Please share with #citizensciencegis and #publicscholars

Why do you do what you do? That’s a hard question, much harder than the question: what do you do? The question of why drives my work as a public scholar. On my academic journey – from a bright-eyed undergraduate from 1999-2003 at a small liberal arts college (Ohio Wesleyan University) majoring in geography – to my current role as an Assistant Professor of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the Department of Sociology at UCF, one of the biggest universities in the U.S., I have constantly questioned why I do what I do and I often ask my students to do the same. I do what I do because I believe academics are in a unique position to impact societal change. I believe academics can and should serve the greater good, the public, and contribute to the understanding of social and environmental injustices around the globe.

Figure 1: Citizen Science GIS and Hopkins Village Belize collaborators coming together on a mapping project.

To me the question of why is more important than ever for scholars at public institutions. We live in challenging times, higher education is in a precarious place, yet public partnership universities offer a great opportunity to demonstrate not only the value of higher education for creating tomorrow’s brightest thinkers, but to offer research, teaching, and service that truly matter to and are inclusive of the voices of the general public.

In this blog post, I’d like to encourage our community and our friends to think about the unique ways in which we can further leverage the knowledge of communities together with the knowledge of academics. I have the privilege of seeing a lot of incredible examples of public scholarship at the partnership university I work at, yet I still wonder how we all can become better public scholars?

I’ve learned three great lessons in my young career as a public scholar and I hope these points might open a conversation about how increased public scholarship can become the norm rather than the exception around our country.

First and most importantly, I’ve learned that we as academics need to listen to diverse groups of people from all walks of life, with all sorts of knowledge of the day to day challenges present in our society, and with opinions that may be completely different from our own.

Second, I’ve learned from the countless community partners and community members I have worked with that we need to open up our science. We need to share our results in creative ways outside of the halls of our labs, our conferences, and our classrooms. Theses, publications, and dissertations are important but we need to find additional outlets to share and communicate our findings in a jargon-free and less discipline-centric manner.

Third, I’ve learned that the answers to society’s greatest challenges are not always found inside the walls of universities and colleges.  Yes, absolutely, an incredible amount of innovation happens in public universities and colleges.  But some academics at times (myself included) forget that the answers to society’s greatest challenges often lie in the communities in which we work, live, and research.

Valuing the knowledge of local communities in our research and teaching can strengthen our scholarship and demonstrate to the broader public how accessible and useful our scholarship can be to broader society.

Our research group, Citizen Science GIS, has a simple goal: to use maps, apps, and drones for the public good.  For our group, public scholarship only works when we are including people (from all walks of life) and responding to the needs of people in our communities. Our work in Florida, Puerto Rico, Belize, and the Pacific coast emphasizes public partnerships. In working with communities, we see firsthand how much community members value educators, especially public scholars. We also see how much students value taking their classroom learning and applying it -ethically and carefully- in the real-world.  In leaving the classroom and lab, our students quickly realize that social and environmental issues are much more challenging than they appear in the journal articles and books they often read.

As public scholars, we also get to see firsthand some of the negativity that members of the broader public have about academics.

At some point in our careers, many of us (myself included) have been accused of “living in the ivory tower bubble.”  In some cases, the criticism is hard to accept, but quite valid.

In the work of Citizen Science GIS, we have found that to get past these criticisms it takes conversations and back and forth discussions with communities and community partners to explain how, if, and when our scholarship can and might make a difference or support a community cause. Supporting community dialogues, expressing understanding for diverse perspectives, and opening up spaces for spirited, supportive, and critical dialogues are core elements of public scholarship that can improve the ways in which we demonstrate the value of public higher education.

With these points in mind, myself and our Citizen Science GIS research team have a challenge and ask for our community and friends. First, for our colleagues and students, we would ask that you take (or continue to take) an active role in showing the general public how your work impacts society, how it moves beyond the walls of universities and colleges, and how you have learned from the communities in which you learn, work, live, and research.  Second, to members of the non-academic community and beyond, we ask that you continue to keep an open mind of the great things happening at public institutions of higher education and to see these spaces as spaces that are welcoming to your talents and knowledge.  Continue to engage with us, continue to challenge us, and continue to push for scholarship that is inclusive of and responsive to communities.  Simply put, let us know how public scholars can better work with you.

Our Citizen Science GIS team of public scholars believes that now is the time to come together and discuss the ways in which academics and community partners/community members can work together, rather than separately, in a respectful, inclusive, and shared manner to solve society’s greatest social and environmental challenges.

As a public scholar, I, like many of you, recognize that academics have a privileged and powerful position to impact change. In my view, we can have the greatest impact when we serve the communities in which we work, live, and research.  Our Citizen Science GIS team hopes we can continue to create the spaces for dialogue for the general public and academics to come together to solve our world’s greatest challenges.  That to our team is the most impactful part of being a public scholar. We hope this blog sparks a dialogue about the great public scholarship occurring around our region, state, and world, encourages the broader communities of our world to continue to call on us to support their needs, and creates even more spaces for critical, constructive, and collaborative dialogue.

Let us know what you think in the comments and by sharing this blog widely using #citizensciencegis and #publicscholars.  Together, everything is possible!

With best wishes for continued successes in your public scholarship,

Dr. Timothy L. Hawthorne

Founding Research Director of Citizen Science GIS


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