Some scholars may consider giving a presentation, curating an exhibit, or hosting a medical screening for community groups to be a form of public engagement. Although each of these is an important contribution, the annual Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy encourages students to understand that public engagement is reciprocal. Rather than a hand reaching out, it is two hands shaking.
Every year, 16 University of Iowa graduate students meet the week before the spring semester to explore how public engagement can enhance teaching, research, and creative work. The participants discuss theories of engagement, consult with community leaders and engaged scholars on best practices for collaboration, and begin to develop two engaged projects—one of their own and one in which they work with fellow students and a community partner, which during this year’s 12th annual institute was the Iowa Youth Writing Project (IYWP).
This is the second year that Tricia Zebrowski, UI professor in communication sciences and disorders, has co-directed the institute. She says this year, she and her fellow co-director, Jacki Rand, associate professor of history, wanted to put more emphasis on the difference between outreach and public engagement.
“Students come in with a project idea thinking that what they want to do is public engagement, but it’s really outreach,” Zebrowski says. “They’re not the same.”
Zebrowski says the distinction is like the difference between a one-way and two-way street.
“We have the knowledge and we’re going to give it to the masses—that’s outreach. Don’t get me wrong, there’s great value to outreach. It’s needed work. Public engagement is different.”
Public engagement is a two-way process, with both parties identifying needs and goals and working in tandem to meet those needs and goals. It provides opportunities for increased familiarity with multiple perspectives and mutual learning between members of the academy and members of the public.
“It involves honoring a particular community—their skill sets and their contributions. It provides a level playing field,” Zebrowski says. “If it’s working as it should, someone goes in with an idea, but that idea will take a detour based on the needs and skills of the community they’re working with. It’s happened to me. I have an idea, and it morphs and expands based on simultaneous and shared goals.”
That type of true collaboration is what intrigued Don Brathwaite about the institute. The New York City native pursuing both Master of Business Administration and Master of Public Health degrees says helping his mother create a community garden as a child helped spark his interest in public engagement.
“I think a lot of times people see an issue in the community and they want to go in and make changes, but they don’t get input from the people living there,” Brathwaite says. “I want to learn more about that process and exact change in communities in need. You need to have an understanding of the people in the community, and you must develop a collaboration. The people living in an area know best.”
Lydia Maunz-Breese, a doctoral candidate in English who grew up in Montana, applied to the institute in part to find an opportunity to bridge her scholarship, which focuses on the shared language of grief and mourning, with outside interests, particularly her volunteer work with Iowa City Hospice over the past year and a half. After the first day of the institute, she says, her thoughts about public engagement were already evolving.
“I came in thinking of it as one-dimensional, but I’m beginning to realize it’s much more complex, much richer than I thought,” Maunz-Breese says.
Heather Wacha, a 2016 institute alumna and current Mellon-funded Council on Library and Information Resources–Digital Library Foundation postdoctoral fellow in data curation at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says the institute absolutely changed the way she thought about engagement.
"The main thing I came away with is that public engagement is not unidirectional," Wacha says. "It’s a collaborative effort where the work is multidirectional and takes place through an iterative process."
Wacha says the experience made a huge difference in how she approaches her work. She points to the project she was just beginning to develop when she attended the institute: Meet the Manuscript, a workshop that translated and digitized a document from the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections and engaged high school classes.
“Having been a high school teacher, I would have gone in with some preconceived idea of how a teacher would use it in their class,” Wacha says. “Instead, I was able to approach it much differently. I talked to high school teachers before I began and said, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking, but what’s your syllabus and what’s your curriculum? Would this fit into what you’re doing? How can we shape the project to help the students? What do you want to get out of it?’”
Kathrina Litchfield was working toward her master’s degree in library and information science when she participated in the institute in 2014. Now a doctoral student in language, literacy, and culture in the College of Education, she says she did not have a good definition of what engagement was when she applied for the institute, but what she learned played a pivotal role in her future work, which included starting a speaker series in fall 2017 for inmates at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, a medium-security correctional facility in Coralville, Iowa. The weekly sessions were taught by UI professors, college deans, and UI President J. Bruce Harreld.
