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Furman hosts faculty workshop on public engagement

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Should liberal arts colleges engage the public? If so, how and when and on what questions? What does public engagement mean for college professors and to what extent should it be promoted?

Seventeen professors from eight liberal arts colleges nationwide gathered at Furman University from June 14-17 to share ideas and attempt to answer some challenging questions about the proper place of public engagement.

For the past two years, Communication Studies Professor Sean O’Rourke and Political Science Professor and Incoming Department Chair Elizabeth Smith have led faculty seminars on public engagement through the Cothran Center for Vocational Reflection. But they wanted to take the conversation further, to go beyond Furman’s campus and reach out to other higher education faculty.

With the help of a nearly $20,000 grant from the Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges, O’Rourke and Smith were able to bring professors from seven other universities for a four-day stay on Furman’s campus.

The faculty workshop program, themed “Professors and Their Publics: Liberal Arts Colleges, Public Engagement and the Way Forward,” included professors from Carleton College, Dennison University, Furman University, Pennsylvania State University, Middlebury College, Rhodes College, Smith College, and Wesleyan University.

Education Professor Karen Graves of Dennison University described today as a “critical time” for liberal arts colleges.

As a scholar with a personal interest in public intellectualism, Graves said “it’s important to engage people to go out to do their work in a thoughtful, informed way, but we also want to engage in that work ourselves.”

Professors discussed potential public engagement activities, such as media interviews, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles, service learning, art installations and blog posts, and how such activities could potentially be defined and included on each college campus.

Penn State Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and English Rosa Eberly gave the keynote address, “Public Violence and the Responsibilities of the Liberal Arts,” also a featured summer event in Furman’s Cultural Life Program.

In preparation for the workshop, Furman student Melissa Temple ’17 of Johnson City, Tenn., spent several weeks reading as much as she could from available literature on public engagement. Being able to listen in on round-table discussions during the workshop gave her a whole new perspective.

“It was so enlightening,” said Temple, a political science and communication studies major. “Not only was I able to hear about the theoretical concepts behind public engagement and academic freedom, but I was also able to learn about the struggles, challenges, and rewards of public engagement and see the ways public engagement presents itself.”

She will be writing a paper on public engagement with Smith as part of her 10-week internship under the Furman Advantage program.

Workshop participants are also planning to co-author a book on public engagement to include arguments for public engagement and discussions and examples of public engagement by disciplines.

“In the best tradition of liberal arts colleges, we weren’t all in agreement all the time, but we certainly were able to form a community of like-minded scholars,” said O’Rourke.

“It was inspirational, motivational,” said Smith. “It made you remember why you went into this profession.”

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