At Oxford College, I teach writing and literature courses as an English department faculty member, and I organize a number of services and activities for faculty as Director of the Center for Academic Excellence. In both of these roles, my primary focus is how pedagogies enhance students’ learning. I recall studying intellectuals whose writings communicate with a larger audience. Three of my favorites are Henry Giroux, Martha Nussbaum, and C. S. Lewis. These academics have provided one kind of public engagement, and today, other kinds of conversations that bridge the imagined divide between the academy and the public are occurring in greater frequency and contexts as well.
The opportunities for public engagement have grown partly because the academic imperative for the most disciplined forms of inquiry can lead to insights and discoveries that address urgent public problems. For example, biological and chemical scientists, health scientists, environmental scientists, cultural anthropologists, linguists, sociologists, economists, and political scientists, to mention only a few, are called upon for their particular expertise and opinion.
Any exploration, then, of what it means for the university to engage the public realm must address all of those fields, plus some thorny issues, such as the corporatization of education, as Giroux points out, and the separation of academic discourse from public discourse, as Nussbaum has written much about. In this essay, I argue that scholars who engage the public realm can have a powerful social impact if they apply some of the best lessons the academic realm has to offer for teaching and learning.
Course design as an analogy for public engagement
Faculty study for years to master the content of their discipline, but teaching any discipline well requires another sort of journey—a lifelong excursion into such topics as pedagogy, course design, learning theory, and assessment. Barbara Walvoord, a former Notre Dame English professor turned assessment scholar, points to three criteria as the key ways to engage students meaningfully. She explains that well-designed courses are clear in what they seek to achieve in terms of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes and values of the students who take them. I think clearly conceived, significant moments of public engagement can possess the same possibilities of intention and design with respect to these three outcomes criteria. At the very least, this framework can provide a way of considering and assessing the effectiveness of the efforts.
As an English professor, I have ventured into teaching in the public realm. I have taught a number of programs for adult learners and written grants to the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities to teach library reading programs, adult learner programs, and cultural studies programs. I have served on the board of a community civic center theater group. For many consecutive semesters I taught Elderhostel courses. And in all of those contexts, the same issues arose: course content, method of delivery, and the measurement of degree of success. What to include and what to leave out are not always self-evident. Answering these questions is time well spent.
I found that my experience with these questions—what knowledge are we delivering in this case, how will we deliver it, and how we know when we have been successful—transitioned easily from the university classroom to these more public settings. Transferring knowledge—through lecture or lab, general discussion, group work, or individual research projects—is what we do well in our courses, and the same concepts for rigor apply in these quasi-academic settings.
The transformative Theory-Practice/Service Learning (TPSL) program at Oxford College has long worked with community partners to provide learning experiences for students to apply new knowledge in performing key services to various institutions in the area. Patti Owen-Smith (professor of psychology) and Crystal McLaughlin (director of student development) have led a large cadre of faculty, students, and staff through a wide array of strong courses that engage the public in a number of contexts. Oxford College TPSL courses are thriving in a number of area institutions: the Psychology of Women and area agencies that serve women and families; teaching of Latin in the area high school; Social Gerontology and area agencies that serve older adults, to mention three examples of courses where service and learning are a collaboration.
While providing services like these is in itself a very good thing, to effect a deeper change in terms of knowledge or skills is profoundly better. In my own TPSL courses in English, for instance, I have seen first-year students produce a booklet of essays written from the perspectives of senior citizens whose stories our students were writing. I have overseen the creation, editing, and proofing of sets of essays written from the perspective of junior high nontraditional students. Through such courses, I have seen the narrative and editing skills of senior citizens, middle schoolers, and Oxford College students improve dramatically.
Attitudes and values
Many well-meaning, bright individuals hesitate to discuss this third learning outcome. On the one hand, they may argue that the university is not in the business of fostering values and certainly not examining them as any kind of outcome of the education process. Knowledge and skills, it is argued, are the primary goals of education. One should get an education, the argument goes, to be very good at a particular profession, to be successful in ways our society values. Yet we know this tack avoids a key dimension of what it means to live a life beneficial to oneself and to others.
In fact, universities possess and profess core values; they spend much time and effort developing mission and vision statements, and they develop strategic plans. To say values are not central to what we do in academia is to obscure a vital reality. Engagement in the public realm can include open discussions of the ethical dimension of current issues, and in this area universities can provide contexts within which public constituencies can explore values.
The notion of “public scholarship” has necessarily deepened and broadened in meaning and impact through the years. Meaningful engagement that leads to transformative change is not limited to the models provided by the likes of Nussbaum and Giroux—insightful books or research findings sent out from the academic enclave. When a university professor’s expertise meets with some vital need, change can occur just as profoundly, if more humbly, in small groups, within one’s local community and within the ever-expanding digital communities on the internet.
But how do we know if we are meeting that need and having an impact on knowledge, skills, and values in the public realm? If we borrow the pedagogical components of course design—course content, goals/objectives, and learning outcomes—and apply them to these public activities, very useful kinds of conversation might occur in terms that professors already know. To employ the same serious consideration of learning outcomes to public conversations as we already apply in our course development is to broaden our devotion to teaching and learning.