What We Talk About When We Talk About Engaging

MI_Mtg_cartoon

Cartoon by Carole Levy, commissioned by Andy Hoffman, on redefining academic success to include “stepping out of the ivory tower” to inform important national discussions on topics like climate change and GMOs.

In mid May I had the good fortune to attend a three-day meeting at the University of Michigan that was co-organized by Leopold Leadership Fellow Andy Hoffman on “academic engagement in public and political discourse”. My interest was piqued by an article that Andy circulated in early February (“Isolated Scholars: Making Bricks, Not Shaping Policy”). I’m very glad that I went. Other Leopold Leadership Fellows present were Joe Arvai, David Hart, and Dawn Wright. I think that what transpired at the meeting validates what many of us are doing in a very powerful way, and so I wanted to share some of what I learned and heard.

You might be interested in several articles that highlight various meeting discussion threads: “Presidents Agree Engagement Is Part of Academics’ Obligation to Society,” “What to Expect When You’re Engaging: Tips for Academic Outreach,” “American Universities: Reclaiming Our Role in Society,” and “Can We Talk?”

Below are some of the key points that resonated with me from presentations, panelists and discussions that I tweeted about. I’ve added italicized notes in brackets to help clarify the context of the character-limited tweet. If you’re interested in reading more tweets, all that were tweeted during the meeting can be found on Twitter at #AcadEng. At the end of this post, you’ll find a meeting summary.

Tweets:

  • Engagement is boundary work- a messy space. Need to put thought into how to navigate it. Think about our own personal values sets. [Our value sets inform who we think is credible, e.g., Carl Sagan vs. Dr. Oz. Need to grapple with how we work with each other in terms of being civil and supportive. Need to have stronger collaborative projects with natural and social scientists.]
  • via Susan Collins: should consider working collaboratively in the public/political engagement space rather than being competitive
  • via @DavidScobey need to shift away from intellectual hierarchy @ universities & create an inclusive intellectually generous faculty [“Participate more in inter-institutional and consortial institutions, e.g., Imaging America, and leverage faculty change to undo intellectual hierarchy” David Scobey]
  • RT via @NeilLewisJr “The problem is not the audience, the problem is us.”
  • via @DavidScobey participatory engagement: think abt how to work w/ people w/whom we share a common fate but not common experiences
  • How to broaden diversity of who we’re engaging with? via @RogerPielkeJr Need to be willing to go against the grain of what’s easy [“Engagement is highly politicized and hence polarized- need to not run from the polarization but rather learn how to be at the boundary” Dietram Scheufele. “The goal of politics is not to get everyone to think alike, the goal of politics is to get people who think differently to act alike to get those with differing opinions to know that shared action is possible” Roger Pielke.]
  • via @RogerPielkeJr: Be clear abt your goal for engagement shouldn’t do it to impose our view on others but rather to open up the discussion […to learn more and create a collective vision]
  • via @Nancy Baron: To effectively engage, show your passion- not only the what/how but also the WHY. People will pay attention [‘Those that show their passion are actually the most effective at engagement. “Tell a story, stories are data with a soul” Nancy Baron]
  • via Jane Lubchenco ‘scientists must be bilingual’- to be able to both speak to scientists and to translate this info to the general public [Academic engagement “requires a 2-way communication with society- with transparency and humility” Jane Lubchenco]
  • via H. Pollack: you’ve got to have content, & to coin #LeopoldLP lessons learned, “you’ve got to know thy stuff!” [“Evaluate where you are (wrt engagement) and pivot. Don’t engage with the bad experiences. Cut your losses and move on” and put your energy into engaging with positive experiences. Henry Pollack]

And, last but not least as tweeted by Dawn Wright:

  • via @deepseadawn As one of the peeps in the @LeopoldLP & @COMPASSonline universe, I am SO PROUD of @HoffmanAndy! #AcadEng

Meeting Summary

There were 2 keynotes, one to kick off the meeting, by Jane Lubchenco (Oregon State & Former NOAA Administrator) and the other to close it, by Richard Alley (Penn State). The rest of the time was devoted to a series of panel discussions and breakouts organized with the goal of stimulating a dialogue on specific issues related to academics and public/political engagement, some of which were:

  • Why should academics engage in public & political discourse?
  • What do we mean by public and political engagement?
  • How do we practice public and political engagement?
    • What are some guidelines?
    • How does one pursue an academic career that includes public and political engagement
    • What should be the role of academics in public/political discourse?
  • What are the obstacles for academics with public and political engagement?

The organizational structure and the intentional diversity of career tracks, academic disciplines, and career stages of attendees set the stage for some really interesting and stimulating discussions. Most attendees were from academia but there was also very good representation from boundary organizations, the media and some from the private sector. For those from academia, 43 different disciplines were represented spanning the physical and social sciences, humanities, and professions. Attendees came from the University of Michigan as well as from several colleges and universities from around the country and Canada. Impressive too was that that almost 30% of the academic attendees were PhD students: these are the people who represent the future of academia and so are critical to the dialogue.

A big thanks to Andy Hoffman, Andrew Maynard and the other Michigan Meeting Steering Committee members and organizers for helping to put this all together and for getting such a broad collective of academic wheels turning. A job very well done!!

Summary slide presented by Richard Alley in his MI Meeting keynote presentation ‘Good, Bad and Maybe:  Communicating Scientific Near-Certainties and Deep-Uncertainties to a Non-Scientific Audience’. His presentation exemplified how not only to engage with non-scientists but with scientists and other academics as well.   A very positive keynote- there’s hope!

Summary slide from Richard Alley’s keynote presentation,”‘Good, Bad and Maybe: Communicating Scientific Near-Certainties and Deep-Uncertainties to a Non-Scientific Audience”.

Jennifer Cherrier is an Associate Professor in the School of Environment at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. In August 2015 she will become an Associate Professor in the Earth & Environmental Sciences Department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

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