elevate teaching in the minds of academics so that it could be valued as a kind of research. The report is about the research agendas of faculty. Hence he describes four dimensions of “scholarship” without ever clarifying the differences between research and scholarship. The four dimensions are the scholarship of discovery (think basic research), the scholarship of application (think applied research) the scholarship of integration (think interdisciplinary research), and the scholarship of teaching—now commonly referred to as the scholarship of teaching and learning or SoTL (think research on the practice of teaching and learning). Nowhere is there a framing of “engagement.” “Application” is about expert knowledge in the academy applied externally. As Bott points out in his “Foreword,” the word “application” signifies a “top-down connotation” of “the privileged academic coming down from the hill to ‘apply’ his or her knowledge and skill to the messy problems of the community, which exists without agency or ingenuity of its own” (p. xx). It is a one-way street, a model of knowledge consumption, a deficit-based understanding of knowledge generation, and the corollary to the citizen as spectator to democracy.

As much as Boyer was pushed by colleagues at the Carnegie Foundation to use the language of “engagement” instead of “application” in his framing of the dimensions of scholarship, he is stuck in an older model of scholarship, fundamentally shaped by the post-war report by Vannevar Bush, Science: The Endless Frontier (1945), that canonizes the categories of basic and applied research and the hierarchy privileging basic research. Boyer is pushed by those such as Eugene Rice, Donald Schon, and Ernest Lynton to rethink the epistemology of a new scholarship—how is knowledge generated, how do we know what we know, what is legitimate knowledge in the academy—to shift from an “application” framework to one of “engagement.” By 1996, Boyer is finding his way to engagement (see Saltmarsh, 2011). He still uses the language of application when it comes to faculty scholarship. He repeats the four dimensions of scholarship at the same time that he argues for an institutional commitment to “the scholarship of engagement.” This leads to the misunderstanding repeated by different authors in the book that Boyer was arguing for the addition of a fifth dimension in addition to the other four instead of a way of doing all the four dimensions differently—in a way in which there is reciprocity and collaboration and respect for what the Kellogg Commission Report calls “joint academic-community definitions of problems, solutions, and definitions of success” in the generation of new knowledge (p. 35, 120). The closest Boyer comes to really articulating “engagement” is at the very end of the essay when he writes that the “scholarship of engagement” means “creating a special climate in which the academic and civic cultures communicate more continuously and more creatively with each other…enriching the quality of life for all of us” (p. 153).

While this book offers an important set of perspectives on graduate life and contributes to an emergent conversation about the public dimensions of graduate school, it lacks a critical discourse about where this work is going. Specifically, what is the future for those graduate students who desire publically engaged careers? How can graduate programs be restructured to support the development of professional identities as engaged academics? And how will these changes deepen higher education’s civic commitment? What is missing in this volume is a conclusion as strong as Bott’s “Foreword” that provides some analysis of what these rich and provocative essays add up to—what does it all mean for the future of graduate education and for the future of higher education?

Clearly, mentoring is a critical element of academic socialization for engagement. But mentoring is not enough. There need to be intentional efforts to change reward policies to value community engagement across the faculty roles. There need to be faculty development opportunities for junior faculty in presenting community engagement as scholarly work in portfolios for promotion and tenure. There needs to be faculty professional development to assist senior faculty in evaluating publicly engaged scholarship. There needs to be a reinvigoration of the National Review Board for the Scholarship of Engagement (www.scholarshipofengagement.org) in providing external reviews for faculty coming up for promotion and tenure. There also needs to be a concerted effort to reimagine community engaged scholarly work that accounts for contingent faculty—the new faculty majority. And there needs to be a conversation about the place of community engagement in a world of networked knowledge generation and a changing higher education landscape. How will community engagement respond in innovative ways to the prevailing forces that are changing academic life, specifically for-profit education, on-line learning, a diversifying student body, a contingent academic labor force, and decreased public funding? It is the belief of the authors of this review that these challenges—and our responses to them—will shape the future of higher education’s civic commitment. Collaborative Futures is an important first step in that direction.