Scott J. Peters is an associate professor of education at Cornell University, and an associate editor of the Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement
When I learned that the theme of the IARSLCE Conference this year would be “connected knowing,” I immediately thought of a story I heard last year. A tenured professor from a land-grant college of agriculture (I’ll call her “Sarah”) told it during a conversation about public engagement I facilitated with a group of faculty members. Here’s her story, quoted verbatim from the transcript, with my voice and that of another faculty member (“Tom”) also included:
Sarah: Yesterday I was in a meeting and I asked somebody high up in the administration in our college a point blank question. The question was, “In your interaction with our stakeholders, what do they want from us?” And the response was the same as always. And that I don’t buy.
Me: Same as always being what? What was the response?
Tom: The best scientific knowledge on X? (This was said in a sarcastic voice.)
Sarah: No. The response was, “Somebody on the other end of the phone line that tells them what to do.” My experience is so opposite of that, that I was floored by that response. I work with dairy farmers. And what farmers want from us is not an answer. They want us to partner with them to find solutions. There is certainly a fraction of the farming community that wants to pick up the phone, ask me a question, get an answer and implement it. But the ones that are progressive, the ones that we should be working with to move forward are the ones that say, “What do you think of this? Can we put something in place to get some answers?” They’re working towards networks of on-farm research. They want us to be partners in finding answers. They don’t want us to give them the answer.
I relate this story here for two of the truths it reveals.
First, it reveals and communicates an experiential truth about the wants of a specific group of stakeholders of a land-grant college of agriculture: they yearn to be partners in the work of connected knowing—knowing that happens in and through face-to-face conversations and close, on-going relationships. Knowing that’s grounded in specific situations and contexts. Knowing that’s collaborative and multidimensional, that pools different kinds of knowledge and interweaves different ways of knowing. And, given all this, knowing that’s both political and personal.
The second truth Sarah’s story reveals and communicates has to do with the way the yearning for connected knowing is situated. It’s situated up against a view of higher education’s public engagement work that positions external stakeholders as the customers and consumers of academic knowledge and advice. And this view reflects an embrace of a conception of knowing that’s heroic and individualistic, disconnected and decontextualized.
These truths are both inspiring and troubling. It’s inspiring to learn of a desire for connected knowing among, of all people, dairy farmers. (I doubt many people would think of them as yearning for connected knowing!) And it’s inspiring to learn of a faculty member in a highly technical agricultural field who sees farmers as partners in the work of knowing, instead of just the consumers of its products. But it’s troubling to hear the minimalist judgment the administrator in the story has of the wants of his or her college’s stakeholders. And it’s troubling to see and feel the ways that such a judgment, paraphrasing KerryAnn O’Meara’s description of the IARSLCE Conference theme, obscures who besides a spotlighted individual contributes to the process and work of knowing, where it happens, and what ends it serves.
Sarah’s story is just one story, from one particular kind of college. But I’m willing to bet that other faculty members from different kinds of colleges (and staff and students as well) have similar stories to tell that reveal the same basic truths. We should make an effort to invite such stories to be told and documented, and then work to see what we might learn from them about connected knowing: what it looks like and involves, why it matters, and how it might be strengthened and supported.
I look forward to pursuing this with others at the 2012 IARSLCE conference, and beyond!