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Reigniting the Spark: Denison Faculty Seminar

Course Description and Evaluation

The first session, on January 24, 2022, took place face-to-face on the snow-covered Denison campus. We discussed different meanings of democracy and introduced the public work framework, defining democracy as the work of the people in multiple settings building a common life. The meaning of democracy was a question that ran through the semester and provided grist for ongoing debate and discussion. Participants found the public work view of democracy to be challenging and also exciting. It illuminates work that is usually invisible in conventional faculty assessments. Many appreciated the reframing of the citizen professional as someone who exercises catalytic, not simply directive leadership. Citizen professionals work “with” other citizens not simply “for” them.

The next six sessions – all by Zoom – covered the following topics:

  • Professional enclosure.

  • Citizen professionalism in practice.

  • Everyday politics, beyond partisan combat.

  • The “commons.”

  • Pedagogies of empowerment.

  • Denison as a community commons for the region.

Discussions were lively. The session on the norms, socialization processes, and incentives which separate faculty from the life of places and each other really hit home. Case studies of effective citizen professionals were highly engaging. These included a first-hand account by one of the participants of the transformative work of Antanas Mockus, the mayor of Bogota, Colombia, in the 1990s, and the story of our long-time colleague Bill Doherty, who has translated public work into family therapy and health fields and co-founded the depolarization group, Braver Angels. Participants were motivated to debate possibilities for rethinking tenure and promotion guidelines and the meaning of professorship at Denison.

The session on “the commons” included a panel about the Nobel Prize-winning theory of Elinor Ostrom (three participants were students of Ostrom’s work and two had studied with her at Indiana University). Along with three examples of local commons-building (a library, art gallery, and archive), this discussion helped crystalize a vision for an engaged university that contributes substantially to the civic, social, and economic wellbeing of communities and regions. Reflections by President Weinberg on his essay, “Preparing Students for the Work of Citizens,” prompted an intense and positive response.

"I discovered that I have what it takes to be a citizen professional" - Seminar participant

We concluded with participants’ reflections on the semester as a whole. Several said the seminar had been inspiring and provided a space to build new relationships and renew old ones. Many said they enjoyed the opportunity to debate the meaning and state of democracy. Others highlighted the importance of learning skills of listening across differences. Still others were enthusiastic about opportunities to talk about topics like politics, citizenship, and the role of the academy with people outside their fields.

We had hoped that the seminar would be enlarging and enlivening. Most of the participants affirmed that it was. The Lisska Center’s evaluation report concluded, “participants overwhelmingly viewed the series as a positive experience.” Eighty-one percent indicated that their expectations were met moderately to extremely well. A similar number said the seminar expanded their ideas about civic engagement. The Lisska Center had provided a stipend of $750 for participants, but eighty-one percent said they would sign up for the seminar even if there were no stipend. A strong majority said they would recommend the seminar to colleagues.

This Citizen Professional seminar amply demonstrates that there are possibilities to “reignite the spark” among faculty who feel depleted and disheartened in the wake of Covid and other challenges.

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