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GSSWGraduate School of Social Work

Three Questions

Professor Kim Bender discusses how the impact of scholarship is measured, valued and communicated

February 16, 2017

Kim Bender - Founders Forum
Kim Bender presenting at the University of Denver's Founders Forum.

Kimberly Bender, PhD, is a professor and associate dean for doctoral education at the Graduate School of Social Work. She participates on a University of Denver committee charged with research infrastructure strategic planning, and that committee is considering issues related to scholarship impact. Her own research aims to improve services and develop empirically based interventions for adolescents at risk of problem behavior.

In our Three Questions interview, Bender discussed the changing ways that the impact of social work scholarship is measured, valued and communicated.

Q: A decade ago, a scholar's impact was measured primarily by the number of publications one published. How has the calculus for measuring impact changed?

A: We are now being held more responsible by the public to share what we're finding, to share our knowledge, and rightly so. That requires us to translate what we know into soundbites and short messages that are engaging and understandable, and to find the right outlets to share them. That's not something we're trained to do, and it takes extra work, and different work. It takes boiling down the most important messages from your work and finding the right people to share them with.

As you engage in projects, think about how they can benefit the community: 'How can I set them up to be most impactful, and how will I share what we found?' The United Kingdom is a leader in this, stating how impact can and should be measured and requiring faculty to do a certain percent of work in the area of community-engaged scholarship.

Q: What are some of the innovative approaches scholars can leverage to demonstrate impact?

A: As a faculty member, you have to learn a new way of talking about your work. In addition to presenting academic papers, that could be Facebook, Twitter, testifying. What the public wants to know is what you found and why it's important. In social work, we should have even more impetus to do this. We want people to vote on the social problems we're studying. We want them to donate to the causes. But we don't necessarily know how to do this. I found it hard. We're trained to think in projects, but when we're successful in sharing knowledge, we're sharing a message or an idea about something.

To incentivize some of this work, we have to raise it up—we have to recognize people's time and achievement, whether it's tenure or merit increases. If you're pre-tenured, this work can get pushed to the back. We need to give faculty members permission to do this work.

People are starting to crowdsource research projects. For example, we're funding a photovoice project based on donations from the community to fund tablets for homeless youth, and we created a mini-documentary about the last photovoice project. We need to document our work in a slightly different, more creative way that gives a face to the issue we're addressing. We need to document people participating or benefiting from the research and engage people in the work.

We're holding a homelessness hackathon here in April, in which we're pulling together students and scholars from different disciplines across campus. They will learn about the problem, then they will hack it. They'll bring diverse backgrounds together to solve a problem. That's another example that will build awareness and develop prototype solutions. The next question is, how do you carry them out? We could be a hub for creating solutions with the community. This is something I would have found difficult to do pre-tenure. The academic system makes this hard to do until you know you've met all the tenure requirements that emphasize peer-reviewed papers and grant funding. It's asking a lot for people to step in to do something innovative or high risk unless we such work so it is valued equally to more traditional measures of impact.

Q: You organized the inaugural "Brief and Brilliant" session at the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) conference in January. How did this session come about, and what is the potential for this alternative presentation style?

A: Former GSSW Dean James Herbert Williams, now president of SSWR, had mentioned the idea of doing a TEDx-style talk. He asked me to take the lead in putting that together. I agreed because I think it's such a powerful way to share impact. Four other scholars presented 10-minute talks on the theme of the conference—Ensure Healthy Development for All Youth. We gained a pretty good audience, and I think people walked away feeling something. It was more affective, rather than totally cognitive. Later, I started talking about the ideas they'd presented, rather than just the findings. I think it was a conversation starter, and helped us to get back to the passion that drives our work.

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