Collaborative Research: Barriers and Strategies

Reflections from the Collaborative Research Faculty Learning Community, including the following participants: Christine Beaudoin, Mark Gleason, Deborah Lown, Azizur Molla, Shaily Menon, Rick Rediske, Linda Shuster, and Peter Wampler


“Silo” mentality between disciplines and colleges. Philosophical and discipline-specific barriers make it difficult for colleagues from different departments to collaborate. These barriers are often rooted in misconceptions about what is “traditional” for a discipline. For example, collaborations between the physical and social sciences are often challenging due to differences in language and research styles.  

 Lack of knowledge about what colleagues are doing. Faculty members often are not aware of the activities and expertise of colleagues at their own institution and at other institutions, which makes it difficult for them to identify individuals with specific expertise and interests that would be helpful in exploring and establishing potential collaboration.

Lack of awareness of collaboration benefits. Collaborative projects take a lot of time and effort but also offer benefits, which make them a good investment and option for some projects. Complex problems have many interconnected components and tackling these effectively requires collaboration between people with diverse experience and skills. Faculty members do not always have examples, opportunities, or role models for successful collaboration, and are unable to evaluate the benefits of collaboration.

Fear of collaboration. Why would anyone fear collaboration? Several reasons were discussed in our Faculty Learning Community, including 1) a personality that favors independence over collaboration; 2) previous bad experiences from attempting to collaborate; and 3) tenure pressures which value independent work over collaborative work.

Complexity of scheduling collaborative teaching and collaborative activities between classes. There was agreement among the FLC members that collaboration between students and collaborative teaching is valuable. However, since course scheduling and teaching loads are determined by each department, it is often difficult to accommodate collaborative teaching and student experiences.


Change in the CSCE interdisciplinary grant funding cycle. There was general consensus among the FLC members that most interdisciplinary projects require more time than individual projects due to the logistics of collaborative research. The one-year time limit for current CSCE grants is often too short to complete complex interdisciplinary projects. A process for granting “no cost extensions” may be an effective interim step in some cases.

Seed money or release time for developing collaborative groups. The FLC members suggested developing a smaller grant ($2000 to $5000) program that provides seed money or release time for groups to do the groundwork to establish collaborations or to do pilot research to demonstrate the potential for the project to be successful. Assigned time would be allocated for a facilitator or coordinator to develop and maintain collaborations.

External grant opportunities. Several grant mechanisms, such as the National Science Foundation INSPIRE grants or the Human Frontier Science Program, provide funding for collaborative efforts to address complex problems, which are better addressed through an interdisciplinary approach.

Student/faculty awards and competitions. We recommend a new award for GVSU faculty and/or students to recognize exemplary collaboration efforts. These efforts may include collaborative projects between students, faculty and students, among faculty, and with community partners. We also recommend promoting existing student competitions (such as the Wegeprize) and establishing our own student competitions which would encourage students to think outside traditional discipline boundaries to solve complex problems.

Collective fund for collaborative research. Each college would contribute to a collective fund designated to facilitate university-wide collaborative efforts through a competitive grant process. This would be a modified version of the current CLAS research clusters and would allow many additional cluster ideas to be included. There may also be an opportunity to redirect unspent faculty development funds allocated to each department/unit for this purpose.

Community Engagement colloquia. The Office for Community Engagement is organizing a monthly colloquia series which highlights issues and topics related to collaborative projects at GVSU and beyond.

Collaboration conferences. We are recommending conferences at GVSU similar to the Big Data Conference that bring together people interested in interdisciplinary projects. Other ways to share and bring people together should be explored, such as webinars, video clips, and online conferencing.

Digital Measures and online visibility. Faculty research and projects need to be more discoverable by colleagues at GVSU and beyond. Digital Measures is a good database for storing data related to faculty activity and research. Increased portability is needed to make these data accessible and searchable.

Collaboration coordinator. Faculty often find it difficult to allocate the time needed to initiate and maintain collaborative projects. There may be opportunities to capitalize on the experience and connections of emeritus faculty to help coordinate collaborative or community engagement projects.

Joint appointments. One approach used at other institutions to facilitate and encourage collaborative activities is joint appointments. Joint appointments for new and existing faculty should be considered as a means for encouraging more effective collaboration.

Recognition within the tenure process. Interdisciplinary work is often complex and may not yield traditional tangible products such as peer-reviewed publications or meeting presentations. We recommend more explicit recognition of the collaborative process, including recognition within the tenure and promotion process of documented progress of collaborative research activities and interim products that result from those activities.

Opportunities through FTLC. Use FTLC workshops, the Fall Teaching and Learning Conference, and the Faculty Teaching Circles to promote sharing of information and best practices related to collaborative projects.

Highlighting collaborative research. Raise awareness about ongoing collaborative activity at GVSU through newsletter articles, GVSU publication articles, the popular press, and web sites. Prepare visual learning tools using teaching and research findings in a variety of formats and venues.

