Faces of Public and Community-Engaged Scholarship: Associate Professor Leah Sprain

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By Gretchen Minekime


Associate Professor Leah Sprain, Communication, College of Media, Communication and Information

Associate Professor Leah Sprain’s work embraces the idea that the communication discipline is a practical discipline and that community partnerships are key components to doing scholarship well. She also believes partnerships with communities outside the university can be high-impact ways for professors to get satisfaction from their work. For these reasons—and more—it makes perfect sense that Sprain is embarking on her second year as a fellow in the Higher Education and Democracy Initiative.  

Tell us about being a Higher Education and Democracy Fellow

I was born and raised in Colorado. Much of my sense of the Western Slope was shaped by opportunities to recreate there. So, I’ve appreciated the opportunity to learn different nuances about a part of the state that I was familiar with in only one sense of the word, to have a sense of the things important to community life and changing dynamics.  

I’ve also appreciated the structure of the fellows program because it enables developing relationships, trying things out to see what works and taking time to establish real trust. 

What’s an example of a public and community-engaged project you have going, and how is it advancing your scholarly work?  
On the Western Slope, the League of Women Voters—Mesa County wanted to ask better questions at their candidate forums. I was able to study past meetings (through transcripts) and provide recommendations based on the types of situations encountered. For example: How do you get people to speak beyond their talking points? How do you ask challenging questions that do not seem to have a partisan bias? When follow-up questions are not part of the format, how do you ask questions that help audiences recognize when a candidate evades the question? 

This is part of what’s exciting about community-based work. I’m considering questions like “What counts as a non-partisan question in an age when democracy is under threat?” because the League was asking. It’s connected to bigger stakes and sparks research ideas.  

Why is public and community-engaged scholarship important for CU Boulder?   

CU has an important place in the public’s imagination in CO, but sometimes it’s about things we don’t want to be known for. I want us to be seen as a public resource—to students and people of the state. The university is an entertaining place for sports, music and theater, but there are also dynamic relationships of research, thinking, inquiry and knowledge that the university represents and is connecting to the needs of the people of CO.  

We face so many interconnected crises, and I want CU Boulder to be part of how we respond and move forward. 

What would you say to fellow faculty members about incorporating public and community-engaged scholarship into their activities? 
I have many colleagues who see their classrooms as important places where they’re working out the type of world they want to be in. Yes, students are a vital part of that, but creating projects that can be capacity-building for everyone, and the way community members can amplify scholarly instincts and connect scholars to the people already doing the work, is valuable. We’re [scholars] investing in big systems and institutions, but engaging with the people inside them helps us understand practical limitations and opportunities.  
Like many professions, faculty memberscan feel like we’re asked to do too much with too few resources. Public partnerships can feel like extra. The only way we get out of that trap is to talk about and model synergies between public and community-engaged scholarship and reward so it won’t feel just like extra. I’m excited to be part of a program that supports the work and shows that it’s valued. And, that allows for professional satisfaction. 

The CU Boulder Office for Outreach and Engagement facilitates mutually beneficial partnerships between communities and scholars who seek to advance their work in community settings. Faces of Community-Engaged Scholarship highlights the stories of CU Boulder faculty, staff, students and public partners conducting the work and what they’re accomplishing together. See more Faces of Community-Engaged Scholarship stories and learn about what the Office for Outreach and Engagement offers.