Its projects have spanned disciplines and borders: working with tribal radio stations in Alaska and Arizona to communicate accurate, culturally relevant health care information; developing web-based videos catered to the interests and needs of Thai migrant workers in Israel; trying to balance civilian and officer expectations of policing to build trust in Washington, D.C. 

During the 2020-21 academic year, the Rackham Program in Public Scholarship is celebrating 10 years under the auspices of Rackham Graduate School. Its goal is for graduate students to develop the skills necessary to bring their research and knowledge to bear on challenging questions of social importance for the public good.

What has become RPPS began in 1998 as the Arts of Citizenship program through the Ginsberg Center, with support from the U-M Office of Research. Founded by David Scobey, an associate professor of architecture, Arts of Citizenship sought to co-create projects between university and community partners to meet mutual needs and demonstrate the relevance and importance of higher education in a vibrant civic life.

As projects and local partnerships grew, program staff noticed an increasing role for training and developing graduate students across multiple fields for community-based, collaborative projects.

Under the guidance of then faculty director Matthew Countryman, the program moved to Rackham in the 2010 academic year. He re-envisioned the program around four core areas at the intersection of public scholarship and professional development for graduate students. It was renamed the Rackham Program in Public Scholarship in 2016 to reflect expansion beyond just arts and culture disciplines to social science and STEM fields, and to more recognizably situate U-M in the national public scholarship movement.

Photo of students leading discussions of tactics in community-based learning at the 2016 Engaged Pedagogy Initiative Symposium.
Students lead discussions of tactics in community-based learning at the 2016 Engaged Pedagogy Initiative Symposium. (Photo courtesy of Rackham Graduate School)

RPPS now comprises four offerings:

Institute for Social Change — An interdisciplinary program each May that introduces students to publicly engaged scholarship, pedagogy and practices. Over the course of ISC, students work in small teams, led by a more senior peer mentor, to develop a project plan based on the needs set out by a community partner. LaKisha Simmons, associate professor of history and women’s studies, is the current faculty director.

Public Scholarship Grants — These $8,000 grants are collaboratively designed and support mutually beneficial projects between Rackham students and community partner organizations.

Engaged Pedagogy Initiative — An intensive, semester-long, community-based learning workshop that guides graduate students through the process of incorporating community-based work into their teaching. EPI is a partnership of the Ginsberg Center, Rackham and LSA.

Rackham Public Engagement Internship Program —Provides summer fellowship support for Rackham students to grow professionally by contributing to projects identified by cultural, nonprofit, governmental and educational organizations focused on serving the needs of communities and the greater public good.

 “Outside of a funding program for collaborative projects, students also wanted intensive training and more opportunities to do public scholarship and engagement, which is where things like the Engaged Pedagogy Initiative and the Institute for Social Change come in,” said Joe Cialdella, program manager for public scholarship.

“The idea is to train future generations of scholars to do publicly engaged work well, with best principles and practices that they usually had to pick up as they went along. Historically, there hasn’t been a lot of support or training for this work across academia.”

In 2016, Jana Wilbricht used a Rackham Public Scholarship Grant to engage radio stations KYUK in Bethel, Alaska, and KUYI on Arizona’s Hopi Reservation. Her project helped the stations develop and host focus groups for audience members in order to understand their needs and whether the stations’ programming was meeting them. That work also formed part of her dissertation in communication studies. 

“There was tremendous support for my work,” she said. “I’m not a tribal member, I don’t speak their languages. I was just a scholar, but everyone was eager to talk and thought the work was important.”

RPPS has provided grants to students in more than 25 different fields, ranging from public health and American culture to urban planning and dance. More than 450 students have participated in RPPS during its 10 years at the graduate school, and program offerings have had an impact across the country, around the world and closer to campus.

For instance, in 2018 the ISC focused on working with community partners to develop a vision for Detroit’s Cass Corridor Commons, a cooperative space that houses several social justice-focused nonprofits.

With its guiding principles of mutual benefit, co-creation of knowledge, and public good, RPPS complements U-M’s broader efforts around public engagement. It brings scholarship to bear in meaningful ways outside of the academy. It helps public audiences recognize the value of university research and partnerships. And it intersects with Rackham’s professional-development programming by providing opportunities for students to grow and contribute their skills in advancing public work.

“Connecting our graduate students to the issues and research questions that are important to our public partners is central to our mission as a graduate school,” said Rackham Dean Mike Solomon. “The Rackham Program in Public Scholarship is a vital initiative for preparing students for career opportunities, increasing public awareness of the important work our students do, and ultimately collaboratively building better futures with communities here in Michigan and around the world.”

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