The Ethical and Professional Risks of Engaged Scholarship
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The Ethical and Professional Risks of Engaged Scholarship
Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts & Educational Alternatives. Edited by Stephen John Hartnett. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011; pp x + 291. $80.00 cloth; $25.00 paper.
Democracy and Higher Education: Traditions and Stories of Civic Engagement. By Scott J. Peters with Theodore R. Alter and Neil Schartzbach. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010; pp xx + 396. $44.95 paper.
The Ethics and Politics of Speech: Communication and Rhetoric in the Twentieth Century. By Pat J. Gehrke. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009; pp x + 205. $35.00 paper.
Rhetorical Education in America. Edited by Cheryl Glenn, Margaret M. Lyday, and Wendy B. Sharer. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004; pp xvi + 245. $27.50 paper.
Save the World on Your Own Time. By Stanley Fish. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008; pp 208. $19.95 cloth.

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In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a grant to the Global Perspective Institute (GPI) and the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) to develop a national action plan for promoting civic learning and democratic engagement in higher education. Among the initial findings of that joint study is that most civic engagement performed by students comes in the form of what Ashley Finley characterizes as apolitical service-learning projects that prompt students to reflect “inward on their individual experience, rather than outward to the relevance of that experience to a societal big picture.”1 In response to these findings the GPI and the AAC&U recommend curricula that “more intentionally frame civic participation as politically and democratically centered.”2

The GPI-AAC&U study is noteworthy in that it advocates a place for politics in higher education, a controversial position due to popular perceptions of academia as an arcane, over-priced haven of leftist thought. Even those who will applaud the study may greet it with some apprehension if it does not also offer ideas for how to realize these recommendations without attracting further criticism of the academy and of politically engaged academics. If students incline toward service learning rather than political action, it may be because faculty are unsure of how to facilitate that action without, for instance, drawing the charge that we are indoctrinating students and advancing partisan agendas. For us to instruct students in civic engagement and promote political participation will require some additional thought about how we ourselves might practice engaged forms of scholarship.

The need for further guidance on this question makes timely the Rhetoric & Public Affairs special issue on rhetoric and public policy (2010) and the Quarterly Journal of Speech forum on engaged scholarship (2010), both of which invite us to reflect anew on the relationship between the terms “political,” “rhetorical,” and “engaged.” Both the R&PA special issue and the QJS forum anticipate the findings of the GPI-AAC&U study by taking up the question of how rhetorical scholars might better articulate their work with nonscholarly affairs.

The idea of engaged scholarship is not a new one, of course. It has roots in the mission of the American land grant university system established by the Morrill Acts (1862 and 1890) and institutionalized by the Hatch (1887) and Smith-Lever Acts (1914), which mandated creation of scholarly activities—all of an agricultural nature—designed to serve surrounding communities. Rhetoric and communication scholars have two additional traditions that inform [End Page 154] our understanding of engaged scholarship. The first is the civic education that shaped the early years of our discipline and continues in many forms today, and the second is a theoretical interest in acknowledging the political dimensions of all scholarship.

Joshua Gunn and John Louis Lucaites cite all three traditions as precedents for our present-day conversation, but they ground the QJS forum in this last, theoretical tradition. Invoking Immanuel Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties, Gunn and Lucaites frame the idea of engaged scholarship as first and foremost a political question.3 Calls for politically engaged teaching and scholarship such as those issued by GPI and AAC&U charge us with the task, they argue, of working out the relationship between the academic...