Civic engagement in political and academic realms is shifting.
So said the Edmonton chapter of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) in an invitation to the pilot session of Café Pracademique.
The statement is poignant, especially at a time of unprecedented potential for people and groups to connect and communicate with one another, and especially when we are all trying to solve what Extension’s Dr. Sherry Ann Chapman refers to as “the wicked problems of our time.”
Café Pracademique is what IPAC organizer Dr. Jared Wesley (adjunct professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta and Academic chair of IPAC Edmonton) calls “a small-scale opportunity of engagement” through which practitioners, academics, and members of the public can gather to converse about social, economic, and political issues in an effort to bridge the gap between policy and academia.
The first of these events took place March 26, 2014 in the atrium of Enterprise Square and featured three speakers, including Dr. Chapman, who is Assistant Director (Lifelong Learning) of the Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children, Youth and Families (CUP) at the Faculty of Extension.
On March 27, we had a chat with Dr. Chapman to get her perspectives on this unique event.
Can you give us a basic idea of what happened at last night’s Café Pracademique?
Last night was Edmonton’s first Café Pracademique, and it was my first time participating in anything like this. Jared Wesley has lots of experience in pracademia, and he’s drawing on the French Café Philosophique tradition as well as the Café Politique model he helped pilot in Manitoba. What he and IPAC are hoping to do is create forums for dialogue and to let people know about the work that goes into straddling practice and academia.
IPAC has a particular interest in terms of public administration. Last night was actually terrific for broadening the dialogue; many people involved in trying to create change in some way were part of the conversation. I brought my background in museum education and academia to the café, and I was joined by a family physician [Dr. Lee Green] and a social gerontologist [Dr. Bede Eke]; both of them engage in pracademia in their respective fields. So we were considered the “catalytic speakers,” but we were joined by a crowd of other attendees who came from lots of different contexts within public administration, both municipal and provincial.
What does the model for Café Pracademique look like to the uninitiated?
The intention last night was for an “open-fishbowl.” The idea there is that you have a few “catalytic speakers” who sit in the centre of this group and start the conversation off.
In an open fishbowl, what then happens is that anyone in the larger group can tap those catalytic speakers on the shoulder, take their seat, and ask a question of the group. There can be a dynamic that really illustrates that each of us has a voice and understanding and knowledge and that we should all be heard. We didn’t manage to change seats last night, but it was the first night, and there was a snowstorm outside, so the fact that we managed to get 20 people to come out and share their perspectives is really quite impressive.
There’s another [Café Pracademique] coming up on April 23rd, and that one will also be held in Enterprise Square. It’s got a very thought-provoking title: “Sex Germs and Killer Crotches.” IPAC runs a twitter feed during the event using the hashtag #pracademic. They have a blog as well.
What was last night’s discussion about?
It was about the status of pracademia in Edmonton in 2014; it seems like a movement that’s gaining steam. Many people don’t understand what pracademia means as a term, but it seems to get a strong and immediate reaction. Each of us speakers could identify with it right away.
Speakers were invited to talk about a story or a case in which we’ve seen ourselves as pracademics. And because it’s a fishbowl environment, we had five minutes to tell our stories before we opened it up to the larger conversation. So we were asking things like “what is a pracademic?” and “how do you BE a pracademic?” and “what if you’re a ‘lapsed’ academic or a ‘recovering’ academic?”
The conversation spun in different directions over an hour and a half, and then there was some great networking afterwards.
This is another way of carrying out conversations about community engagement and the scholarship of engagement, and we hear people saying “we need to be doing this; we need more of these partnerships,” and pracademics are people who have a foot in both practice and academia, so it’s a great forum to build those partnerships.
Why were you tapped to take part in this first Café Pracademique?
I wondered that too!! I was surprised and delighted, though, so I signed on right away. The organizers told me that they basically did a Google search, and the terms they entered led them to my profile on the Extension website. I’ve been introducing myself for years as a museum professional by background and I have experience in the research world with a PhD in Human Ecology and my work with CUP, so I identify both with practice and academia.
How does your background as a museum professional inform your practice and academia?
The thread of “meaning-making” weaves its way into everything I do. When I was working at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, we were doing some programming that CLEARLY was meaningful for people, but we didn’t quite understand why. So at that point, I chose to move into a PhD program to do research to inform practice.
My path has taken me lots of different places. Over the next few months, I’ll be shifting more into a community-based perspective, but I’m delighted to still work with Extension and CUP in this new position. Meaning-making is my point of reference as a community educator and facilitator of lifelong learning. It’s all about the learning dynamic.
Why does it seem that public involvement and forums like this for gathering the community’s collective intelligence are gaining such momentum lately?
I think the wicked problems of our time are issues that need more than one way of thinking, and that’s where partnerships have been growing in momentum, whether it’s the Tri-Council agencies encouraging academics to work in partnerships over the last ten to fifteen years, or other types of funding programs characterized by “joined-up thinking” in the UK. It’s a global dynamic and there are a lot of different ways of talking about it, depending on whether you’re in an economic setting, or in a social change setting or social justice setting. Each is addressing the “wicked problems.”
What I think is great about the concept of Pracademia is that it recognizes that some of this potential for multi-faceted thinking exists within individuals, so it’s not just about organizations or groups of people partnering up, but that some people who are in those same networks can themselves have multiple ways of knowing and expertise that they can bring into these conversations. This is an important additional idea when we talk about partnerships.
Another way of thinking about it is “post-disciplinarity,” in that it’s not just about the social sciences, humanities, or natural sciences, but also about civic government, industry, non-profits, etc. working together. Our managing of resources in western society and globally over the last century has created these wicked problems. We’re better off working together if we can and recognizing where the expertise is to try and respond to them. And we need to do this sooner than later.
We recognize that not all the expertise is in an ivory tower or in government. The expertise is all around us, and we are now broadening the definition of expertise. Practitioners have a certain kind of knowledge, and academics have a different kind of knowledge, and governments have a different kind of knowledge from that. So the challenge is how to best manage that engagement.
How do you feel about the current potential for events like Café Pracademique to contribute to the goals of garnering more public involvement?
It’s great! One of the things that was said a number of different ways last night was that this event is all about relationships and dialogue. This was not a lecture, but a process for and a place to hold dialogue. We’re seeing this happen in a number of different ways and under a bunch of different names (open-space dialogues, world cafes, University of the Streets, etc.) —watch for some of these approaches at our Engagement Scholarship consortium conference in October.
Are any other chapters besides IPAC Edmonton hosting these Cafés Pracademiques?
One thing I learned last night is that IPAC Edmonton has one of the largest memberships and one of the most active across Canada. My hunch is that this project is being tested here due to the nature of this chapter and the members in Edmonton.
How well did Enterprise Square serve as a venue for Café Pracademique?
Actually, it was great, because there’s a common misconception that in this city the academics are south of the river and the government is north. It was part of the premise operating in this cafe. But there were a few of us there representing Extension who pointed out that the U is north of the river too. So it starts to add texture to the notion of pracademics that it’s not just black and white, it’s not either/or, and it’s not north or south of the river. It was great, because we were literally sitting in a University of Alberta campus north of the river.
The next Café Pracademique takes place April 23, 2014 at Enterprise Square; registration is free for IPAC members, and $5.00 for non-members. Register at https://www.ipac.ca/edmonton/Registration-April%2023.
Café Pracademique is co-presented by the Centre for Public Involvement.
Above: Dr. Chapman catalyzes the conversation at Café Pracademique.