Its projects have spanned disciplines and borders: working with tribal radio stations in Alaska and Arizona to communicate accurate, culturally relevant healthcare information; developing a series of web-based videos catered to the interests and needs of Thai migrant workers in Israel; trying to balance civilian and officer expectations of policing in Washington, D.C., in order to build trust on both sides.
In 2020–21, the Rackham Program in Public Scholarship (RPPS) is celebrating 10 years under the auspices of Rackham Graduate School. The program’s goal is for graduate students to develop the skills necessary to bring their research and knowledge to challenging questions of social importance for the public good.
What has become RPPS began as the Arts of Citizenship program in 1998 as part of the Ginsberg Center, with support from the U-M Office of Research. Founded by Professor David Scobey, 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. Professor Countryman 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 in order 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. RPPS now comprises four offerings:
- Institute for Social Change (ISC)
An interdisciplinary program held every 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. Associate Professor of History and Women’s Studies LaKisha Simmons 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 (EPI)
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 between 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,” says Rackham Program Manager for Public Scholarship Joe Cialdella. “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 (Ph.D. ’20) 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 to 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 recalls. “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.”
To date, RPPS has provided grants to students in more than 25 different fields, ranging from public health and American culture to urban planning and dance. 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 Cass Corridor Commons in Detroit, a cooperative space that houses several social justice–focused nonprofits. All told, more than 450 students have participated in RPPS over its 10 years at the graduate school.
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,” says 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.”
Our stories commemorating the 10th anniversary of RPPS:
- Moral Victories Zoë A. Johnson King co-founded the Michigan High School Ethics Bowl, helping high school students explore and apply moral philosophy to local issues.
- Boosting the Signal Jana Wilbricht studied the crucial role of tribal radio stations as sources of healthcare information in Native American communities.
- Mining the Past Colin Quinn helped start a program that connects a Romanian community with its mining heritage.
- Time Travel with Typewriters Meghan Forbes co-created a program that uses a retro strategy to help kids write: giving them access to typewriters.