Background on the Theme

For additional background on the IARSLCE conference theme, Connected Knowing, read our first post from KerryAnn O'Meara, the 2012 conference program chair

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

KerryAnn O'Meara, Program Chair, 2012 IARSLCE Conference

Commentary on the theme Connected Knowing from KerryAnn O’Meara 
KerryAnn O'Meara is Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Maryland, Co-Director/Co-PI of UM's NSF Advance Grant, and Coordinator of the UM Higher Education Program. KerryAnn  serves as the program chair for this year's IARSLCE conference in Baltimore. She can be contacted at

The theme for the conference is "Connected Knowing." The pursuit of knowledge, our innate desire to learn and understand and create meaning, is at the center of what it means to be human. Knowing is powerful, and tied to the demand for human rights and dignity. How we know is closely tied to our identity; it also is bounded and shaped by social, political, and historical forces. Knowing is part of how we grow and advance. Knowing then is personal.  It also is deeply political.

Yet to know is to be deeply connected to other people, to specific places with histories and cultures, and to different perspectives or ways of understanding. Learning is possible because a learner is connected, somehow, to persons, conditions, ideas, and needs, communities beyond him or herself.  Learning then is about relationships – relationships between persons and so much of what surrounds them. For many communities, knowledge has meant power to improve everyday social conditions. Knowledge is made by people together.  Knowledge is shared together.  It is made with others in mind. We do not have to look any further than the success of Wikipedia in mass knowledge creation, in fact, for the masses, or the use of social networking in pursuits of the larger good – in Tunisia for example -- to see the powerful role that connections between individuals play in the creation of knowledge and in some cases, significant social change.

This tradition of knowing through, because of, and with others, is very much at the heart of John Dewey’s dream that education involve intimate public engagement with the world. W.E.B Dubois likewise argued for connected knowing in a 1920 book, Darkwater: Voices Within the Veil, in which Dubois wrote that “Children must be trained in a knowledge of what the world is and what it knows and how it does its daily work. These things cannot be separated; we cannot teach pure knowledge apart from actual facts, or separate truth from the human mind.”

This theme reaches deep into what professionalism means, and what professionals strive for, touching on personal values, individual and social actions, and conceptions of the larger good.  In his 1837 essay The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke to needs to connect knowledge with values.  The writings of Ernest Boyer (1996), William Sullivan (2005), and Al Dzur (2008) – continue to remind us of society’s historic expectation of professionals:  that they connect their scholarship to efforts to advance the public good—that they strive for more than merely private or personal gain. The concept of connected knowing – of knowing that links the best of ideas to carefully crafted action in the world – is at the center of the promise of the Land Grant University to serve as democracy’s colleges.  We celebrate the 150th anniversary of that promise this year in 2012.  Last but not least, the term connected knowing applies not only to big visions of profession and society, practice and ideals.  It applies as well to what goes on in class in the name of teaching and learning. The vision was perhaps best captured by Belenky, M.F., Clinchy, B.M., Goldberger, N.R., & Tarule, J.M. (1986) in their classic text Women's ways of knowing: the development of self, voice, and mind. Their work reminds us that connected knowing is an ideal not only for institutions and professions but also for individual knowing which has intimate ties to gender, and other key aspects of identity.

The IARSLCE is relatively speaking, a newer association. It was born 13 years ago out of the desire to connect researchers, scholar-practitioners, faculty, teachers and community partners who engage in research on and through service learning and community engagement. The theme of Connecting Knowing calls us to ask challenging questions about our own research, about the ideas and practices we study. Have we considered the critical role of place and local context in what students learn and with whom? How are students, community partners, and faculty coming to learn new ideas—what are the tools they are using?  Are they effective and how do we know that?  When they are, what makes them so?  How does identity and connection to other people and place contribute to what people come to know?  How does our learning, and the learning of our students and community partners help us improve the conditions of life in our communities? How can our knowing impact social change via policy and practice directly and swiftly and effectively as is possible?

We meet in Baltimore at a point in time that the American Commonwealth Partnership, AACU and the U.S. Department of Higher Education have referred to as “a crucible moment” in democratic education. It is an election year. Candidates and their supporters spar over competing visions of the good, and behind those, competing visions of thinking about and knowing what is good. Some of these questions have to do with which groups should have access to which kinds of knowledge or education. Others question the best ways for students to learn, and whether education truly enhances social mobility. Has the pursuit of knowledge in our educational systems become a private good? Or is there a public good inherent in how we view knowledge as our common project?

We meet in Baltimore, MD (Charm city) for the 2012 IARSLCE conference. “Charm city” is a place with a rich history. There we find the home of Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, Edgar Allan Poe, Babe Ruth, Upton Sinclair and Frank Zappa, John Waters. Baltimore also is the Birth Place of the Star Spangled Banner. Baltimore is a place of much service-learning and community engagement, of deep partnerships as well as historical divisions between educational institutions and non-profits and community members. It is an excellent place to consider the contradictions and challenges in how we go about our research and practice in the field of community engagement and service learning.

We offer this theme to you as a way to consider connections in your own knowledge of service-learning and community engagement—as a researcher, teacher, student, evaluator, and participant. Between now and the conference in September, we will provide multiple opportunities via the conference Website to continue this ongoing conversation. Specifically, I will ask members of the Board and colleagues throughout the community engagement movement to post reflections like this on the meaning or relevance of Connected Knowing in their work. Then, I join the Board and conference committee in saying—we hope to see you at the IARSLCE conference September 23-25, 2012 in Baltimore —to be connected, as we learn together.

Thanks to John Saltmarsh (University of Massachusetts Boston) and Anna Neumann (Teachers College, Columbia) who provided feedback on these comments.