re-telling climate change stories

Praxis Makes Perfect

Beth Osnes Shares How Putting Theory Into Practice Grounds Her Scholarship in Communities


CU Office for Outreach and Engagement
by Lisa H. Schwartz

For Beth Osnes, engaging with communities is the lifeblood of her scholarship and creative work.

In a recent interview about her approach to engaged scholarship, Osnes, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in CU Boulder’s Department of Theatre and Dance, discussed how she engages in praxis through community partnerships. In the conversation, Osnes shared how mentors and mentoring  shape her work, key concepts for engaged teaching and research, and the winding road of her tenure-track journey as a practitioner, mother and scholar.

Osnes has more than 20 years experience as an applied theatre practitioner, theatre scholar and solo performer. While working with communities across the state and internationally, she infuses every engagement, from an email to a performance with an energy for partnership, collaboration and creativity .

At a community engagement coffee hour on Nov. 16, Osnes will discuss her approach to engaged scholarship and present an excerpt from Shine, a musical performance and curriculum materials for youth that weaves together climate science and artistic expression. This event is co-sponsored by the Office for Outreach and Engagement and CU Engage from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. on the CU Boulder campus in the Kittredge Central Multipurpose room.  Osnes also will read from her book Performance for Resilience: Engaging Youth on Energy and Climate through Music, Movement, and Theatre at the Boulder Book Store on Jan. 25 at 7:30 p.m.  

A passionate advocate of engaged scholarship becoming part of the tenure process, Osnes recently attended the annual conference of Imagining America, Artists and Scholars in Public Life to discuss what it takes to foment great community partnerships. Imagining America is a national consortium of more than 100 higher education and community cultural organizations (including CU Boulder) that champions engaged scholarship, including the tenure processes.

Below are excerpts from the recent interview, part of the Office for Outreach and Engagement's Community Engaged Interview Series. These interviews are designed to bring the process of community engaged scholarship to life through discussions with exemplary CU Boulder scholars and address what community engagement means to those just starting in their careers to post-tenure professors across the arts and sciences. The excerpts below have been edited for length and clarity and pulled out of their original context. Key ideas and concepts have been placed in bold above the content. The full interview can be found here.

Why do you do community engaged work as part of your scholarship, teaching or creative work?

Curiosity, fun and performance as a tool for community engagement
At this time, as an artist I am most curious with understanding what is relevant and alive for a given community through performance. I wonder how performance can support deeper understanding within communities and advance them in their aims. I am curious about what participatory community performance can uniquely unleash within a community. I love what a sprinkle of embodied fun does to a gathering.

As the saying goes, praxis makes perfect
As a scholar and a practitioner, I can’t advance in my work without doing it in communities. I rely on praxis—the application of theory into practice. My discipline needs living, breathing, engaged participants for it to exist. I can only generate scholarship from experience. Yet I am led by the belief that I do not learn from experiences alone, but rather, I learn from reflecting on experiences.

Reflect on your particular experience and journey as a scholar. How has your experience shaped your beliefs and practices?

Motherhood and Mothers Acting Up
Mothering is a job I love and one in which I cut my teeth as an activist, scholar, teacher, and performing artist. I graduated with my PhD eight months pregnant and began to teach as an adjunct directly following the birth. Soon after the birth of my second child, I co-founded what became an international organization, Mothers Acting Up (MAU), to mobilize mothers to move from concern to action on issues facing the world’s children. We did activities such as reenactments of Julia Ward Howe’s original Mother’s Day declaration and parades with mothers on stilts.

Destabilizing questions and positive social change
In practice, I never stop asking the most destabilizing questions possible— is this still the best method forward? Is this subject relevant? Are my methods effective? Is it appropriate for me to be doing this here? It can be maddening at times to continually practice deep questioning but it is the only way forward I trust. If it takes longer, that’s okay. I want to do good work that authentically results in positive social change.

How do you integrate your community work into your scholarship, teaching and creative work?

My community work is inextricably linked to my scholarship and creative work, but integrating this work into my teaching is still developing.

How do you provide an experience that works towards a class’s learning objectives in a meaningful way without overly taxing the time and resources of your community partner?  

