Originally posted on October 26, 2015
by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
What is the role of science and scientists in the public realm? Do scientists have a responsibility to engage in civic dialogues and advocate for scientific policies that will ameliorate problems of public health and safety? Or should scientists avoid getting involved in public debates because it might bias their research? Moreover, how do scientists, and academics in general, contribute in meaningful ways to their communities, and utilize pedagogies that encourage their students to learn through doing? What are the impacts to communities who are the “recipients” of this kind of service-based learning? And how do we do research in a way that benefits the communities we’re studying, in addition to recognizing and respecting the areas of expertise represented by community members? These are the questions addressed in a new collection of essays in the Ashgate Studies in Environmental Policy and Practice Series, Scientists, Experts, & Civic Engagement: Walking a Fine Line (Ashgate Publishing Company, 2015, Amy E. Lesen, ed.). The authors include scientists, a higher education administrator, a nonprofit organizer, a community leader, and academics from various fields who are now overseeing environmental studies departments. Each offers a different and useful perspective on the fine line between healthy civic engagement and exploitation of a suffering community on the one hand, or ignoring social problems and staying safely within the academy on the other hand.
As a higher education professional myself, I appreciated the in-depth look at how to healthily go about engaging with the community outside the normal walls of the academy. Perhaps you, like me, have wondered how to get students out of the classroom and into “real world” community organizing or data collection endeavors. Perhaps you’ve wondered about the impact these students make on the communities they attempt to “serve.” Maybe you’ve pondered the usefulness of social media and news outlets in getting the message of academic findings out to the public. And perhaps you’ve wondered about the impact of these outreach and engagement strategies on one’s tenuous tenure track. These topics are masterfully and insightfully detailed in this text, providing honest glimpses into the lessons these scholars and activists have learned as they’ve waded into the waters of collaboration between the academy and the civic realm.
With helpful introductions by the editor, Amy E. Lesen, this book’s two parts focus on personal stories of civic engagement and their impact on career trajectories (Part I), and frameworks for participatory learning and effective community collaborations (Part II). Many of the stories of these academics and practitioners center around New Orleans, because the impetus for this book began in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as Lesen describes in her introduction. These conversations began as a symposium in New Orleans in 2010 that brought together scholars who had made the risk of “crossing a boundary line” between the academy and the civic arena in their attempts to help after Katrina. Although the essays appearing in this volume are not conference papers, that symposium acted as a catalyst for bringing together individuals who are thinking about and experiencing similar opportunities and barriers in a number of disciplinary fields.
The continuum of civic engagement represented in this volume is vast, starting off with a chapter by Richard Campanella on his sudden jump into the limelight as an expert geographer as Hurricane Katrina made his field suddenly pertinent to journalists and city planners. He shares his insights, based on these experiences, about helpful ways to engage the media, and especially when not to engage (e.g., when you don’t have anything new to say, or when a journalist is trying to bait you into a sensationalist story rather than a story about your area of expertise).
In chapters 2 and 3, Amy Koritz and Margaret (Molly) Olsen share their stories of attempting to implement community-based learning and service learning in their classrooms. I found these chapters particularly helpful for their stories of successes and failures in putting their ideas about de-centering the classroom into practice. With the goal of growing students who can articulate and enact the connection between knowledge, values, and action, these professors are attempting to provide active spaces of learning where their students share in the production of knowledge. But the professors are still required to perform all the “normal” tasks of their disciplines as well. I found it encouraging to hear stories of how these scholars attempted to balance these often-diverging interests.
Stephen Tremaine provides a different take on civic engagement in the classroom, focusing on access to high-quality higher education for underserved populations. He envisioned and brought into existence the Bard Early College in New Orleans, which enrolls high school students half-time as undergraduates while they finish their public school education. Tremaine suggests that institutions of higher education focus on what they already do well — provide an excellent education — and look for “opportunities to make that talent of greater social use” (47).
Part II of this text dives into modes of engagement. Janice Cumberbatch presents a study aimed at measuring the effectiveness of participatory engagement. This will be a useful tool for many organizations — from academic to nonprofit — that are attempting to actively engage the public in their endeavors.
Participatory action research (PAR) forms the focus of Kristina J. Peterson‘s chapter, teaching the reader some of the basic tenets of PAR, and showing the importance of mutual partnerships between researchers and the community they are attempting to aid.
The most fascinating chapter is a transcript of a conversation between Albert P. Naquin, Traditional Chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, and the editor of this text, Amy E. Lesen, along with the author of the previous chapter, Kristina J. Peterson, who has worked alongside Naquin and gained the trust of his community. Lesen asks Naquin about his experience with various types of researchers, scientists, journalists, students, and nonprofits, asking what is helpful or not helpful about those who have come to his community asking to do research and to help his community after disasters. Those thinking about doing research or providing aid as an “outsider” in a particular community would do well to read this chapter first and see what it is like to be on the receiving end of this work. Since Peterson has successfully worked to gain trust in this community and therefore shown her credentials to give advice, you could then read her chapter on PAR to learn how to effectively put participatory action into practice in ways that are relationally beneficial to all involved.
Lesen rounds out the text with a final chapter on the use of social media in communicating science and other research findings. Scientists and other researchers will find this chapter fascinating, as Lesen presents a review of the literature on this topic, as well as analyzing scientists reasons for and against the use of social media from their institutional perspectives.
Although this text probably is not particularly interesting to the general public, I recommend it for those who are attempting to do research and teaching in a way that is meaningful for society as a whole. The text would probably be useful for any scientist, researcher, or professor interested in these topics, but it is especially pertinent for and aimed toward those working in the fields of environmental studies. Since the problems facing our planet right now are ones that the general public needs to be aware of, how do we go about educating the public on this field’s findings? How do we incorporate regular people into the process of data collection and solving the civic planning problems that plague our current modus operandi in the United States? What do we do with a tenure system built to discourage sharing of information and cross-disciplinary collaboration?
I would have liked to see a representative from the social sciences, particularly conservation psychology, in this text. Conservation psychology may have provided another helpful angle on the topic of civic engagement, helping provide information about communicating science in ways that are psychologically impactful and that can lead to pro-environmental behavior change.
The articles that do appear in this volume, however, were insightful and well-written, and provided new ways to think about the interchange of ideas between the academic world and the public. I recommend this text to scientists, practitioners, professors, and graduate students interested in bridging the gap between the academy and the real world. Particularly in the field of environmental studies, engaging the civic realm in positive ways is of crucial importance.