A Five-Step Model for “Unconventional Engagement”

George L. Daniels


Why subject third graders to the scrutiny of scholars at an academic conference? As one example of “unconventional engagement,” The Oakdale Eagle, a newsletter established in 2011 as a result of a partnership initiated by a local elementary school, demonstrates the value of higher education responding to a call from the community. Not associated with a service-learning class or academic research but involving college students amd faculty from The University of Alabama and Stillman College, this partnership exemplified the power of volunteerism and community service. The highlight occurred when third graders, who were among the first to write stories for The Oakdale Eagle, made a presentation at the 2012 National Outreach Scholarship Conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In addition to contrasting conventional and unconventional community engagement, this article charts the five steps in a unique community-initiated partnership.


A report by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012) found over 70% of all college students participate in some form of volunteering, community service, or service-learning. This widely circulated report included a national call to make civic and democratic learning an expected outcome for all college students and integral to their education. In essence, the authors proposed that community engagement should extend throughout one’s educational career, placing students, not educators, at the center of community engagement and requiring new players, new platforms, new methods, and potentially new outcomes. Grounded in the literature on community engagement, this manuscript describes a five-step process for “unconventional engagement.” It tells the story behind third graders creating a publication and delivering a presentation at the 2012 National Outreach Scholarship Conference (NOSC) on the same program with college presidents, tenured professors, and a U.S. ambassador. These third graders exemplify the new players and the newsletter they produced the new platform and methods of engagement, setting the stage for new outcomes.

Notions of Engagement

Some maintain that engagement essentially means people genuinely listening to each other across boundaries for the purpose of solving complex societal problems. This definition comes from the community of land-grant institutions operating with an extension mission where “public dollars for public good” is a basic tenet (Bull, Anderson, Payne, & Foster, 2004).

For engagement to be authentic, it must reflect collaborative work; require active involvement in communities; value diversity of people, expertise, and culture; utilize authentic processes for learning; and embed itself in democracy and collaborative leadership (Collins, 2011). Some argue that engagement should be transformative in nature, in the manner of public health (Brown et al., 2006; Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 1998). Transformative engagement is not only a transfer of expertise from university to community and community to university, but is also a process in which all partners apply critical thinking to complex community problems (Brown et al., 2006). This process occurs in a series of iterations that can begin with a request from the community for assistance with a specific problem or need. Early success in solving the problem or meeting the specific need, coupled with the learning that occurs in the process, leads partners to understand that they need more information, which leads to deeper engagement (Brown et. al., 2006).

Community-based research in public health is a collaborative approach that equitably involves community members, organizational representatives, and researchers in all aspects of the research process (Isreal, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 1998). At Michigan State University, this notion of transformation is reinforced in its definition of university outreach by acknowledging the larger society’s rapid and fundamental transformation, which requires higher education’s active and creative involvement (Provost’s Committee, 1993). The report operationalized at Michigan State, originally released two decades ago, listed three common foundations of engagement: Engagement is reciprocal; the missions of research, teaching, and service are fully integrated; and all engagement is scholarly—both in terms of acts and products.

One of the most-cited concepts is Boyer’s (1996) multiple forms of the scholarship of engagement—discovery, learning, engagement, and integration. His last published article, written before his death in 1995, was written for the first edition of what is now the Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement. Boyer challenged colleges and universities to become more engaged with the most pressing social, civic, and ethical problems in communities, and with public education in particular.

Barker (2004) attempted to define the scholarship of engagement using a taxonomy of five emerging practices, suggesting a problem-driven, pluralistic approach. He developed his taxonomy after a review of the literature, as well as reviews of websites, publications by civic engagement centers at higher education institutions, and interviews with practitioners. Those five practices were public scholarship, participatory research, community partnership, public information networks, and civil literacy scholarship.

According to Sandmann (2006), scholarship should be the foundation on which community-based engagement is conceptualized, implemented, assessed, and communicated. In the purest sense of the word, “scholarship” is what is being done, while “engaged scholarship” is how it is being done, and, for the common or public good, what end it is done. Engaged scholarship differs from traditional scholarship in purpose, the questions driving it, and in the design, analysis, and dissemination of results.