The challenge is often class size. I’ve had success with smaller, upper-division courses in which I can provide generous mentoring and a context where students secured community partners to identify a need that applied performance could address. The success of these efforts relies on my long-term relationships, built over years of community engagement and volunteering. Establishing good community partnerships is based on an investment of time, clear intentions, shared values, approaches, and passions.

Through trust developed with partners in the mental health community, I’ve been able to involve groups of students. This has been successful through involving students in the culture of the partner organization by, for example, eating lunch with the community. I recommend instructors get a firm grounding with a community before bringing in their students, and then being slow and modest in making promises of how their student might add value to achieving a community goal. Even with the enthusiasm generated between new partnerships, under promise, over deliver so that you do not mislead your community partner and possibly misuse their precious resources, time, or trust.

What are some strategies you use, what have you learned  about balancing the demands of community works and academia?

Intentionally braiding together, the personal and professional for “one job”
Early in my career at CU Boulder, Dr. Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers Without Borders, told me, “try to make it so you have one job.” I have intentionally braided together the many threads of my life. I include my family in my travels and production work and integrate my creative work into my courses. What I do and what I study is who I am. I do not feel a division between my personal and my professional life. Acknowledging that has helped me to develop work inclusive of my lived reality. A friend once said women often pretend not to be mothers in their professional lives. I bring my gifts, hard-earned from mothering, into my role as director of graduate studies for Theatre and into my teaching. Arriving as a mother in many of the communities I work with has meant being welcomed into a more intimate realm through our shared experiences.

Developing Great Partnerships
Good match-making at the onset can go a long way. Ensure that your community partner truly values your methods (and that you value theirs). For me, that means partnering with groups that believe in the power of performance and the arts to bring people together to work through issues that they deem to be important. Set everyone up for success before you even begin by being honest and discerning in forming your partnerships.

What is your experience with / thoughts on / plan for tenure?  

Tenure by the hair of my chinny chin chin; tenure guidelines and generating scholarship as a tool for supporting the critical reflection necessary for doing good work
As a person doing engaged public work in performance on women’s issues, I got tenure just by the hair on my chinny chin chin. I reached my single-authored research monograph across the finish line at the eleventh hour to secure this job that I so love and treasure. My case points to the need for explicit language within departmental promotion and tenure guidelines for assessing publicly engaged transdisciplinary creative work (see http://imaginingamerica.org/initiatives/tenure-promotion/)

In my review, an international, generously funded, two-year tour of an original one-woman production and an accompanying non-profit evaluated workshop was given no weight and publications in feminist presses appeared to hold little value. I believe the challenge was my work did not fit into established disciplinary assessment methods. Although that process was painful and discouraging, I am grateful I wrote the book, Theatre for Women’s Participation in Sustainable Development for tenure, as it forced me to more deeply examine the intent and impact of my work. What I have learned is that taking the time to generate scholarship supports the deep analysis and critical reflection necessary for doing good work with communities.

Regarding this work (engaged scholarship), what kind of mentorship have you received and how do you mentor others? Any advice for others who are interested in this work?

Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries for Mentorship and Partnerships
I’ve been grateful to receive a rather unlikely mentorship. Dr. Larry Frey, professor and associate chair of graduate studies in the Department of Communication, admired my work using theatre as a tool for rural women in Central America to adopt clean-burning cookstoves, and invited me to contribute a chapter to the award-winning book, Teaching Communication Activism: Communication Education for Social Justice.  He mentored me in writing in a social sciences format, an area that I had to work hard at as a theatre artist. Invitations to present my work from another social scientist mentor, Dr. Barbara Farhar at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, resulted in partnerships in India and participation in working groups at United Nations conferences. I advise getting active at conferences that overlap with your passions, and to meet with accomplished leaders whose work you admire to ask for advice.

Intensive guidance for students with ample room for student agency and creativity
When I mentor students on community engaged work I spend a lot of one-on-one time considering the nuances of a project’s given issue, participants, and parameters. We consider the full process from partnership development to the creation and dissemination of creative work, shared critical reflection,  and publications. It is ideal if students have agency and room for their own creative expression within community engaged work. Supporting that is one of the greatest joys in my job. I also believe that I can most effectively teach how to do community engaged creative work and research by doing this with my students in real time with actual communities.