Engaged scholarship should start with what you know


Engaged scholarship, says Lynette Overby, means “getting to the heart of a social issue” through an academic project involving the community.

Overby, director of the Community Engagement Initiative at the University of Delaware, was the keynote speaker at Pitt’s Community Engaged Scholarship Forum and Senate Plenary on March 1, outlining her 30-plus years using arts research and knowledge to produce creative teaching projects outside her institution.

“You focus on your discipline first … and then it’s important to look around: Let’s see, what are some of the issues in my community that my discipline needs to connect to? There are many issues in the world and to share your discipline to help find a solution is important.”

She has used the work of a Greenville, S.C. potter, for example, as a gateway to presenting a dance that portrayed that area’s legacy of slavery. Her ArtsBridge project took art teachers around the world, where, in one instance, students in Slovenia were taught science by learning to dance the water cycle, from condensation to evaporation. Other projects involved a public poetry installation at a church and bringing art-creation materials to a facility for the homeless and those with mental issues.

She also crafted the Mary Ann Shadd Cary project to celebrate the life of the first African-American woman to edit a newspaper in Canada and the second to get a law degree in the United States. Performed for student groups from Belize to Alabama, it included quotes from Shadd’s female descendants, which dancers danced, “so we could see the transformation of their words into another art form,” Overby said.

She began her professional life as an elementary-school teacher, but when Overby learned about community engaged scholarship, she said, “It just made so much sense to me that we should do this for our communities and for our disciplines,” and prompted her to seek her current career.

She found role models, she said, from collaborating with other public scholars in the humanities. But it was some time before her institution became more supportive of her work.

“The feeling of community work — it took a while for it to become something that is as important as our research toward publication. But the administration is working on it,” she said.

Because such community projects are traditionally seen as a part of the service component of faculty duties, her university had a hard time counting it as part of scholarship, she said. “But we are getting there.”

It is important for faculty involved in community engaged scholarship to seek to publish their experiences in refereed journals, Overby explained: “The community wins and the faculty member wins.” However, she cautioned: “There has to be assessment — this is the only way we can articulate the impact of the production.”

She answers critics of such efforts by saying: “We can talk to our students, our young faculty — they want to make a difference.” For students, community engagement work “allowed them not only to learn their discipline but apply it … in ways that really allowed them to consider their future: ‘I want to be a ...’”

As for the impact on her, Overby said: “By looking at the needs in the community, it informed me about the next place I should go to inform my scholarship, my next step, in the work I am doing.”

Overby concluded: “The problems in our world need to be approached by several disciplines … together you can do so much more.” For instance, when collaborating with literary historians, choreographers, poets and painters in her projects, “we come up with something none of us could do alone.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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