New Kettering Study: Civic Aspirations

What motivates faculty to do civic engagement work at institutions that do not reward it? To learn more about the deep motivations and civic aspirations of faculty, Claire Snyder-Hall interviewed a diverse group of academics from all over the country who do civic-engagement work of various kinds, including deliberative pedagogy, service learning, public scholarship, and community engagement. Recently Kettering published her new study, Civic Aspirations: Why Some Higher Education Faculty Are Reconnecting Their Professional and Public Lives. The paper has relevance across fields to practitioners struggling to integrate their civic aspirations into their professional work. We invited Claire to reflect on her experience working on the paper.

Conducting the three-year study that resulted in Civic Aspirations was a wonderful experience of collaborative learning that taught me a lot about “why some higher education faculty are reconnecting their professional and public lives”—and about myself.

When I started working on this project in 2011, I had just resigned from a tenured faculty position at a major research university and was starting to unpack the many factors that led to that decision. A research exchange at the Kettering Foundation introduced me to the concept of “public happiness”—a term Hannah Arendt uses to explain the sense of flourishing people feel when they engage with others in public work. Although I was familiar with Arendt’s work, the term public happiness never jumped out at me, but it immediately piqued my interest.

People involved in the higher education workgroup at the foundation were wondering if faculty members who do civic engagement work, often on top of a demanding list of job responsibilities and usually without any institutional reward, experience the sense of flourishing Arendt describes.

And it turns out they do! After interviewing almost 40 faculty members across the country at all types of institutions in a variety of fields about their civic engagement work, I discovered that every single one of them experienced very high levels of public happiness. Some were even ecstatic!

If I had not engaged in collaborative learning—asking faculty members to talk about their own collaborations in new ways—I never would have discovered that the feelings produced by the work play a huge role in motivating faculty to do civic engagement on their campuses and in their communities. And without my participation in that collaborative learning, I never would have realized that it was precisely the search for flourishing that prompted me to leave the Ivory Tower and refocus my time on the meaningful work of building and sustaining community.