Director's Column: Looking Back, Imagining Forward

By David Scobey, Director, Bringing Theory to Practice

This newsletter marks the start of the sixteenth year of Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) and my fourth month as its new director. It’s truly an honor to follow Don Harward and build on the remarkable work that he and cofounder Sally Engelhard Pingree have led. In this first Director’s Column, I’d like to look back on their record of achievement and to tell you a bit about my own journey here. (As it happens, the theme of this newsletter—the public work of artistic and cultural creation—played a crucial part in that story.) Finally, I’ll point forward to some next steps for BTtoP.

I’ve been an enthusiastic participant in Bringing Theory to Practice almost from the start, but it wasn’t until this year’s director’s search that I saw the full range of our work. We’re sometimes typecast as a project for liberal arts colleges, but out of nearly six hundred grants awarded by BTtoP since 2003, only about one-fourth have gone to baccalaureate institutions. Another quarter were given to research universities and more than 30 percent to comprehensive public universities. Our network includes some thirty community colleges and forty-five minority-serving institutions (numbers that I hope we’ll increase). We’ve worked in and with nearly every sector of higher ed.

The themes and key organizers of the work have been similarly diverse. Nearly half of the principal investigators on BTtoP grants were administrative leaders; faculty oversaw one-fifth of the projects and staff educators (mainly in student affairs) about one-quarter. Our requests for proposals have supported waves of projects on integrative learning, student mental health and well-being, community partnerships, and civic dialogues. We’ve published seven books on these issues, showcasing programmatic creation, pedagogical innovation, research, and thought leadership across the network.

Beneath the numbers, Bringing Theory to Practice has staked two deeper claims that seem key to its achievement. First, that all of this work contributes to an overarching, shared goal: a model of holistic, transformative education in which all students can flourish intellectually and personally and develop their capacity for meaningful work and democratic citizenship. And second, that such a transformative education requires the transformation of academic institutions and higher education as well.

Our commitment to change has included Bringing Theory to Practice itself. I admire the project’s capacity, under Don Harward’s leadership, to assess itself, evolve, and respond to new issues and critical challenges. Our initial focus on issues of student disengagement—spurred by rising concerns about depression and binge drinking—has developed into a larger exploration of student well-being and flourishing. Our commitment to civic engagement has increasingly foregrounded issues of equity and inclusion for underserved students and communities. Our vision and our work have grown, and they will continue to do so.

For me personally, BTtoP’s commitment to both core purposes and educational change, both integrative thinking and innovative action, is compelling. The opportunity to serve as director weaves together many threads of my own career: as an interdisciplinary historian at the University of Michigan (UM), a leader of community partnership programs at UM and Bates College, the dean of an experimental division of public engagement at the New School, and a scholar-advocate for the needs of nontraditional students. I’ve had the chance to teach in liberal arts colleges, doctoral departments, and professional schools; to publish work on the historical cityscape of New York and the current landscape of higher ed; and to help organize national consortia on civic engagement and adult education. All of these experiences have led me, in one way or another, toward Bringing Theory to Practice. All of them, I hope, will benefit our work as we build the next chapter of the project.

It’s serendipitous that I’m able to introduce myself in a newsletter issue devoted to the role of art and creativity in civic and community life. This was formative to my own growth as an engaged scholar and teacher. Twenty years ago, at the University of Michigan, I launched the Arts of Citizenship Program, which fostered the public work of the arts, humanities, and design through community partnerships. Working with brilliant community-engaged artists and teachers like the poet Sekou Sundiata and the choreographer Liz Lerman, I learned how the process of creative collaboration can model democratic community-building and engage social change. Alongside artists, humanists, and designers from across higher education, I also helped to organize Imagining America, a consortium of academic institutions and cultural organizations committed to strengthening communities and democratic public life through the cultural and creative disciplines. It is wonderful that such work is represented in this newsletter. The essays by Carol-lynn Swol and the CADRE partnership from Hostos Community College underscore the indispensable value of the arts and artistic pedagogy to democratic culture, civic learning, and the mission of Bringing Theory to Practice.

For me, one crucial lesson of these essays—and of my own work in Arts of Citizenship and Imagining America—is the role of community building in change work and of creative collaboration in community building. In a sense, Bringing Theory to Practice is engaged in similar creative collaboration as we embark on the next chapter of our project. I’m eager for BTtoP to strengthen the collective bonds among our remarkable network of campuses, practitioners, and researchers. Working as a community of practice and launching new, multi-institutional projects, we can amplify our voice and influence in the national conversation on higher education at a moment when that conversation is often corrosive to our values. The first step in such community building is precisely the kind of shared visioning modeled by the visual artists, performers, and culture makers featured in this issue.

Let me invite you to take part in imagining and cocreating this community of practice. Elsewhere in the newsletter, we describe an important opportunity to do so: three “fishbowl” conversations that BTtoP will hold at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Atlanta this January. These sessions—focused on student well-being and equity, on work and the purposes of college, and on the future of BTtoP itself—will be open forums for thinking, talking, and working together. Please join us.