As the Eberly College continues the celebration of the 25th anniversary of its naming this academic year, we look ahead to how our mission as a liberal arts college in a land-grant university continues to evolve over time. We sat down with two professors, Renée Nicholson and Christopher Plein, who continue to engage with the community in their own disciplines. They shared with us why service is a vital part of their research and teaching and the role it will continue to play in the future.
Renée Nicholson: The Eberly College often talks about itself as the heart of West Virginia University. And, when I think about service, service is literally the heart in action, right? It’s doing for others. And if we think about our land-grant mission, serving the people of the state of West Virginia, we can look at the multitude of ways the arts and sciences can engage communities, can impact communities, can maybe even inspire communities.
Christopher Plein: You know, one of the things that we don’t always recognize is the breadth of our college, the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.
RN: Good point.
CP: I know, in my experience, if you look at other major universities, the colleges are broad, but maybe not as broad as ours. I think about the fact that we have the natural sciences, the humanities, social sciences — all under one roof. And for me, because I’m a professor of public administration, the idea that we have applied fields like social work and public administration is really helpful to me, because I know that, as a professor, I’ve reached out to colleagues to lend a hand or to gain advice or be involved with some service and engagement projects.
RN: Absolutely. Coming from interdisciplinary studies, that’s sort of who we are, right? And to see that that’s not just an academic approach; it’s a research approach, a service approach and that those things can all come together.
CP: When you say ‘interdisciplinary,’ what does it mean to you?
RN: That’s a great question. To me, interdisciplinary work can take on a couple different metaphors. It can be like a bridge between two different subjects. It can be like a border crossing. Or, it can be like a smoothie, where you put all the ingredients in a blender and blend it up and [make] something new.
CP: Oh, that’s good! RN: Smoothies are always good. Smoothies are the one place where you can have your kale and never taste it.
CP: True. We won’t say what discipline is kale.
RN: Fair enough.
CP: I think of transdisciplinary research and transdisciplinary service.
CP: You know, if we think about a landgrant university, which we are, and how we really need the expertise of folks across campus to help us. And I’ve always thought that WVU in particular was large enough to make a difference. But, to make a difference, we all have to work together. And so, it’s that we’re small enough to know each other. To make a difference, we need to work with each other to make our efforts even greater and larger. And I know that you’ve worked with Health Sciences?
RN: A lot. There’s nothing quite as strange and wonderful as having a doctor call you and say, ‘I need a creative writer,’ right? But, when we think about patient outcomes and what it really means to be patient-centered, at the heart of that is their story. As a writer, stories are where I live. It’s been in the collaborations with colleagues at the Health Sciences Center that this blooming field of humanities work reveals itself. How does a doctor change care because they read a patient’s story? And why does a writer jump in and do that work while the doctor gets their 15 minutes, right? And all of the sudden, now we’re in partnership. And it’s serving, in my case, patients with cancer, patients with HIV, patients with ALS – vast groups.
CP: You think about it, as a University, when we engage others, we engage the community, we engage the state and we engage the nation, but we do it on an individual and collective basis. I’m thinking about what you do as reaching each one of those patients and helping those healthcare providers better understand their patients. And by extension, the families of these patients also can become much more aware of the richness, of the legacy that each of us has in our own life story.
RN: And I think, too, by collecting these stories, what I’ve gotten to see is a collective mosaic. What is the story of West Virginia? Well, each patient comes from a different place, so I’m getting a different part of that story that kind of puts itself together in a more cohesive whole. But, it’s also not so different from you working with veterans and their families.
CP: I’ve been involved with a project – and again, I think this is a great example of our land-grant resources bringing together folks from many different disciplines to help WVU make contributions at the national level in outreach and engagement. Veterans are one group we work with, but the primary group is actually active duty military families.
