Debby Walser-Kuntz Reflects on her Time as Broom Fellow

5 April 2017

Debby Walser Kuntz is as immunologist who is a professor in the Carleton Biology Department. She served at Broom Faculty Fellow from 2013 to 2016. During her tenure as Broom Fellow she focused on public scholarship in public health and the sciences, as well as building public health opportunities at Carleton. She sat down with us to reflect on her time as Broom Fellow and on public scholarship at Carleton.

Can you tell me more about the Broom Fellow position?

The goal of the position is to help foster public scholarship among faculty. Often the work we do as faculty involves students, but the focus of the Broom position is on faculty and the research they do for and/or with their communities. Public scholarship work may involve creating library exhibits, writing for Wikipedia, developing web pages, writing op/ed pieces, or engaging in research that is aimed at serving a community.

Many faculty are already doing public scholarship, yet they might not classify their work as “public scholarship,” so the position also involves raising awareness. For other faculty members, public scholarship might be an area they want to explore, and they need to know more about how to publish in the field or what tools and resources are available on campus. So a major focus of the Broom position is faculty education through workshops and LTC events  and providing resources.       

And finally there was a part of the role that involved me developing my own public scholarship through courses and my own research.  

What sort of public scholarship did you work on?

One thing I worked on was building a more cohesive program around public health. I’ve been at Carleton for 20 years, and in that time there has been increasing interest among students in public health, yet we’ve never had a formal program. I led faculty/staff seminars to gather interested people from across campus to think about public health. One seminar also involved folks from St. Olaf to allow us to think about sharing resources and expertise related to the field. I was able to develop and lead the winter break program “Public Health in Practice,” which gives students the opportunity to explore public health in more depth. The program has an ACE component, so it helps increase understanding of the connection between working in communities and public health.

What is the definition of public scholarship? How is that related/different from academic civic engagement (ACE)?

People still debate the definition of public scholarship. The definition I like is simple and is from the organization Imagining America. They define public scholarship as “diverse modes of creating and circulating knowledge for and with publics and communities.”

Including community in the definition is different than the way people often think about the work they are doing—for some community is not a direct factor, but with public scholarship it has to be. For example, in my research lab I examine how BPA affects the immune system. The work I do absolutely has public health implications, and so ultimately our findings could help communities be healthier. But the focus is more conventionally focused on publishing in journals specifically for a scientific audience. I’m not working with a target community that asked me specifically to look at BPA, and for me, that’s what really differentiates my laboratory research from public scholarship.

Academic civic engagement (ACE) or what other institutions call “community engaged coursework,” is different in that you may not necessarily be generating new knowledge through the engagement. However, you’re still working reciprocally—you’re learning from the community and hopefully the community is learning from you.

Did your time as Broom Fellow change your idea of the scope of what public scholarship can be?

Absolutely, and partly because the position is so new. Faculty at Carleton and across the country are grappling with what it means to do public scholarship work, how public scholarship fits into academic models of scholarship, and how it can be considered in promotion and tenure decisions.

As a Broom Fellow you attend conferences, talk to faculty, and hold workshops, and have the opportunity to learn a lot about what public scholarship is. During my time as the Broom Fellow, I tried to experience as many different forms of public scholarship as possible. For example, we made a webpage for the Celiac and Me project, public writing for Wikipedia, and a library exhibit for the Public Health in Practice class.

What have you learned about public scholarship that is occurring at Carleton?

The Broom Fellow position gave me the opportunity to reach out to many faculty from across campus and hear stories about their research. For instance, I learned about Annette Nierobisz’s work on older Americans who’ve lost their jobs and Jeff Ondich’s work creating online dictionaries of languages in danger of becoming extinct. I also was reminded of the tremendous staff we have at Carleton who support this work—whether that’s at the library, ITS, or CCCE.

Can you also tell me about the grants that were distributed from the Broom Public Scholarship fund?

I noticed in my conversations with faculty that sometimes they needed additional funding to get their projects to completion. We developed a program to give faculty small grants for their public scholarship work. Sometimes that money was used for a piece of software, and in other cases it paid students to help finish a project started in an ACE course. [Note: more about these grants and what faculty did with them can be found here.]

How do you see public scholarship influencing your work with students? How is that different from how it influences you as a scientist and academic?

For me those things often go hand in hand. For example, when I organized the Public Health Program and did the library exhibit, I also published a paper about how to teach and create an exhibit in the sciences. The research I did for the exhibit paper stretched me to think about the visual literacy competencies that will help our students post-graduation. It also helped me learn about an entirely new different field of literature.

While doing ACE projects in the classroom surrounding Celiac disease, I also continued to work with two students after their projects ended to publish a paper about the process of teaching with ACE in science courses.  

Last thoughts on the Broom Fellow position?

It was a growing experience to work closely with everybody in the CCCE. I benefited from the positive energy and creativity that comes out of the Center. It was also an opportunity to delve deeply into work that’s meaningful to me, grow in my own scholarship, and help other faculty members navigate their own path through public scholarship

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