One of the trickiest things about learning to drive, is mastering clutch control.
It relies on a combination of good hearing (attuning your ear to the changing tones of the engine) as well as physical control on the pedals, to create the right balance of just-enough-pressure-on-the-gas with not-too-high-on-the clutch. With mastery of the clutch you can hold the car perfectly still, or allow the beginnings of forward momentum. Get it wrong and the whole thing comes to an abrupt, juddering halt.
The thing that really allows you to master clutch control is not just knowing you have to press certain pedals in a certain way, but understanding why that is and what’s happening under the bonnet. You need to understand that to achieve different speeds, the gears need to mesh successfully, and the clutch helps you do that without damaging those fast-spinning disks. To increase or decrease speed, the correct gear needs to be engaged and getting it wrong at high speeds can be very dangerous, for you and other drivers.
It occurred to me recently that successful university-community engagement is a lot like using clutch control. In order to help the different worlds of academia and community mesh together, there needs to be an understanding of both groups of people and what governs them. There needs to be an understanding not only of what needs to mesh together (aims, priorities, communication, resources etc.) but why.
Successful engagement understands the different perspectives and needs of each group. It takes account of the history, demography, economics, geography and social capital within a local community, and weighs those factors up against the national and local drivers for the university, its funding, strategic plan, student population and research foci. And then, using time, patience, clear communication, collaborative planning and resource sharing, it gently and purposefully attempts to mesh these two very different worlds together – this is clutch control.
Done well, it allows for positive, forward motion on a project or piece of research work. It can empower residents, encourage staff and develop students.
Done badly, it can cause projects to come to an abrupt, juddering halt and almost everyone involved can feel hurt and disappointed by the results and probably less likely to want to engage in similar work in the future.
Of course, you could replace the word ‘university’ with almost any other institution or organisation: health, faith, government… The key element is remembering that when attempting to mesh two worlds together, it needs to be done, carefully, thoughtfully and with enough sensitivity to know that it’s not just what needs to be meshed, but why it’s important to get it right.
You can find other resources on community-university working on the UK Community Partner Network pages.
What other metaphors describe your experiences of community-university partnership working? Can you relate to Sharon's points?