Defining Unconventional Engagement 

UA students working on The Oakdale Eagle project were earning no class credit; thus, the project falls outside of service-learning. In fact, that is one way the partnership described in this report adds something new to the literature. Since it’s not another service-learning class and the partnership was not initiated by a university faculty member looking for an innovative teaching tool, there was no research agenda identified prior to the partnership being established. To date, no data have been collected at the site of the partnership. If there is just an opportunity for engagement based on the genuine listening to people and no assessment or evaluation in advance, does that mean no engagement took place? What if the emphasis were on the impact on the volunteering journeys of the players and the benefits to the community organization (Gray, 2011)? That it is where the focus of this case study lies.

While Sandmann (2006) suggested that scholarship should be the foundation for framing community engagement, this study offers an unconventional approach that places the scholarship, the contributions to the body of knowledge, as secondary to the relationships that were initiated strictly for the purposes outlined by the community partner and the benefits of the engagement assistance they receive. The contrasts between unconventional and conventional engagement are depicted in Table 1. These contrasts are positioned along five dimensions: the initiator of the engaged partnership, the director of the engaged partnership, the role of scholarship, the role of university teaching, and the link to the service mission of the university or representative of the academy. Next, we examine each of the five dimensions of the differences between conventional and unconventional engagement.

1. Partnership Initiation. In likening campus-community partnerships to interpersonal relationships, Bringle and Hatcher (2002) explain that initiation can be planned or serendipitous. A request from a community agency seeking volunteers can potentially result in an enduring partnership. Two parties with common interests can be attending the same meeting and coincidentally end up in a partnership. When it comes to who initiates the partnership or the engagement, in unconventional engagement the community partner is the initiator. This means no pre-conceived objectives of the academy will drive the direction of the relationship. Instead, the initiator is the driver of the relationship, which takes us to the second dimension of this model.

2. Partnership Direction. Scholars are often guilty of “subjugating our community partners as passive recipients in community-based engagement….” (Bortolin, 2011, p. 56). It is hard to imagine an engagement experience where the tables are turned and the timeline, needs, and, ultimately, the direction of the partnership is almost entirely a product of the community partner’s needs and interests. Here, unconventional engagement would mandate that the community partner be at least equal since the partner is the director of the partnership. As in an interpersonal relationship, a partnership structured this way will benefit from constant monitoring and an advisory group that could guard against inappropriate dependency or power differences and extensive interdependency.

Table 1. Factors in Conventional Vs. Unconventional Engagement Scholarship
Table 1. Factors in Conventional Vs. Unconventional Engagement Scholarship

3. Scholarship Role. As Sandmann (2006) suggested, in engaged scholarship there is a tendency to steer away from a model of isolation and toward one where the community partners are consumers before “the work” even starts. What if the work isn’t producing scholarship at all, or if it is, only as a secondary goal? If the community partner is both the initiator and the director of the partnership, “the work” is primarily the service. Instead of having a scholar at the head of the table, that role is filled by a community member and the project goals set accordingly.

4. University Teaching Role. An engaged student is an active citizen, who, at a university, might be involved in community-based projects. But as Ward and Moore (2010) explain, the term “engagement” encompasses activities students participate in not only to foster community engagement but are also used to describe a state of being. Furco (1996) explained that that there are five types of experiential education activities through which students can participate in the community. Community service-learning is just one of them. A credit-bearing experience tied to learning goals or objectives would reflect conventional engagement. Here, we define unconventional engagement as experiential education that it not necessarily part of a class or credit-bearing experience.

5. Service Mission Link. The one dimension where there is little difference between conventional and unconventional approaches to engagement is the service mission link. Outreach can be considered academy-centered with the scholars reaching out to those who benefit (Fear, Rosaen, Foster-Fishman, & Bawden, 2001). Or outeach can be reciprocal with partners, engaging in ways to reflect mutual interaction and input (Brown, Reed, Bates, Knaggs, Casey, & Barnes, 2006). The synonymous nature of outreach and engagement was exemplified by a Penn State official who characterized outreach scholarship at his school as extending university resources through local engagements (Ryan, 2001).

