Let Our Traditions Guide Us: Remembering roots of engagement

Tradition is not to preserve the ashes but to pass on the flame” – Gustav Mahler

My time within academia has given me a sense of the diverse perspectives around community engagement at the individual and academic levels. I’ve learned that community engagement itself means different things to different people and academic environments, yet the emergent consensus is that academia has an interest and a duty to engage with its community, and act as contributors to both local and global issues through the knowledge and talents they are set up to produce. Some universities are more demonstrative of engagement than others, yet it would be difficult to find an academic institution that doesn’t have some sort of partnership or reach into their local community or involvement of community on campus.

Community Engagement, in the broad sense refers to the collaboration between institutions and its broader community. We’ve seen community engagement initiatives manifest in a number of ways: research partnerships with community organizations, student placements through practicum or internships, continuing education programs, student engagement initiatives that involve learning within local or global settings, or events that seek to bring the public onto campus. Different institutions pride themselves on the ways they engage externally, and quite often, can present a unique way that defines their engagement strategies.

Community engagement advocates do often go up against tough critics of engagement ideas from both internal skeptics and external organizations and individuals. Internally, some academics prefer to do research and teaching the is more inward focus and doesn’t lend itself to engagement with the external community due to the topic or in some cases, the discipline. Some things are studied on campus and is not mobilized because it’s more useful to the internal academic community of practice, and that’s OK. Some academics do have a preference to keep their studies more insular. That’s OK too. Some academics think that the community doesn’t belong within the ivory tower. I’m not so much of a fan of that perception. External critics often view the academy as elitist, closed off, and difficult to access. Some people don’t believe they belong within the academic community, which is a downfall of some academic traditions and the perpetuation of elitist attitudes. Some critics believe academia has no place in the community or the community in academia. I am also not such a fan of that ignorance.

As an advocate for community engagement for academic institutions, which we know rely heavily on tradition, I’ve often found comfort and motivation in the tradition of the faculty of extension. Faculties of extension had roots in extending beyond the community to rural settings, providing access to education, and acknowledging the academy’s duty to contribute to the community outside its gates. I had a rather serendipitous moment in my life when I was working at Western University, and had the opportunity to work within community engagement efforts. I stumbled upon an annual from the early-1900s where I saw Western University’s(The University of Western Ontario’s) foundations in extension. I always wished that still existed for the university.

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The tradition of the faculty of extension is fading. We don’t hear about it that often anymore. When we do, it’s often not as clear what the function of the extension is. In Canada, our strongest example of a Faculty of Extension is University of Alberta‘s, and I’ve oft looked at this with a nostalgic remembrance of academia’s past. The Faculty provides a promising glimpse into the importance of building bridges between the institution and its wider community, with the greater mandate of removing barriers and providing access to education to all, regardless of class, location or current level of education.

I am encouraged by the programs that exist within our own community, as well as across Canada that represent and hold onto the duty to extend beyond campus. Such examples include Liberal Arts 101 at King’s University College at Western, which has had positive reception within the community as well as provided great opportunities for King’s to live to its mission. Another program is Halifax Humanities 101, which was a model introduced to me early in my academic career and influenced my dedication to community engagement. Both programs demonstrate a dedication to the traditions of extension and reflect the value of building bridges for access to education.

As I previously stated, both those with in and external know that academia holds on too closely to old traditions. This has often been my frustration with working in structures built heavily on history, canon and theoretical thought as much as that is why I find it so fascinating. The faculty of extension is a tradition that academic institutions have the opportunity to celebrate, honour, and revitalize in order to live a vision of building bridges to communities. Such traditions allow us to reflect on our strengths in engagement and change the conversation about the ways the ivory tower has reached beyond its gates. It’s always been a part of what they do, and as academics we can find inspiration in our past work together to mobilize the strengths of the traditions we have built together with the communities we are a part of.

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