Director’s Column: “We” Is a Verb

By David Scobey, Director, Bringing Theory to Practice

A year ago, at the start of my job as director of BTtoP, I posted an introductory letter entitled “Call to Community” on our listserv, sketching some hopes and plans.[1] Foremost was the goal of growing “our rich network of campuses, researchers, and practitioners into a true community of practice, as deeply tied to one another as they are to the ‘hub’ of BTtoP.” Building such a collaborative community—one committed to both the guiding purposes of college and the need for radical change—seemed to be our special work, our historical assignment, during a time of turmoil in higher education. “The ongoing vitality of Bringing Theory to Practice,” I wrote, “will depend on our capacity to weave a ‘we’ out of our shared commitments, the work we’ve achieved, and the work that remains unfinished.”

It’s serendipitous that this issue of our newsletter returns to the same theme, and it prompts me to reflect on that goal of “weaving the we” and the work BTtoP has done in the year since. Even before joining BTtoP, I believed that academic innovation and renewal depended on the building of collaborative communities across higher education, as well as with public partners. The landscape of the academy is decentered and sometimes maddeningly chaotic, yet I’m more and more convinced that this distributed, networked geography can also be a reservoir of innovation and creative change.

BTtoP’s work this year has only strengthened that conviction. Nearly everything we’ve done has prioritized the building of collaborative communities to advance creative change that renews the core purposes of higher education. Our biweekly “Bringing It” emails[2] have showcased wonderful work from our network of grantees, as well as the insights of partners across higher education. Our Multi-Institutional Innovation Grants (MIGs) offered funding for project partnerships by groups of colleges and universities. Mindful of the difficulty of building such collaborations—not to mention the modest scale of the grants—we expected no more than thirty proposals. We were elated to get ninety-five, involving almost four hundred institutions, and even more elated at the quality, creativity, and range of the proposals. We also launched the first of our own collaborative projects, the PLACE Collaboratory, funded by a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. PLACE (Partnerships for Listening and Action by Communities and Educators) brings together a network of community partnerships involving eleven academic institutions in four cities: Newark, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Greensboro. Through humanities and cultural projects, they will develop public agendas defined by community voice. At the same time, they’ll come together regularly to distill model practices for such academic-community collaborations.

All of these efforts made clear the openness—in fact, the appetite—of educators and institutions to engage in collaborative innovation. This newsletter testifies to some of the results. The essay by our colleagues in Greensboro describes the genesis of a core feature of our PLACE partnership: an extraordinary class, Reclaiming Democracy, cotaught since 2005 by faculty from five Greensboro-area colleges and universities, whose students work in cross-institutional teams with community organizations. Dilip Das’ piece showcases C-THEM (the Collaborative of Tribal and Higher Education in Michigan), one of twenty-one recipients of a Multi-Institutional Innovation grant. C-THEM brings together Michigan’s Native American tribes and the University of Michigan to increase access for Native American students and build leadership networks among those students. These projects embody the power of “weaving the we” in higher education. Each does more than simply build the institutional capacity of its partners; like chemical reactions, it unleashes their imaginative energy.

BTtoP did not “build” either Reclaiming Democracy or C-THEM. We were able to build on the work that our colleagues in North Carolina and Michigan were already forging. For me, that’s an important lesson of this year of “weaving the we.” Initiatives like our MIG grants or the PLACE Collaboratory are only possible because the landscape of higher education is already simmering with the energies of creative innovation, energies that are ready to be organized and amplified in larger communities of practice. Such community building makes our work as educators not only larger, but more dynamic. “We” is a verb.

BTtoP will continue this work of “we’ing.” We’ll want to build on emergent networks and creative projects you’re already creating; we’ll want to propose new ones back to you. Stay tuned. Stay in touch.




[1]  David Scobey, “Call to Community: A Letter from the Director of Bringing Theory to Practice,” August 7, 2018, https://www.bttop.org/news-events/august-7-2018-call-community-letter-di....

[2]  Sign up to receive biweekly “Bringing It” emails by joining our mailing list here: www.bttop.org.