Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Importance of Community to Our Work

Part of the Division J Post-Conference Download series

by Adrianna Kezar, AERA Division J Vice President and Professor, University of Southern California, Rossier School of Education

In Ann Austin’s comments when receiving her research award from Division J this year she talked about the importance of community as a part of her academic career.  She made me think deeply about the importance of community to our work.  And the concept of community is certainly not without complication, because community isn’t always perfect, inviting, or safe.  But when it works, as it clearly has in Ann’s career, it can be so enriching.  It made me think about how we could be more supportive as a community, because my experiences certainly have been mixed.  But I try to think about those moments when community has been demonstrated to me and what I can learn from those experiences.

As I thought back, Yvonna Lincoln epitomized the notion of the best we should strive to be or a vision of a strong community.  My own experiences with Yvonna might help illustrate this point.  Imagine your first time presenting at a research conference, a paper that you’ve written on your own -- not with your advisor --  and your discussant is Yvonna Lincoln  and the rest of the panel is filled with well-established qualitative scholars like John Creswell and Norman Denzin.  While I was terrified, Yvonna provided excellent feedback, praised the paper publicly, and by the end John and Norman were asking for copies of my paper.  But it wasn’t just that Yvonna  liked my work -- she engaged it deeply and provided me with incredibly detailed feedback.

I next encountered her at AERA-J emerging scholars workshop where she presented about her career and doing research.   Once again, she was so giving of her time and, in addition to presenting at the preconference, she stayed around to answer questions and informally speak with us.  Yvonna makes a conscious effort to get involved and volunteer to spend time with early career colleagues and to offer advice.  She makes herself available to everyone, not just graduate students who are connected to a well-known adviser in the field.

Then I’ve noticed Yvonna sitting in sessions and asking questions to help stimulate feedback and provide guidance for scholars.  When walking around the conference this year, I saw Yvonna talking to graduate students and early career scholars in one spot or another.  When I have asked Yvonna to review a paper as an editor, she always says yes.  And of course, she was at the business meeting this year to support Ann Austin when she received the research award.  Yvonna is present to give back to the community at all stages of one’s career.

In recent years, I’ve wondered where my senior colleagues are and what they feel their commitment to community is.  Laura Perna’s and Paul Umbach’s recent study showed that senior researchers are not reviewing proposals and providing feedback for more junior scholars.  I notice that there are few senior people attending sessions to help provide feedback to scholars.  And increasingly volunteers are more junior and it’s hard to get a balance on committees of both junior and senior colleagues.  I hear from journal editors that they can’t get senior scholars to review articles.  So, what’s happening?

That’s one of the things that I reflected on at this year’s AERA meeting.  How many people are going to have experiences like Ann, where she felt there was a strong academic community to support her --  that included of course her own peers, but also more senior scholars that helped guide her through and provide her with support at multiple levels.  We know mentoring as a community is important to make people successful, but I do wonder what kind of commitment exists for that type of mentoring and support.  And there is a strong pull to dash off with a couple of your closest friends and takes a moment to catch up.   There isn’t much time to do that kind of replenishing work for ourselves.  But I do think it’s a question of how we balance more our commitments to the community as well as replenishing our own well-being.  And maybe you don’t have the energy at the conference, but then maybe you need to review proposals and provide needed feedback to junior scholars or say yes to reviewing articles for journals even when you feel the time is pressed.  And we have to think about supporting and creating community beyond our own individual students and consider the broader community – epitomized by Yvonna Lincoln.

But I also thought about community in another way at this conference.  My father passed away two weeks ago, right before the conference.  Clearly I was devastated and yet I had a lot of responsibility in front of me.  I reached out to a few of the division volunteers to let them know, just in case I might need some backup or support.  The notes of support and the way people extended themselves to pick up extra work just in case it’s needed was truly exceptional.  Many people came up to offer their condolences.  Some of these people know me well, but others hardly know me at all.  I felt true warmth, kindness, and gratitude for people’s authentic sense of care.  It reminded me that community at its best -- like Ann pointed out -- can make all the difference in the world.

So as I reflect on this year’s AERA,  I want us to think about -- as a community -- how we can move closer to being a community that supports and mentors  individuals throughout their careers and throughout life travails.

This post is part of our Post-Conference Download series. Over the weeks following the 2014 Annual Meeting, we will feature several reflections on the conference.

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