Sharing best practices and lessons learned. Use various online media and presentations to share with colleagues on campus and beyond, the best practices of effective and successful collaborative projects and lessons learned.











Food for Thought

Guest blog by Dr. Sarah King, Liberal Studies Department

“The most successful parts of community work in class overall were connecting with other people, gaining new perspectives, and being brought out of my comfort zone. The least successful part was only the time constraints. I really loved how much I was able to connect with the West Michigan community through this course. I just wish that I would have had more time to get involved even more.” (HON280 student)

Food For Thought is a three-course freshman sequence in the Honors College. The course is about food writ large—food as social, cultural and ecological system. In it, we challenge students to see food as more than something that comes from a box at the grocery store, and instead as something that connects to and is produced by our larger relationships.

Everybody eats. And teaching about food is a wonderful opportunity to connect students with a variety of communities, both on and off campus. As co-instructors, Anne Marie Fauvel and I found many variety of ways to engage students in our local food communities, including:

  • Weekly volunteer hours at the campus Sustainable Agriculture Project in the fall harvest season, which taught students about the ecological complexity—and back-breaking labor—of growing food.
  • Guest lectures from food activists here in West Michigan, including Jeff Smith (WellHouse), Jenny Jordan (Kids Food Basket) and Brett Colley (ChangeU).
  • A class field trip to Grove Restaurant, which opened for lunch just for us and invited the farmer who’d grown the food they served to join us.
  • A behind-the-scenes tour of Campus Dining.
  • Connecting with local foodways from a variety of cultures, including a trip to hear Anishinaabe activist Winona LaDuke and a visit to the West Michigan Hindu Temple.
  • Student-led research projects that initiated relationships with local vets, farmers, scientists, educators, children and the GVSU campus community.

What did this breadth of engagement mean for us as a learning community? Were the students overwhelmed, or confused? We carefully designed each element of community engagement to connect back to course material and made sure to explore these connections in classroom discussions. We often tasked the students with analyzing their experiences outside of the classroom using the course material—as in the final exam where we asked them to eat at three local restaurants and then analyse their experiences using the course material. And to assess outcomes, we worked with Ruth Stegeman and the Office for Community Engagement to pilot a new tool to assess student learning through community engagement.

We found that the students clearly saw the connections between their community-based work and the course material. We also found that community-based work strengthened student relationships to us as faculty, which is one of the key indicators of student retention and success. This isn’t too surprising—working with your professor to haul compost and plant fruit trees can really work to break down boundaries—and we clearly saw the results of this in increased classroom discussion and engagement as the semester wore on. Community-engaged learning also challenged our students to move beyond their biases and assumptions about, for example, the difficulty of farm work, the experience of childhood hunger, and about cultures and foodways different from their own, as the opening comment illustrates. Still our students wished that they’d had more time, and this was a year-long, nine-credit course. Community engagement opens new possibilities and connections for students—when it’s going well, they can never get enough, and neither can we.

For more information contact Sarah King at

HON280 Food For Thought co-instructors for 2013-14 were Sarah King and Anne Marie Fauvel, both of the Liberal Studies Department. Starting this fall, Anne Marie will be offering a new food-focused course, LIB342 Food Matters, which will use community-engaged pedagogy—employing action, reflection, and real-world experience.

Soul of a GVSU Citizen

In Soul of a Citizen, Paul Loeb describes a conversation with a college student shortly after President Obama took office. When asked about the national mood, she said, “Everyone’s unsure of what’s going to happen in so many areas, so we’re waiting to watch and see.”

Recently, the Office for Community Engagement hosted SynergyWorks, a university-wide conversation about GVSU’s community engagement. Roundtable discussions focused on building our infrastructure to support engagement, resulting in the specific recommendations listed below. Many are now waiting to watch and see what will happen.

But this way, it’s fairly certain little will happen. Infrastructure is by its very nature systemic, requiring contribution and change from almost everyone. Our university is perfectly aligned to get the results that it does. We each play a role to preserve our current structures or we intentionally redesign our system to meet the needs of a very real present and future. To rely on leadership or one office or one person is not only foolish, it also abdicates the responsibility to shape the areas that each “citizen” knows intimately, where each has influence, knowledge, and assets to share.

The time for waiting and watching is past. Whether you are faculty, staff, or student, as a GVSU citizen, you can help build infrastructure for engagement to benefit you, our university, and our communities.

The next part is simple: review the list below, find the area where you can contribute, and call us with your commitment.

  • Secure the technical expertise and resources necessary to develop a web-based searchable partnership data collection system
  • Link people around common interests and support emerging cross-disciplinary/cross-sector partnerships
  • Build the case for a place-based signature engagement
  • Create policy that will recognize, reward, and promote synergistic community engagement
  • Increase ways for students to identify academic service learning and community engagement opportunities
  • Create a student planning/design tool that builds on the Blueprint for Success

Thank You for Making SynergyWorks a Success!


Special thanks go to the following contributors:

Guest Speakers
Mayor George Heartwell
GVSU President Thomas Haas
CCPS Dean, Dr. George Grant Jr.