“What I learned at the institute influenced how I approach what I do there,” Litchfield says. “We made sure that our conversations happened as often as possible in the facility. We invited inmate counsel and invited anyone interested in participating from the University of Iowa. My attitude was to open it up as much as possible. This isn’t just the University of Iowa waltzing in and laying down our stuff, but it’s a collaborative effort and everyone will benefit.”
Litchfield says while the collaboration benefited the project, she recognizes that such a high level of engagement can be uncomfortable at times.
“It’s a scary thing, whether you’re working in a prison or in any community,” Litchfield says. “It’s scary because you don’t know the answers ahead of time and you’re depending on other people. You can’t be a control freak over the whole thing. The nature of the beast is flexibility.”
Empowering students to incorporate public engagement into their work was exactly why those who were there at the start of the Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy say it was created. Jennifer New, associate director of the Obermann Center, says while she was working toward a PhD on the West Coast, she became frustrated by the inability to incorporate public engagement into her scholarship.
“The reason I left the program was that it felt so insular,” New says. “The academy felt so insular, and I could not see ways to bridge that gap and do work with the community. There was no model for that.”
New later met Teresa Mangum, who is now the director of the Obermann Center but at the time was a faculty-member-in-residence at the center. At the time, Mangum was teaching a class in which students created projects in tandem with the local animal shelter.
The two were intrigued by a program model at the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington, which taught public engagement principles to humanities PhD students. Along with David Redlawsk, then a professor in political science, they offered the first institute in 2006.
While public engagement within academic pursuits is much more common today than it was then, New says there’s still a long way to go, particularly in having public engagement count toward tenure and promotion. Zebrowski and Rand told participants during orientation that young, bright people like them are needed to champion the importance and value of engagement both within the university and the community.
“We always say this about the next generation, but it’s true, they’re the ones who will be making policy,” Zebrowski says. “When you’re in the driver’s seat, you can make the rules and you can change the rules. They’ll also be accountable to the people who hold the purse strings, so in that regard, showing and proving this work is valuable to those who fund you is an important responsibility. If you’re going to do this sort of work, you need to show value to the community, your scholarship, and also to students.”
Institute fellows come from across disciplines, from humanities and the arts to the hard sciences, and Brathwaite and Maunz-Breese both say that diversity is played into their decision to apply.
“It’s just staggering to me,” Maunz-Breese says. “I’m in a room full of incredibly smart people who bring differing perspectives, whether developed out of their fields of study or personal experience. I’m in awe of them.”
Participants worked in teams throughout the week to develop a project proposal with IYWP. They drew on each team member’s unique knowledge base to help address one of several challenges the organization identified as facing during a meeting at Mark Twain Elementary School in Iowa City. While there, the group also spoke with Cassandra Elton, founder of IYWP community partner Antelope Lending Library, and toured the library’s bookmobile.
At the end of the week, the teams presented their ideas to the organization’s leaders. Proposals included partnering with students in the Tippie College of Business to evaluate the business model and make recommendations in areas such as marketing and funding; developing a Living Learning Community in a UI residence hall that would combine writing and community engagement as well as provide the IYWP with a steady supply of volunteers; and creating a digital archive of testimonials and branding materials that could be used for anything from recruiting volunteers to wooing potential donors.
“All of these proposals had our hearts aflutter,” Mallory Hellman, director of the IYWP, told the group.
She encouraged any student interested in turning a proposal into reality to reach out to the organization. Zebrowski says making such community connections is part of the purpose of the institute.
“The institute provides a wonderful opportunity for students to learn about citizenship and critical thinking, how to use their specific and particular skill set in collaboration with a community who needs what they know, and they in turn can benefit from the community,” Zebrowski says. “It’s just a whole different way of learning.”