Engaged scholarship fulfills passion for action in UW-Madison professor

For Young Mie Kim, being a social scientist is about being social. And engaged.

Writing research papers and accumulating citations never seemed enough for the associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“I became a social scientist because I’ve been always curious about society and social phenomenon and trying to explain why,” said Kim. “But also ultimately to try to solve some pressing issues.”

Kim said she often questioned what impact she was making on students. And she wondered how many people were actually reading her articles and using them.

“And if I go to the classroom and teach, how many students actually remember what I said today 10 or 20 years later,” said Kim. “Am I really making some impact on these students?”

And since Kim started asking those questions, she has become one of the brave pioneers of engaged scholarship on the UW-Madison campus.

Professor Kim’s first foray into engaged scholarship— incorporating the community into mutually beneficial academic courses or research— was a seminar she taught that involved students addressing relevant societal issues through website design.

The project was a hit among students.

“And I really enjoyed teaching the class,” Kim said. “And I talked about this course with our department chair and he said, ‘Oh that sounds like you are doing service learning.’ And I go, what is that?”

Department Chair Greg Downey directed Kim to the Morgridge Center for Public Service, where she met with Assistant Director Beth Tryon.

“Young Mie said she wanted to do a real-time website project in the community around food, and she was new in town so did not have many local contacts,” Tryon said. “Her request was timely because I had just finished teaching with long-time South Madison ally Margaret Nellis in a community-based research project that showed, among other things, a need for marketing the locally-owned restaurants in the area.”

Tryon and Nellis introduced Kim to members of the South Madison community and the South Madison Metropolitan Planning Council. Together, they created a plan for how students at UW-Madison could support the South Park Street area’s economic development priorities.


Photo by Jeff Miller
Students in Journalism 676 visit Melly Mel’s catering and restaurant in 2012. (photo by Jeff Miller)

In Spring 2010, Kim launched a new undergraduate service-learning course: J670: Community Service Learning: Technology for Social Change. Service-learning courses require at least 25 hours of meaningful community engagement by each student as part of the curriculum.

The course is more often known by its project name: Savor South Madison. Through an interactive website, social media and other promotions, students on the Savor South Madison team work to promote South Madison restaurants and grocery stores to the wider Madison community.

“We are basically trying to do a real-time multimedia campaign that integrates social media, targeting mostly a UW-Madison community to better bridge South Madison and increase the bonding between the communities,” Kim said.

The students learn to work closely with community partners and business owners, who benefit from a website and marketing campaigns for their restaurants and stores.

A feature event of Savor South Madison is the Taste Race, an annual weeklong scavenger hunt-type event that challenges UW students to visit as many South Madison restaurants and stores as possible. Kim says, at first, local owners were largely skeptical and did not want to participate. But now Kim says those same owners ask her if the event can happen more often.

They say there has been a significant influx of UW-Madison students visiting restaurants and stores since the campaign began.

And the students are also exposed to real-life situations that cannot be replicated in a classroom.

“For some basic technical skills, you can learn from a book or classes,” Kim said. “But in working with a real community, there are always unexpected problems and unforeseen issues. And these students know how to respond to that.”

Kim said she never knew about engaged scholarship as a graduate student, but now takes time to spread the word to graduate students and fellow faculty members she interacts with. Kim also says she feels lucky to work in a supportive department.

“I realize a lot of departments strongly discourage faculty from doing service learning,” said Kim. “Because it takes a lot of time and energy and it’s always uncertain. So a lot faculty are not necessarily encouraged to do this.”

But for Kim, she reasons that if you are already doing research and teaching, why not also incorporate efforts that can positively impact communities.

“I see how my research could inform us about problem solving,” Kim said. “For me I can see, OK: I can make a little bit of a contribution to the community. And that’s what I really enjoy.”