Panel Discussion
GVSU Provost Gayle Davis
Brooks Liberal Studies Chair, Dr. Wendy Burns-Ardolino
CLAS Dean, Dr. Fred Antczak
KCON Dean, Dr. Cynthia McCurren
CCPS Associate Dean, Dr. WIlliam Crawley (Moderator)

Creative Team
Heather Wallace, John Kilbourne, Danielle Lake, Patty Stow Bolea, and Nick Ryder

John Schmidt, Heather Wallace, and Abigail DeHart

Talented Rapper
William Knighton

Group Facilitators
Christine Rener, Patty Stow Bolea, Abigail DeHart, Michael DeWilde, Tim Syfert, Simone Jonaitis, Kirsten Bartles, Diana Pace, Jay Cooper, Kurt Ellenburger, Heather Carpenter, Melissa Peraino, Kristin Rahn, Shaily Menon, Chris Chamberlain, and Shawn Bultsma

We’ll Meet You at the Intersection of Accountability and Possibility

In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block defines three important concepts that determine whether our future is stuck or emerging: accountability, entitlement, and possibility:

Accountability is the willingness to care for the whole, and it flows out of the kind of conversation we have about the new story that we hope will shape our identity. It means we have conversation of what we can do to create the future. Entitlement is a conversation about what others can or need to do to create the future for us. (48)

Possibility, for Block, is the name we give to the future into which we freely choose to live. Possibility without accountability results in wishful thinking, and accountability without possibility leads to despair, he says. Thus, the future emerges “at the intersection of possibility and accountability.” (48)

At SynergyWorks, we are hosting a conversation at the intersection of possibility and accountability. This event is an opportunity to vote with our feet. First, by our physical presence—or lack thereof—we will signify to our leaders and colleagues whether community engagement is important to us. Secondly, as participants, we will shape the structures and practices that support our community engagement—the ones that matter to us, the ones we may have requested or complained about in the past.

In this powerful way, we will guide the direction of the university. If this matters to you, please step boldly into this intersection so we can create the future of an engaged GVSU together.

Chicken Market as Change Agent?

Transformation can occur anywhere, and for GVSU students, it’s often in a community setting.

One young man’s life changed at an open-air chicken market in Jordon. He realized there were huge inequities in the world, and he could do something about them. He is now working on international issues related to poverty and education.

Another was transformed forever when a migrant worker invited him into his house for a meal and thanked him for tutoring his children in the fields. “I admire you,” the father told him. “Something you will realize in the future is that you have been a very positive influence with my kids.” Honored by this personal act of warmth and generosity, the student discovered that he had something to offer that was of value to others. With newfound self-confidence, he went on to work in a hospital in Costa Rica.

Sometimes, students discover what they DON’T want to do, such as NEVER working on a political campaign again or NOT teaching in an elementary school.

GVSU’s core mission is to prepare students to shape their lives, their professions, and their societies. One way we do this is to encourage students to follow the Four Year Blueprint for Student Success and its partner document, The Do-Something Guide.

The Blueprint demonstrates in no uncertain terms how much the university already values community engagement—in fact, the plan has an entire section for each undergraduate year devoted to engagement. Some items in this category involve the community, some items are devoted to campus involvement, but the point is clear: an undergraduate experience encompassed by dorm time and classroom time just isn’t enough. Personal transformation calls for bigger and broader experiences, messy situations, and opportunities to make mistakes that matter.

We have the blueprint; let’s follow it.

Follow up: Read the Four Year Blueprint for Student Success and the Do-Something Guide. You can always find links to these resources and more at


The Epistemology of Stone Soup

Most of us have heard the story of Stone Soup, in which a weary traveler happens upon a small village in search of shelter and a meal. When the villagers, one after another, inform him that they have no food to share—too little, in fact, to feed their own families—the traveler says that he will instead make stone soup to share with the entire village.

The traveler proceeds to bring a pot of water to a boil, and the villagers look on, perplexed, as he drops a stone in the pot. One by one, the villagers decide that they would like to have a part in improving upon this “delicious stone soup,” and they come forward with vegetables, meat, and spices, each giving what they can. In the end, the entire village is able to share a truly delicious soup that they each had a hand in creating.

Stone soup is a metaphor for an epistemology of engaged scholarship.

Put simply, if our container is already full—full of our knowledge, full of our expertise, full, frankly, of ourselves—it’s difficult to find space for the contributions of our community partners.

Community engagement begins with questioning our epistemology:

  • Do we recognize that much of the world’s knowledge exists outside the academy?
  • What assumptions do we have about the knowledge and resources our community partners might contribute?
  • Do we respect these contributions as valid?
  • As valid as our academic contributions?
  • Really?

The stone soup story reminds us that when our offerings of deep content knowledge, artful pedagogies, and empirical processes come together with the on-the-ground experience, mastered skills, and indigenous wisdom of our community partners, they have the power to effect real change—change to nourish us all and help our village thrive.