Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University (John Hopkins University Press, 2019), challenges post-secondary institutions to connect with the general public by sharing their expertise in useful ways. Recognizing faith-based schools will have different constituencies than public colleges and universities, having faculty communicate in meaningful ways with their respective communities remains important.
Here are five ways academic administrators (presidents, provosts, or academic deans) can help scholars, regardless of their academic discipline, connect and engage with various local groups.
1. Encourage Speaking Opportunities
For all their expertise, some faculty, especially female, are cautious to suggest themselves as a speaker at a church or denominational function and may need so encouragement to do so. On the other hand, increasingly, as described in Presidential Career Paths, Christian college presidents are coming from Bible teaching backgrounds as well as from the non-academic, non-ministry world. Asking those with ministry backgrounds to preach at local functions gives them an opportunity to share their passion, as well as puts their educational expertise in front of potential students and their parents. To capture that interest, an administrator or development officer should attend the service or event with the faculty member.
2. Host “Town Hall” Gatherings
What if a Christian college/university could be counted on to help citizens understand and dialogue about significant issues in the community? While such a forum could take place on campus, what if a city’s common venue was made available and faculty with expertise discussed current concerns?
For example, what if as COVID19 hit, a college hosted a forum including local medical doctors alongside their psychology and education faculty to consider “Dealing with COVID? Medically, Socially, & Educationally.” This seminar might be able to outline plans for medical precautions as well as dealing with issues of anxiety, loneliness, isolation, and helping your children do schooling at home.
Or what if faculty from different disciplines could help the community to discuss racial tensions? What if they voiced the questions people on all sides of the issues are asking themselves—even the ones individuals are scared to voice—and colleagues answered respectfully, modelling meaningful dialogue for citizens?
As Fitzpatrick notes, the university should serve the public good! Speaking up on current issues is one way to connect academics with their neighbors!
3. Start a “Discipline” Blog (E-Newsletter)
Faculty at a college could start a blog sharing combined expertise in a field, whether of topics they are interacting with in the classroom or sharing results of recent research. Let’s say Psychology professors were to write a weekly “Psychology & Life” blog post about topics of interest to the general public—psychology and work, psychology and child development, anxiety during COVID19, etc.—the department could develop a regular audience and subscription list. At the same time, community members could have an informed resource to consult on topics, rather than sifting through the vast material available online hoping their google search leads to a good resource.
For example, Dr Joel Thiessen (Ambrose University) shares the work he and colleagues do exploring the religious beliefs and practices of young adults, bringing a sociological explanation to churches and Christian groups seeking to help young adults develop in their faith journeys. Along with other colleagues, they publish monthly reports of benefit to pastors, churches, and denominational leaders through the Flourishing Congregations Institute.
4. Create an Online Teaching Presence
Some scholars like Dr. NT Wright have staff who assist them in developing online courses. The professor takes the material taught in college/graduate school classes and puts the content into manageable chunks of information individuals can consume for personal growth. Not all Christian colleges have the resources to do this. However, after a year of online learning in various forms due to COVID19, most faculty and the institutions they serve have expanded technological capabilities. Producing a high-quality 5–10 minute video clip on a given topic of current interest is reasonable.
For example, Dr. Carmen Imes takes the research, writing, and teaching she does on the Hebrew Torah, and presents a short weekly “Torah Tuesday” on her YouTube channel. Finding linguistic and historical tidbits of interest to those in the biblical studies community and other interested Christian adults, she is finding (increasing) followers who benefit from her concise explanations of some interesting facts and connections. Of course, it also attracts viewers to check out her college/university affiliation.
The important factor in having a successful online presence, either individually or as a group of faculty/researchers is to update that presence consistently. The production does not have to be super professional (multiple cameras and expensive stage lighting), but both the presenter(s) and the background should demonstrate an appropriate combination of professionalism and warmth.
5. Join a Reading Group
Whether hosted by your local public library or your university’s library, join people in reading a book related to your discipline. For example, recent New York Times bestsellers such as Caste (Isabel Wilkerson) or Hillbilly Elegy (JD Vance) can be interacted with by political scientists, sociologists, and educators while creating opportunities for meaningful conversations on culturally important (and potentially explosive) issues. When a faculty member joins a book club as an “expert” and as a co-learner who can share from a different perspective on the social issues arising in these books, it hopefully demonstrates the value of their specialization to crucial conversations on the issues.
The challenge for the academic is to find an area of commonality and broader applicability and then translate the principles into useful (jargon-free) content.
Personally, sharing my dissertation research at an academic conference was rewarding. Yet, the topic of my research was so narrow (Career Paths of Christian College Presidents) that it was difficult to imagine others outside the discipline being interested in the topic. Even so, the basic conclusions of the research could likely be applicable to many areas. The findings could provide an example for a workshop on career changes for those in mid-life, as well as a seminar on thinking about career options for young adults, especially recent college or seminary graduates.
Christian colleges and universities do not generally hold as tightly to the “publish or perish” mentality as other post-secondary institutions. But service opportunities are often a significant factor in the promotion process at faith-based schools, and the above ideas for community engagement are unique service opportunities that offer valuable benefits to faculty as well as the college and its constituency.