Community-University Research

I’ve recently had the pleasure of attending CU Expo, a large conference (approximately 500 in attendance) that focuses on relationships between universities and communities, primarily research relationships with social benefits.

Living in Cape Breton as I now do, where we suffer from a variety of issues such as unemployment, sexual violence, and lack of health services, as a person, I’m just generally interested in how universities could assist and partner for improvement in these situations and lend voice to community issues.

As a researcher with training in folklore, who sees herself becoming a public sector folklorist, looking at issues like marginalization and agency among small populations, I’m feeling more and more compelled to help my community.

As someone who advises faculty to a certain extent, is married to a faculty member, and is for lack of a better term, is a university administrator, I’m flummoxed as to how this can be recognized in current promotion and tenure strategies which are in place at most universities. But it’s not just me, so is everyone else.

Paper after paper at this conference has been presented by people who are doing amazing work, with tremendous administrative loads, however, by and large, this type of work is not the sort of research that promotion committees are used to evaluating, and in the language of most collective agreements, from my understanding and from the shared experiences of conference attendees, it isn’t given much weight. In most institutions, course releases are not planned for those engaged in community based research in the same way that they are for those with major research grants.

Most research offices are not staffed with individuals to assist community partners in filling out funding paper work. Most research ethics boards are not necessarily ready to respond to the quick turn around required by spur of the moment community events, or to evaluate what is intervention, action research, or “standard” research and how it all differentiates from each other.

There are some concerns from different corners (faculty members, primarily) that action research or community engaged research may not be academically rigorous enough.

I think in these early days we may need to look to the trail-blazers of this sort of work and use them as our yard stick. In my case, I remember being told of collection projects being done with displaced people in the 1970s and realizing how important that work was. Folklorists often take to the field following a tragedy and note beliefs, material culture, community anxieties, and so on. (Holly Everett’s book, Roadside Crosses in Contemporary Memorial Culture is a great example of this).

If you look at ethnographic photography being done during the Great Depression, you realize the impact it has now and see its validity. We may be too temporarily close to our communities to judge the future value of university and community organisation based research going on in them. We may need to reflect on the need for collection for future research, and how academics can guide this.

When I worked in an archive we had to interpret each item that came in and reflect on its present and future value as a resource. What is the present and future value of university-community research and partnerships? We don’t really know. But I don’t think we can afford not to find out.

My thoughts on this are my own and do not reflect those of my employer. Well, they could, I’ve haven’t asked yet. I’m at a conference.


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