Tips on Teaching

Communicating Engagement, Engaging Communication

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

The term “engagement” continues to be fashionable in conversations about teaching, research, and the role of service in higher education. It often functions as a buzzword, referenced here and there to signify a thing we value and strive to achieve in our work. And yet, we are rarely asked to define our understanding of engagement or explain why we believe it is valuable, particularly in the context of teaching and learning.

Organizational communication scholar Stan Deetz describes engagement as a “potentially inventive conversation between communities with differences” (2008, p. 290). Like any (potentially) good conversation, there is an element of risk involved because it asks us to open ourselves up to others without knowing where the conversation will lead. For Deetz (2008), “engagement is not something we choose to do, it is called out of us out of respect for that which is other and different” (p. 295). He believes being at risk in this way is the only way mutual learning, growth, and change occurs across and within communities of difference.

Deetz (2008) suggests engagement has three interactive moments: understanding, reflection, and invention. By practicing moments of understanding, the focus is on others and the worlds in which they live. The goal is to deeply appreciate the perspectives of others without judgment. He describes the process of reflection as investigating the political nature of thoughts, feelings, and actions to revitalize a sense of community where moments of invention become possible. Invention, then, is an improvisational, poetic act of trying out new ideas (e.g., “Almost this, not quite that, until, yeah, that’s what it is!”), wherein concept formation becomes more important than theoretical application. Taken together, these moments of engagement generate new ways of thinking and talking. As Deetz explains, “Talking about rather than from our knowledge is conversationally different” (p. 297). Thus, engagement is much more than active learning or applied, practical theory in action. It also makes us equals.

Good conversation is necessary for engaged teaching and learning to occur. Deetz’s dialogic, reflexive approach helps raise to a conscious level the role of communication in teaching and learning. How do you communicate with students? How do they communicate with each other? How might you engage different identities and experiences in ways that create a stronger sense of community and shared commitment to understanding, reflection, and invention? These are important questions to consider when designing and developing any course, but particularly those we describe and situate under the umbrella term of engagement.

If you would like to schedule a consultation (i.e., “good conversation”) about communicating engagement and engaging communication in your teaching, please contact the Reinert Center at Please also consider sharing your perspectives on communication and engagement, or reflections on ideas introduced in this blog post, in the comment section below.


Deetz, S. (2008). Engagement as co-generative theorizing. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 36, 289-297.