QEP Finalist #2

The New Influencers: Thought Leadership in the Public Interest

Topic Introduction

It is difficult to identify a period when public trust in experts has been lower than it is now—or when it has been more necessary. Whether they aspire to teach, or manage, or discover, our students will become producers and analysts of knowledge, entering into professions that depend to a growing extent on public trust. Historically, academia has been content to talk mostly to itself, confining discoveries to the pages of expert journals while relying on the arcane mystique of science to do the heavy lifting of public relations. This arrangement is no longer tenable, not only for institutions like TWU but for the graduates that we send into the world. Current events make painfully clear that today’s knowledge producer and analyst needs also to be a knowledge advocate. Those armed with our degrees will need at times to advocate for the communities they belong to, defend the value of learning, clarify the process of scientific exploration, and celebrate the often unpredictable benefits of a commitment to discovery. For individual and society alike, success depends on communicators able to meet audiences where they are.

TWU is unusually well-poised to meet this challenge. We have assets in leadership, embodied by the Jane Nelson Institute for Women’s Leadership, the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy (more specifically), one of the country’s few doctoral programs in rhetoric, and the resources of the College of Business. A powerful emphasis on health and wellness emerges in every college on campus. The university’s new Health and Wellbeing Initiative identifies five areas of wellbeing—environment, nutrition, exercise, mental health, and financial health—encouraging a broad and interdisciplinary view of wellness. Even in fields that might not define themselves as related to wellness, the university maintains a sharp focus on research and action in the public interest. 

Management theorist Peter F. Drucker argues that an organization fares better by building on its strengths. In this light, we propose that our next QEP build on our existing expertise in leadership and research in the public interest and explore synergies between them. By doing so, we can train students in advocacy skills essential not just to landing a job at the entry level but to navigating and thriving in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. 

University Mission & Strategic Plan Alignment

Core Values: Opportunity, Collaboration, Excellence, Creativity, Health & Wellbeing, Caring, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

Imperatives: Learn, Discover, Serve, Lead, Invest

Other Strategic Plan Elements: The New Influencers connects to the Jane Nelson Institute for Women’s Leadership and the Health and Wellbeing Initiative among initiatives, and (parallel to those alignments) also to the university’s distinctions in women and leadership, health, and experiential learning. In creating a connection between student’s experiential learning and their public voice, the New Influencers acts as a kind of sequel to our previous QEP, “Learn by Doing.”

Goals & Objectives

The student populations at the heart of this proposal are those interested in engaging in leadership, advocacy, or public communication, regardless of modality or major. Our hope is to meet interested students at any level, undergraduate or graduate, and to inspire more students to become interested, though it is expected that such interest will initially be higher among graduate students. The New Influencers will also encourage attention to communication and leadership skills in the core curriculum, reaching undergraduates through that effort. 

  • Undergraduate students in the core curriculum will improve average scores in three categories of criteria: Frameworks of Learning, Expository Power, Action & Leadership.
  • Emerging public scholars participating in the New Influencers will produce an increasing number of effective works of public scholarship, by which we mean opinion pieces such as: science popularization feature articles, TEDx Talks, edited video or podcast content, or the like. Future work by QEP committees can identify ways to gauge how effective these public messages are. 

Methods for Implementation - Action Plan & Assessment Ideas

Vision - Possible examples of the types of public scholarship students would produce: 

  • A graduate student in nutrition gives a TEDx Talk about the benefits of operations like TWU’s new food business incubator and food product innovation lab, Minerva’s Café. 
  • Struck by the effects of the pandemic on morale among nurses, a senior writes a news feature for Slate describing the struggles that nursing staff are facing. 
  • A sophomore revises a position paper from her Composition II class, a critique of a new Texas law, and sees it published as an opinion editorial in the Dallas Morning News
  • A doctoral student in women’s studies writes a popularization of her dissertation findings for the magazine Aeon
  • An aspiring science teacher with a certificate in music theater makes TikTok videos debunking bad science. 

To produce the kinds of public scholarship described above, students are going to need support:  

  1. Mentorship. TWU has more public communications experience than it may collectively realize. We have former reporters; experts in health rhetoric, health literacy, and health communication; experts in visual design; experts in public performance; experts in data visualization and multimedia. These valuable human resources can be found throughout Academic Affairs, but in Student Life, too. Students will also need subject-matter mentorship to encourage message accuracy. Those experts we also have. The trick isn’t finding the expertise, it’s in freeing it up. Course releases can help, but we also need to revise tenure and promotion guidelines to better recognize the critical importance of collaborative scholarship, mentorship of student scholarship, and public scholarship. 
  2. Faculty training, leading to improvements in relevant skills at the classroom level. Our faculty are committed to teaching and often strongly agree with initiatives aimed at helping students. But revising coursework is hard and time-consuming and often lonely, and not always rewarded. If we want faculty to carve out time for new training and new approaches, particularly for coursework aimed at non-majors in the core curriculum, we will need to fund stipends.
  3. Student training. Workshops can also teach relevant skills directly to students, outside the classroom, but these again require time and effort on the part of faculty facilitating such workshops. Moreover, ensuring that students see the process through, past vision to execution, may require investment in incentives. 
  4. Staff support. Events like TEDx and research symposia lean heavily on staff support, support that needs to be appropriately supported and recognized. Staff often also have relevant expertise (see: the Lasso, Student Life Marketing, etc.)

Assessment: 

  • At the undergraduate/core curriculum level, we would know whether the New Influencers faculty training efforts had a positive impact because the impact would be visible in the core assessment data that is being tracked every year for SACSCOC and THECB requirements.
  • At the emerging public scholarship level, we would know the QEP had its desired effect through two elements:
    • First, by keeping track of the number of public communications our students conduct, possibly represented by the numbers of badges we have awarded. A benefit of a badging system is that it makes it more likely that students will let us know about communications that they have engaged in so that we can add them to the tally. 
    • Second, the acts of public scholarship themselves could be assessed qualitatively (and more traditionally) according to rubrics or scales created. However, it’s important to note that we will probably need the badging system from the first bullet to ensure we are aware of works, before we can assess them in this manner. 

Other Information

Existing TWU Partnerships & Resources: 

Read the full proposal!

Learn more about this initiative by reading the full The New Influencers: Thought Leadership in the Public Interest proposal.

Page last updated 8:11 AM, November 11, 2021