Faculty on the Front Line: Reflections on Research, Teaching, and Service

To provide perspective on this issue of Diversity & Democracy’s focus on political engagement in higher education, the issue’s editorial team invited several faculty members to answer questions about their engaged research, teaching, and service. Sharing their thoughts below are Irene Bloemraad, Thomas Garden Barnes Chair of Canadian Studies and professor of sociology at the University of California–Berkeley; Michelle Dunlap, professor of human development and chair of the Human Development Department at Connecticut College; and Hahrie Han, Anton Vonk Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California–Santa Barbara.

Through research, teaching, and civic engagement, college and university professors are often on the front line of the most significant ethical, economic, social, and political debates facing society. In what ways do you engage on this front line?

HAN: The central question that animates my research, teaching, institutional service, professional service, and public engagement is the question of how we, as residents of our democracy, can strengthen the power and voice of ordinary people in the public arena. In all the work that I do, I am thinking about how organizations can and should equip people with the intellectual, emotional, and practical capacities they need to engage in public debates. This work includes everything from researching how organizations can best create spaces to develop people’s democratic capacities, to teaching students to be agents of change, to supporting institutions as they strive to meet their responsibilities in this domain.

DUNLAP: Like many, I engage on the front lines in informal ways that are difficult to document and assess, often through faith-based organizations, extended family, or community. These are not the kinds of forums where one signs in and out or tracks hours, goals, and tasks. For example, I have spoken at rallies for justice; consulted with or served on various community boards and organizations; organized educational, cultural, and intergenerational community events and field trips; written justice-oriented editorials; and facilitated caregiving circles to help young parents better understand the fundamentals of child development. In the classroom, as ethically appropriate, I tell my students about some of these engagements, and I listen as they share their experiences. This sharing provides real-life context for my human development courses. It can be difficult to “put away” my engagement, teaching, research, and service when I am done with each, as the lines of demarcation between these areas can be indistinct.

BLOEMRAAD: I believe that teaching is a critical component of what my colleague Michael Burawoy calls “public sociology.” So in recent years, I’ve introduced an engaged scholarship component to some classes, where students are placed with a community-based organization that serves immigrants or low-income residents of neighborhoods with growing immigrant populations. Service learning becomes a way for students to apply research methods such as participant observation, and it brings to life the academic research that students read for class; sometimes, it inspires students to continue their engagement with the community after the semester’s end. Beyond teaching, I bring social science to political decision makers through activities such as serving on a National Academies of Science panel on immigrant integration in the United States and speaking to Canadian legislators.

What challenges come with this role? Are there parameters to it, and if so, what are they?

BLOEMRAAD: One challenge is to ensure that a variety of perspectives are debated on their merits. Colleges and universities must educate students about the issues of the day, and we must give students the tools to evaluate competing viewpoints using evidence. In my courses, we talk about the difference between normative questions for which social science cannot offer data-driven answers (e.g., do we have a moral obligation to open our borders to the global poor?) and empirical questions for which data and logic have purchase (e.g., does low-skilled immigration depress the wages of native-born citizens?). My students write essays on both types of questions and must consider opposing viewpoints seriously. Time demands are another challenge, as engaged scholarship courses require faculty to build relationships with community partners and manage students’ off-campus activities. I was fortunate that Berkeley’s American Cultures Engaged Scholarship program provided funding for a graduate student to help facilitate my early engaged learning courses.

HAN: Building the power of ordinary people often requires others (individuals or organizations) to give up or share the power they have. Sharing power is hard. If my research or teaching equips individuals or groups to exercise their voices more strategically, it can sometimes lead to tension with those who have power. That tension can put me and the students, organizers, and others with whom I work in tricky situations. In these situations, I have to think carefully about what my role is, to ensure that I am living up to my moral, ethical, and institutional responsibilities.

DUNLAP: When faculty are living some of the very issues their work addresses, their motives may be called into question. They may be accused of bias, of being reactionary, of being too outspoken, or of having ulterior motives. As a biracial African American woman, I can’t recall a day in my life when I didn’t have to think about gender, race, or socioeconomic status. People who have not had to constantly process their experiences in this way may find it difficult to understand why others may see the world through such multifaceted lenses. For this reason, the observations, experiences, and concerns of underrepresented minorities and allies may be denied, dismissed, or denigrated. Underrepresented scholars must take care to connect with helpful resources that keep us from doubting ourselves and what we know.

In what ways does your public scholarship and engagement influence how you teach and what your students learn?

DUNLAP: I require my students to engage in service learning in local underserved communities, and I help them connect their experiences to course curricula in enlightened ways. For example, when engaging with community partners, students quickly notice extended family kinship networks and collectivist child-rearing tendencies that may contrast with the nuclear models that are most prevalent in Western world media and society. In class, we recognize and grapple with these differences using theoretical, historical, and cultural frameworks that neither normalize nor pathologize diverse communities and practices. I also facilitate stereotype-bending group discussions centering not only on course texts, journal articles, and current events far and near, but also on what my students and I have seen and experienced with our own eyes and ears.

BLOEMRAAD: In the past, my courses were heavily oriented to teaching undergraduates the minutiae of academic debates on immigration, and I evaluated students through traditional exams and essays. But in giving public talks on immigration, interacting with journalists and decision makers, and talking to those working in community-based organizations, I became less convinced that such highly specialized knowledge or academic skills best served my students or the larger community. Academic publications still dominate my course reading lists, but rather than focus on the theoretical influences behind a scholar’s framework, I ask students to evaluate how concepts become transformed into data that are used in public debate. I also assign activities, such as conducting an oral history with an immigrant, that teach distinct skills. The take-home final integrates academic readings with students’ research, reinforcing what students have learned as they leverage data to advance an argument.

HAN: I find that both my scholarship and teaching are enhanced if I integrate them with each other instead of treating them as separate silos. I study how organizations can best generate commitment among their members, and then use the strategies I learn through my research in my classes. In both research and teaching, my goal is to create usable knowledge that helps strengthen the quality of our democracy. What I learn from my research thus informs how I teach and what I teach; likewise, the lessons I take from teaching help me better understand how to translate the ideas I have in my head for a broader audience. It is through this work that I am able to maintain an ongoing dialogue with the future.

Irene Bloemraad is Thomas Garden Barnes Chair of Canadian Studies and professor of sociology at the University of California–Berkeley; Michelle Dunlap is professor of human development and chair of the Human Development Department at Connecticut College; and Hahrie Han is Anton Vonk Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California–Santa Barbara.

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