With an understanding of the differences between conventional and unconventional engagement, the next step is to further explicate the unconventional engagement project under study. The steps in our unconventional engagement project are depicted in Table 2. They trace the partnership among Oakdale Elementary School, Stillman College, a private historically black college in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and The University of Alabama, a research institution, that led to a presentation at NOSC 2012 by Oakdale Elementary School students.

Table 2. Steps in an Unconventional Engagement Scholarship Case Study
Table 2. Steps in an Unconventional Engagement Scholarship Case Study

Elements of Engagement in an Elementary School Newsletter Project

This unconventional engagement story did not end with the conference presentation, however. In fact, after the conference, the students would go on not only to write about that experience in the next issue of The Oakdale Eagle, but also position the publication as a vehicle for direct reporting on engagement activities at their school. The issue published immediately following NOSC included an account written by one of the student presenters:

On Oct. 2, 2012, four students from Oakdale Elementary went to Hotel Capstone…. We talked about starting the newsletter and we explained how we interviewed teachers at the school. The audience smiled and seemed to enjoy the presentation.

Joshua Patton, Staff Reporter, Third Grade

The newsletter was still active in 2013, as the the eighth issue went to press early in the year. It included stories about students participating in a mock presidential election. President Barack Obama was the overwhelming favorite as students as young as Pre-K cast ballots on the same day as the rest of the nation. At the same time, following a pre-election day assembly where each of the student candidates spoke, students voted for members of their student council. The student council was featured on the front page of the newsletter providing plantings for those they visited during the Christmas season. Another article was about a member of the Tuscaloosa City Council visiting the school as the keynote speaker.


Our case study of community partnering adds to the understanding of what scholars consider “authentic” engagement (Collins, 2011) by demonstrating that collaboration between a major university, an HBCU, and an elementary school, though unconventional, is also authentic. Furthermore, unconventional engagement as described here reflects the transformative engagement process based not only on transfer of expertise from the university to community, but an interactive process in which all partners apply critical thinking skills to complex community problems (Brown et al., 2006). This particular unconventional engagement case study, meets head-on Boyer’s (1996) challenge to higher education to become more actively engaged with the nation’s schools, with community partners— some in only the third grade—engaging in multiple forms of engaged learning.

In less than two years, a local elementary school teacher’s invitation for a state university to join a partnership placed her students on the international stage, fulfilling the potential outlined by Jay’s (2010) suggestion that community research projects can be “glocal,” a condition wherein forces, ideas, and trends global in origin are played out locally. This prospect is but one of many growing out of the The Oakdale Eagle project. If nothing else, it raised the students’ future horizons, challenging them not to be limited by their immediate surroundings within a 96% African- American student population with 90 percent of students on free or reduced student lunch in a school that had not achieved its Adequate Yearly Progress goal in standardized tests. Despite their educational environment, this project proved to them they could compete on the larger stage. As for the University, the benefits included a positive press about its Oakdale partnership, useful field experience for students and faculty, and the realization that positive outcomes can sometimes occur serendiptiously. The Oakdale Eagle case study presented an opportunity to articulate a model of unconventional engagement whereby the community-campus partnership was notable for being primarily a community initiative. At the same time, the importance of funds and expertise from the university cannot be overlooked. While no formal assessment of the effects of the partnership on the students (elementary or college) has been conducted, the major goal, publication of the student newsletter, continued into its third year. The involvement of third graders as active presenters at a national conference is arguably one of the major outcomes of the project, perhaps the best example of how those of us in the academy can be authentic in our engagement efforts, even one as “unconventional” as this. The ultimate impact of this account of engagement will be if other academic institutions will open themselves up to such targets of opportunity.

Lessons Learned 

This unconventional engagement case study challenges all engagement scholar players not only to think outside the box, but also to prepare themselves for the unthinkable: Elementary school students making a presentation at an international conference of scholars! Thus those who are forming partnerships in unconventional engagement are encouraged to leave all options on the table; engagement opportunities are not limited to the usual suspects. Instutions of higher learning should remain open and inviting to partnerships originating in the community, even if at first there may seem to be little benefit to the university. The Oakdale Eagle experience proves that unconventional engagement can be worth pursuing.


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About the Author 

George L. Daniels is an assistant dean in the College of Communication and Information Sciences and associate professor of journalism at The University of Alabama.

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