UW Today

January 24, 2012

UW leads in connecting scholarship with community

News and Information

Learn more about UW’s certificate in public scholarship

As just about any academic will tell you, the further you go in your career, the more specific your research expertise becomes. Often, after a time, that narrowing can make the research obscure and relevant only to a subset of academics.

A newly formed program at UW seeks to combat that by guiding graduate students through research, teaching and engagement projects that involve and benefit the public. The program, offered by the Simpson Center for the Humanities, equips students with networking, communication, collaboration, advocacy and other skills that their academic programs usually ignore.

Theres a geographer finding better ways to distribute humanitarian aid, an educator examining Latino migration in Eastern Washington and an urban designer working with Pacific Northwest tribes. One student is organizing college prep classes for prison inmates, while another examines mental illness in the U.S. military.

Research that gives back to the public is an emerging trend in higher education, and the UW is among the first U.S. universities to establish a path of study for it, directors of the program say.

“Knowledge is developed at many sites, not just at the university,” said Miriam Bartha, co-director of the UW certificate in public scholarship. “University-based research and education will be improved if we can collaborate with other professional and lay communities to share and develop our knowledge.”

Launched in fall 2010, the program involves a 15-credit course of study that includes classwork and a capstone project.  The curriculum helps participants – UW graduate students – use their work in graduate school to address social issues.

Discussion group for students pursuing a certificate in public scholarship.

Discussion group for students pursuing a certificate in public scholarship.Simpson Center for the Humanities

The certificate “responds to students aspirations for ‘good work—work that makes a difference in the world, uses and develops their particular capacities and provides a pragmatic livelihood,” said Bartha, who is also the associate director of the Simpson Center.

Defining public scholarship can be in the eye of the beholder.

“Were forming the field itself and defining it by the work were doing – research that has an ethical or collaborative component,” said Ryan Burns, a UW geography graduate student who is one of the 18 students pursuing the certificate.

Burns is using his mapping expertise to find ways to improve distribution of humanitarian aid following disasters, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The earthquake destroyed the few maps that Haiti had and left aid workers in a lurch. They “needed to know what buildings had collapsed, which roads were destroyed and where people needed help,” Burns said.

Hes developing ways in which humanitarian workers in the field can report what supplies are needed and where they should go, using free and open source technology – Google maps, geo-tagged Flickr photos and other tools that comprise what geographers call the “geoweb.”

“Its a whole different way of map-making,” Burns said.

The program also helps connect students with relevant communities and individuals outside the university, and opens possibilities for diverse careers after graduation. Burns, for instance, plans to get input on his project from Haiti aid organizations in New York City and Washington, D.C. He also may pursue jobs in mapping organizations after he graduates.

Directors of the public scholarship program say its a way to stop the “bait and switch” that happens when universities admit student due to their broad accomplishments, then compel them to narrow their field of study at the expense of connections to the greater community.

“I felt like my undergraduate major opened up all these worlds, and then all of a sudden youre expected to specialize,” Bartha said of her transition from undergraduate to graduate school.

Faculty members experience the same problem. They are told to put off public scholarship pursuits until they get tenure, said Bruce Burgett, director of the UW certificate in public scholarship. The program is “a space for faculty, staff and students to work on the public significance of scholarship,” he said. “One of its implicit goals is to get faculty working together from different units and supporting one another.”

Burgett, the director of interdisciplinary arts and sciences at UW Bothell, noted that much research suggests that public scholarship is also a “particularly effective tool for recruiting and retaining underrepresented and first-generation students who opt out of fields because they see them as not relevant.”

He hopes the program will soon attract students from the natural sciences as well as from the humanities, social sciences, and professional schools, as cultural contexts and methods are increasingly recognized as important across fields.

“To me, being a public scholar means embracing the responsibility of working outside of university settings,” said Amanda Lock Swarr, faculty adviser to students pursing the public scholarship certificate and associate chair of the UW Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality studies.

“Academia is based in privilege, and I believe that this privilege also comes with responsibility to engage in communities and projects that broadly focus on socioeconomic justice,” she said. “Without public scholarship, academia can become an intellectual exercise without relevance and meaning.”

The next round of coursework for the public scholarship program begins in fall 2012, and applications are due April 18.