Ten Definitions of Engagement

Engagement is in the air. Everyone seems to be doing it, or being told they should, at least. Messages around campus call upon students to “Get engaged.”

But what is student engagement? Is MSU becoming a matchmaking service? Before students can get engaged, they need to figure out what it might mean.

Tellingly, a portion of the Wikipedia entry on student engagement calls it a “usefully ambiguous term.” No kidding. Over the past few years, the word has taken MSU by storm, ushering in a new vision for higher education at a land-grant school. Everything, apparently, can be engaged. Next year has been dubbed MSU’s “Year of Engaged Leadership.” That’s some hearty buzzword soup.

In defining engagement, let’s start there: (1) Engagement is an empty buzzword.

Too easy. The idea deserves more consideration, if only because the university’s leaders are taking it so seriously. Engagement is driving real changes in students’ education. We need to engage engagement.

Whatever engagement may be, the university seems to believe that students who are engaged are more likely to succeed — or at least stay in school. MSU’s old Office of Student Activities was recently renamed to the Office of Activities and Engagement. (2) As a rough synonym to involvement, engagement is an administrative tool for improving student retention.

But involvement is often a distraction from coursework and study. Universities do not promote that, right? Perhaps equating engagement and involvement is inaccurate. Maybe engagement is more like a state of learning than a level of involvement or “say yes” attitude.

(3) Engagement is an approach to education that disregards formal methods of learning and evaluation in favor of deeper, internal understanding.

This idea cuts multiple ways. Missing a deadline in order to work through the assignment, or violating its guidelines to explore other modes of expression could both qualify as instances of engagement. But so could skipping an occasional class for compelling lunch conversation or attending a public lecture.

Now, though, engagement is beginning to look like ivory-tower rebellion, not a bridge to the “real world.” The line between irreverence and responsibility is too thin to navigate properly. Moreover, it seems to foster selfishness at the expense of social responsibility. Why would taxpayers support such a practice?

(4) Engagement is an approach to education that applies knowledge to the real world to benefit communities.

The connection between service and education is complex, as they seem to pull in opposite directions — one takes while the other gives. The impulse for service is a value that emerges from multiple sources, including politics, duty, knowledge and empathy. If learning leads to humility, then service will follow.

Placing in relation knowledge and communities is central to an engaged view of education. However, the notion that university knowledge is “applied” to the real world is incorrect, for the relationship is reciprocal at its core. Communities must always also be considered sites of learning.

MSU’s definition, described in its strategic plan, echoes this: (5) “Engagement is the collaboration between MSU and its local, state, national and global communities for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.”

Surely this must be a venerable pursuit. Still, the skeptic may respond that this approach ultimately neglects the life of the mind. (6) Engagement, then, is an institutional value that privileges involvement and extroversion over traditional, rigorous intellectual development.

Our university values leadership experience and volunteerism over a 4.0 GPA. That makes the traditionalists, who see academic excellence as the goal of higher education, cranky. But, of course, the qualities associated with meaningful “extracurricular” activity do much to prepare students for life after college. At a public university that embraces its land-grant mission (or fetishizes it), graduating employable citizens is a top priority.

However, to understand engagement in this way, as trading book smarts for street smarts, is to distort both education and engagement. (7) Engagement becomes a substitute term for well-roundedness. As soon as we think we can identify an engaged student by examining her resume, we have corrupted the word as well as our educational system.

Exponent colleague Eric Dietrich offers a definition that attempts to encompass both social and intellectual aspects of learning: (8) “Engagement is the moment when a student chooses to bring her nose into contact with the metaphorical grindstone.”

Crucially for Dietrich, engagement is fundamentally a student’s choice. It’s a state of mind in which, triggered by meaningful involvement, a student finds the courage to participate in realms of friction (rather than theoretical frictionless planes), where knowledge and societal betterment are hard-fought. This sort of learning is taxing — it requires commitment, sacrifice and patience. Students will not be compelled to it unless they find the undertaking worthwhile.

(9) Engagement is the point at which learning, research, involvement and outreach are recognized and seized as opportunities to be shaken, to fail and to discover in service of a worthwhile endeavor.

Engagement respects both “theoretical” and “applied” knowledge and locates each inside the domain of the other. The engaged student searches for contemporary relevance in textbooks and extracts general principles from applied contexts. She realizes that social problems and intellectual ones are overlapping and equally complex.

Rather than emphasizing the importance of work “outside the classroom,” engagement blurs what occurs inside the classroom with students’ time between classes.

(10) Engagement is the full embracing of one’s identity as a student.

What’s your definition of engagement? Does it mean anything? Send me a letter at editor@exponent.montana.edu.