CP: WVU is one of about 19 universities involved in the Military Families Learning Network. And the program itself is actually funded by the Cooperative Extension Service out of Washington, D.C., an agency called the National Institutes for Food and Agriculture. This project is done in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Defense. We’re working directly with the Department of Defense, helping those who help military families. And it might be social workers, it might be family planning specialists, it might be information and referral specialists who make certain that families get connected to the services they need. And for me, it’s been one of the most exciting things I’ve done in my career. I’ve been able to work with folks in extension services, I’ve been able to work with folks in the Bureau for Business and Economic Research in WVU’s Chambers College of Business and Economics.
It’s just been very exciting doing this work and seeing the knowledge you may have, say of Medicaid, that knowledge that you acquire being shared with broader audiences and making them more comfortable in the work that they do with military families. We do all of this work online. We have this vast network across the U.S. utilizing webinars and online technologies to help people understand the resources out there for military families, whether it’s in healthcare, general well-being. That is where I come in, to see how policy changes and program developments might either create challenges or opportunities for these families.
RN: There’s something really satisfying in seeing how all those pieces come together, right? And that you play a role, but then you see how you plug in and fit in with other things. I was just in New York City this past weekend at the program for Narrative Medicine at Colombia University, where I found out our story projects in the health sciences are among the first rural projects in narrative medicine. And I didn’t think I had anything to offer those folks, and now I’m like, ‘Wait a second!’
CP: You know, that’s a really important point. I like to tell people that WVU is the landgrant university not only of West Virginia, but I think in many ways it’s the land-grant university of Appalachia.
RN: I think sometimes when we talk about forgotten places, it’s often rural places, right? And when we bring these things into communities, we shine the light back on these places and remember the importance of them.
CP: If we’re able to do our work understanding that rural context, it has immediate application for West Virginia in Charleston for our policymakers and for our colleagues in Health Sciences who are looking for new approaches. But it also has broader application across the country for those who are trying to understand some of the challenges of provided healthcare access and coverage in rural areas.
CP: Both of us travel a lot – we fly across this country. I don’t know if you’re like me, but I love to look out the window and look down at the landscape unfolding underneath me. We’re a rural country, you know? And again, it just reminds us that West Virginia is not an outlier – we’re an indicator. So much of the research, so much of the service, so much of the teaching that we do is so applicable across so many different domains.
RN: And that’s so true. I know in my work, one of the things I’m really proud of, is that when I went for grant funding, I funded an MFA student to work on this project. So, I was then able to mentor somebody else to do this kind of work, but also to reinforce that idea that part of our academic work is service, right?
RN: And when you can foster that through bringing students in saying, ‘Okay, part of what you learn is this.’ I know you bring it into your courses all the time.
CP: You know, it’s great when you work with someone in the community, and then you say, ‘Hey, would you like to come on campus and talk to our students? That would be great.’ I’m not as good at metaphors as you are, but there’s an old academic metaphor about the three missions of higher education: teaching, service and research. Right? And the old saying goes: ‘It’s like three legs of a stool.’ But I don’t think so. I think that they’re all intertwined. They’re the smoothie, I guess.
CP: But if you think about it, when we engage, when we act to help others and to learn from others, that’s very important in engagement. We’re not just out there putting things out there, we’re learning, right? So, when we do outreach, we’re applying our research expertise, we’re applying our knowledge, our subject matter expertise. We’re also learning in the process, dramatically, from those folks in the community. We’re also teaching, because we’re sharing lessons and ideas with folks. And clearly, when we do outreach and engagement work, we take those lessons and put them back into the classroom. And it doesn’t have to be an applied field like mine. It can be the humanities. It can be in other aspects of physical sciences, or natural sciences or social sciences. And when we’re able to take students and have them engaged in projects, I’m so excited by that. And I really have to say that my colleagues in my department do a wonderful job. All of the faculty are really involved and interested in getting the students to have hands-on experience. So, clearly they’re learning, but they’re also providing outreach, and they’re providing public service.
CP: This also reminds me of something else that the Eberly College can do for outreach and engagement. You’re a great example of it. We are so deeply invested in the liberal arts mission.
