When I came to Towson University in 2009, I was a new librarian in a newly-created position that included strengthening the library’s partnerships with Baltimore-area organizations. I dove right in, working with the Maryland Humanities Council to create a campus discussion of their selection for the state-wide One Maryland One Book reading program. It wasn’t until I attended the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities (CUMU) Annual Conference in 2013 that I realized that there are actually multiple ways to approach developing external partnerships. At that conference, I learned about how universities from across the country each had unique conceptions of community engagement—from how to build partnerships to how to implement them and how to assess them. I used the knowledge I gained to inform the library’s community engagements and I began looking for new and creative ways to work with partners. Eventually I discovered how external partnerships best fit in with my own work and the library’s work as well.
So when Dr. Matthew Durington, the faculty director for BTU—Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore (Towson’s framework for capturing and supporting community partnerships) asked me to create a guide detailing what academic professional associations have to say about community engagement, I jumped at the chance. I created the guide with the hopes of being able to help others find their own place in the world of partnerships, as I had. I didn’t anticipate, however, just how many different possible ways to conceive of community engagement that I would uncover. Even within similar fields of study, how academic professional associations define and organize community engagement and working with partners external to academia varies considerably.
Differing Ideas of Community Engagement
When creating my Community Engagement guide, I examined the websites of 86 academic professional associations. When choosing the organizations to include, I looked for those with some connection to Towson University’s academic offerings and that discussed community engagement in some way. As I began exploring the different associations’ websites, I noticed that there was tremendous variability in how organizations conceptualized partnerships and community engagement, even between associations within the same field. For example, the International Communication Association (ICA) has an outreach focused part of its mission: “The International Communication Association aims to advance the scholarly study of human communication by encouraging and facilitating excellence in academic research worldwide. The purposes of the Association are…(4) to promote a wider public interest in, and visibility of, the theories, methods, findings and applications generated by research in communication and allied fields.” Most of the academic associations that I looked at had some degree of this conception of community engagement, ranging from sharing their research to more of an advocacy on behalf of the causes related to their fields of study. The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), however, takes a more community service approach in their Code of Ethics: “AEJMC members have a mandate to serve society beyond our teaching and research. We offer services related to our appropriate professional fields, particularly activities that enhance understanding among media educators, professionals, and the general public. We assist AEJMC, other media organizations, and media practitioners.” This collaborative approach to community engagement was much less common, except for in education-related fields where I found it to be more of the norm.
How academic professional associations choose to include community engagement in their work is also variable. A few organizations, such as the American Chemical Society and the American Philosophical Association include community engagement in their mission and/or values statements. Similarly organizations such as American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) mention or discuss community engagement on the About Us page of their websites. Both methods suggest that community engagement is a fundamental part of the organization. Another approach that some organizations, including the American Economic Association (AEA) and the American Library Association (ALA), have used is to create committees or initiatives that focus on sharing the organization’s work with the external constituencies and/or the public. This is the least common location for community engagement, with only 8 of the 86 organizations taking this concentrated approach.
From outreach to collaboration, integrated to concentrated, the process of creating a Community Engagement guide for Towson University has opened my eyes to the numerous ways that academics can integrate external partnerships into their work. I hope that my colleagues will see themselves and their own work represented in it and maybe, just maybe, consider working with a new partner or creating a new initiative with an existing partner. Ultimately, I hope they too find their own unique best fit for community engagement.