Wednesday, April 30, 2008

CSI Workshop Notes and Next Steps

Notes from Social Issues Workshop, John Dewey Society, Wednesday, 3/26/2008

The Commission on Social Issues of the John Dewey Society held a Workshop on Wednesday, March 26, 2008. Participants included Robert Boostrum, A.G. Rud, Liz Wiley, Virginia Benson, Virginia Jagla, Chad Lykins, Eva Hultin, Deron Broyles, Meryl Domina, Hongmei Peng, Barbara Thayer-Bacon, Kathleen Knight-Abowitz, Barb Pelz, Stefan Hopmann, Jim Garrison and Larry Hickman. Craig Cunningham organized the workshop and Leonard Waks chaired it.

At the beginning the chair set the workshop agenda in the context of the missions of the Dewey Society and the Commission: The Dewey Society has a primary mission to contribute to society’s intelligence in contending with its contemporary issues. The Commission seeks to engage members of the Dewey Society in making that contribution.

The chair stated that interest within professional and scholarly societies in promoting public communications is becoming widespread. He cited similar sessions and workshops at the fall 2007 meeting of the American Studies Association and the 2008 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies. The AAACS session, led by Tony Whitsun of the University of Delaware, cited the work of the Dewey Society’s Commission as a model to follow. The PES-GB has taken a leadership role in this regard by publishing its series of IMPACT books. The Dewey Society has a built-in advantage in pursuing public efforts, however, because unlike most scholarly societies, we have public communications on social issues as an explicit primary mission.

The chair also noted that Jim Garrison, as President of the Dewey Society, had organized the 2008 Dewey Lecture and Dewey Symposium at AERA in alignment with the public mission of the Dewey Society, by focusing on “un-cloistered scholars”. Jim Garrison then asked the Commission members to assume further responsibilities in planning subsequent Dewey lectures and symposia, to begin to institutionalize the Society’s public mission.

Past-President Larry Hickman reminded the participants of the forthcoming Dewey Sesquicentennial in 2009. This event will provide multiple opportunities for public speeches, symposia, and publications. Hickman also noted the formation of Dewey Study Centers in several countries including Turkey and China among others.

The members then introduced themselves and shared their ideas about how the workshop might help the Dewey Society and the Commission in pursuing these missions.

Two main questions were discussed, first in small groups and then in the general meeting.

(1) Would it be helpful to the work of the members if the Commission laid out some general principles or guidelines to shape the public communications of the Society’s members?


(2) What sorts of communications (e.g., blog posts, op-ed articles, articles in journals of opinion, policy reports) should the Commission encourage and support, and how can it provide incentives to the members so that they will make these communications?

With respect to (1):

(a) Participants agreed unanimously that the Commission should not state extensive philosophical principles to be “applied” to contemporary issues. Participants felt that such principles or guidelines would be unhelpful and would miscast practical intelligence as a matter of deducing practical conclusions from theoretical premises.

(b) Instead, they thought that contributors to Commission-sponsored communications should be urged first to think directly and concretely about the contemporary issues themselves, referring back to philosophical and theoretical ideas -- from the Dewey corpus and many other sources – only as the need for and relevance of such intellectual inputs surfaced, and only insofar as they were seen as practically useful helping to resolve the problematic situations addressed.

(c) Some participants felt that a simple “pocket guide” to progressive democratic ideas, on the order of Dewey’s “My Pedagogical Creed,” might be useful as an heuristic to stimulate some initial thoughts after a problem situation has initially been identified. Eva Hultin, a school principal from Canada, shared that non-academics in the Dewey Society might be especially helped by such a statement, as unlike academic professionals, they do not have occasion to rehearse and interpret such ideas on a daily basis.

(d) Craig Cunningham suggested, and participants agreed, that Dewey’s conception of “democracy” might serve as the basis for such a “pocket guide”.

(e) Barbara Thayer-Bacon and Kathleen Knight-Abowitz suggested that for certain publications, such as Commission-sponsored “white papers” on policy issues, a “style sheet” of the sort used by encyclopedia editors would prove useful. Such a style sheet could have guidelines regarding form, content, and point of view. The “pocket guide” considered in (c) might be situated within this style sheet for authors. Barbara said “These kinds of style sheets already exist; we don’t have to re-invent the wheel!”