CP: So, if we come back to our students, right? If our students are going into STEM fields, and they’re getting a really solid foundation in the natural sciences, but they’re also understanding context, whether it’s a social context, taking a sociology class or understanding the important of art and expression, of language and rhetoric. Or just thinking about how we’ve proceeded across time and space by taking a history course or a philosophy course. So, again, people talk about the engagement responsibilities of a land-grant university being so focused on the applied fields, or the Extension Service or Health Sciences. Which, by the way, all of them are fantastic. I know both of us have worked with them, and it’s been just terrific. But that is something that we really bring: this core liberal arts mission.
RN: I agree. The only thing I would add is that our fields help students grapple with and deal with ambiguity. We don’t think of medicine as being a place with a lot of ambiguity, but if you’ve hung out around it, you see it all the time. We’re developing that skill in these young people.
CP: I had a mentor once tell me the secret to success is being able to deal with uncertainty. That’s the ambiguity thing. And I know thinking about the future – thinking 20, 25 years down the road – because the Eberly College is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
RN: Right! So exciting.
CP: As we think about the path of going forward, I think about these very complex, uncertain issues that we face. I was just talking to a friend of my yesterday. She’s had a very long career focused on women in the sciences and women in mathematics. She was telling me about the 14 grand challenges in engineering. I just took a look at them, and they’re very similar to the challenges that we face now in the sciences. They’re really grand challenges we face as a society. Climate, energy, health, income disparity, impacts of new technology. So, you have a liberal arts college, like the Eberly College. As we move forward, I think the capacity to think critically, to deal with this ambiguity, to embrace this uncertainty becomes even more important. One of the things that we’ve already brought to engagement and outreach and public service is an appreciation for working with those, rather than working for those we serve. We work with individuals, we work with patients, we work with communities as they develop economic development strategies. We work with state legislators, with state agencies, as they grapple with really tough questions, like how to provide healthcare coverage and access for folks.
CP: So, in many ways, I think we can sort of be on the forefront of engagement by really helping folks understand that we need to be able to deal with ambiguity.
RN: It actually reminds me of something you once told me, which is things can be transactional, but the transaction isn’t transformative. And when we’re doing these things in these more ambiguous situations, they also have that potential to rise above the transactional and become the transformative. A great example: I was working with a patient, and I was giving a story back to this patient. And he just said to me, ‘I can’t believe you did this for me.’ And I said, ‘You haven’t even looked at your story yet.’ And that didn’t matter. It was the act of doing. And coming back with it that seemed to have so much power. And I thought, well, if we did this for every patient, how would healthcare be different?
CP: So, are you going to continue to do engagement?
RN: Oh, yeah. You know, it’s interesting. The more I do it, the more hooked on it I get. The more I get out and work with patients, the more doctors ask me how we can collaborate. And the really neat thing is to think there’s a shared goal there. That I’m seeing something, and they’re seeing something.
CP: And, again, there’s this notion of one WVU where we work across disciplines, across colleges, across groups – whether it’s professors, students, community members, patients, professionals. We work across the state, across the community, across the country. I think it’s really exciting – not only the work you’re doing, and frankly, some of the work I’m doing, but we look around and see so many of our colleagues who are doing this work.
RN: This is true.
CP: You can look across the college and see all these different illustrations of engagement. And you can see they’re really focused on education; they’re really focused on disparity – literacy, income, healthcare, you name it. It’s really exciting. And I think, at the end of the day, I know that as a faculty member myself, I love research, I love teaching, but I love having the feeling we’re putting – what WVU Extension Service loves to say, which I think is a great phrase: ‘We’re putting knowledge to work.’
Christopher Plein is the Eberly Family Professor of Outstanding Public Service and a professor in the Department of Public Administration. In 2003, he received the Eberly College’s Outstanding Service Award.
Renée Nicholson is a teaching assistant professor in the Programs for Multi- and Interdisciplinary Studies. In 2019, she received the Eberly College’s Outstanding Service Award.