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Engaging in Public Scholarship -- A Roundtable Discussion with Imagining America

Engaging in Public Scholarship -- A Roundtable Discussion with Imagining America


This past Friday, the Vanderbilt Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities hosted a roundtable discussion about Imagining America, an organization that promotes engaged, public scholarship. Imagining America provides resources for scholars around the country to gather and find others with a similar dedication for connecting the creation of knowledge inside a university with a larger, public community. 


The panel included three speakers: Jan Cohen-Cruz, Director of Imagining America and Professor of Drama at Syracuse University, Teresa Mangum, Director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies and Professor of English at the University of Iowa, and Bill Ivey, Director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University.


Cohen-Cruz used her time to explain some of the objectives of Imagining America. The organization has helped raise awareness of the concerns that many scholars have about the place of knowledge creation within public communities. It has helped push for the recognition of the value of public scholarship within the process of tenure review. 


The Imagining America web site provides several resources for people interested in engaging in public scholarship. Various publications are available, including Julie Ellison and Timothy K. Eatman's Scholarship in Public: Knolwedge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University, available as a free .pdf download. Cohen-Cruz also took a moment to plug the 2012 Imagining America National Conference on Oct. 5-7 in New York, NY. Of particular interest to me, was the open invitation to graduate students to apply for a PAGE fellowship to attend a half-day summit and the national conference in October. Accepted fellows also participate throughout the year in a working group on various research projects.


Cohen-Cruz also discussed how institutional chapters of Imagining America help work together to collaborate across the country. Her remarks were then emphasized by Teresa Magnum, who discussed the success that her university has had in public scholarship. An important points that Magnum made was that public scholarship is not simply "outreach." That term suggests a type of benevolent handout from above. What Imagining America promotes, however, is a type of engaged scholarship in which both the university and the public are partners. She mentioned this approach being especially successful at what she called "crossroads" institutions, such as museums, theaters, concert halls, etc. The work that has happened at U of Iowa, Magnum noted, has better prepared graduate students for their professional careers and has helped them find jobs.


Magnum also noted how digital humanities can play a key role in moving teaching beyond the classroom and helping both teachers and students interact with the world in a more meaningful way. Vanderbilt Center for Teaching Director Derek Bruff (who is apparently also a note-taking artist) beautifully summarized the way that engaged scholarship benefits the entire education process in the following sketch.



The final speaker, Bill Ivey, was the former chairman the National Endowment of Arts under President Clinton. His remarks focused on how engaged scholarship can serve as a way of helping to show the value of higher education in a political environment in which the arts and humanities are often denigrated. He noted that the varying social values of different groups makes it difficult to relate university objectives with public values. In contrast to the rapid change of public policy, scholarly research is a slow, steady process. Public scholarship can serve as one solution to reconcile the inherent differences between scholarly and public objectives through mutually beneficial collaboration.


The presentations led to an interesting discussion, mainly focused on discussing how it is that faculty members can help show the value of public scholarship to their individual departments. Imagining America stands as a resource, not only by providing a place for inter-university collaboration, but also to help show the growing number of universities that are taking seriously the importance of engaged scholarship. 


The Humanities and Public Life book series is another way that public scholarship is being promoted. As Cruz-Cohen put it, the editors of the series are helping show that engaged scholarship is not just "a nice thing you do," but "the thing you do." Since monograph are often the expected product of scholarly research, this book series is providing a way for scholars to produce monographs related to their public scholarship (not despite it).


The roundtable provided an interesting forum for better understanding the resources available through Imagining America for scholars looking to become more engaged with their local and global communities. As a final summary, I once again direct you to the note-taking art of Derek Bruff:



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