(f) Along the way, several current issues surfaced as requiring attention in Commission-sponsored communications, including high stakes testing, educational rights of illegal immigrant children and the disabled, school resegregation and diversity, home schooling, and charter schooling, problems facing teachers (e.g., threats of violence), and others.

Turning to (2),

(a) Participants agreed that members would have more incentive to contribute communications for Commission publications if they counted as peer-reviewed.

(b) One way to make that happen would be to appoint a board of editors or a board of readers for Commission publications, from who reviews would be solicited.

(c) Stefan Hopmann urged the Commission to assign writing tasks to JDS members. The chair or some other officer of the Commission, that is, should actively solicit specific communications from specific members on a regular basis, because academics are most comfortable working within a framework of assignments and deadlines, and are unlikely to take time away from busy schedules to make spontaneous contributions.

(d) Matt Pamental suggested that “how to” guidelines for writing blog posts, op-ed pieces, and articles in journals of opinion would be particularly useful for younger scholars, especially for graduate students. Such guidelines would be along the lines of the “style sheets” mentioned in 1(e) above. He said that we shouldn’t “make it a mystery” how to frame up such contributions.

(e) Kathleen Knight Abowitz stressed the importance of connecting the work of the Commission with that of other professional and scholarly associations, such as the ASA and the AAACS mentioned above. PES-US is also exploring an out-reach mission at this time

(f) Participants then spoke about the value of forging connections to make common cause on social issues across borders, e.g., with PES-GB. The various Dewey societies and study centers are also natural allies.

(g) Different kinds of publication formats were seen as appropriate for issues with different “time scales”. Some problems arise and demand immediate attention. Some are enduring. Some come to a head and become ripe for consideration by policy makers.
Andrea English noted that many issues develop slowly, surfacing in the public eye again and again over time. Through this process, simple blog entries with links to news stories and other information sources might be sufficient. Then as a problem ripens, a “white paper” would be valuable to organize the elements of the problem and frame it as a policy issue in terms appropriate for policy makers.

(h) A.G. Rud called our attention to the notion of “scholarship of engagement”. He noted that Purdue had held a full-day workshop covering the “what,” “why,” and “how” of this kind of scholarship. This notion might be useful in providing incentives for academics to make public communications, by providing a language and context for recognizing them as scholarly activities appropriate as resume items. (Waks and Rud followed up this suggestion. See:

(i) Several members spoke of the potential usefulness of a clearing house of exemplary public communications such as blog entries, op-ed pieces and articles in journals of opinion that could serve as style templates for JDS members. Craig Cunningham said that a “ning” is a good digital format for such a clearinghouse and volunteered to create one for the Commission. (He has subsequently done so).

The most important after-meeting action steps appear to be these:

(1) The creation of a short “pocket guide” (perhaps 1-2 pages) of democratic progressive ideas, grounded in Dewey’s conception of democracy (1c).

(2) The creation of a style sheet for Commission white papers, with items regarding form, content and point of view. The pocket guide above may form part of this style sheet (1e).

(3) A list of contemporary problems and public policy issues calling for attention at this time (1f).

(4) The appointment of a board of readers for conducting peer-review of Commission white papers (2a, b).

(5) Actively soliciting members of the Dewey Society (and others) interested in communicating with various publics and policy-makers under the sponsorship of the Society, and assigning tasks for them to do (2c).

(6) Preparing brief “how to” guidelines for blog posts, op ed pieces, articles in journals of opinion and white papers to assist younger scholars and graduate students by taking the mystery out of these forms of communication (2d).

(7) Forging alliances with other scholarly societies in the US and beyond to collaborate in working on social issues (2e, f)

(8) Encouraging university leaders to commit to taking the ‘scholarship of engagement’ seriously as an important kind of scholarship with its own forms of peer-review, to be appropriately considered in assessments for promotion and tenure (2h).

(9) Forming a clearinghouse for public communications to serve as exemplars for engaged education scholars including members of the John Dewey Society (2i).

The chair wishes to thank all of the participants for their contributions.

The first next step is to prioritize these nine steps and discover JDS members interested in working on them.

Please comment on this report and express or amplify your own ideas so that I can include them in a more complete report of the Commission. And please let me know which of these action steps you are willing to work on along with other JDS members.

Leonard Waks, chair
Commission for Social Issues

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