In everyday usage, the keyword engagement means several different things. To be engaged can mean that you have agreed to get married, or that you are in an armed battle, or that you are participating in a political process, or simply that you have arranged to do something or go somewhere. Students and scholars in American studies and cultural studies most often encounter this term within the diverse institutions that circulate under another keyword: “university.” Those institutions often use “engagement” to reference efforts to partner with the “communities” they claim to serve. Like other large institutions that form these types of partnerships (hospitals, financial institutions, major employers), universities often link the two terms by using the phrase “community engagement” to name the practice of building relationships for the purposes of research, teaching, outreach, or development.

This more specific use of the term is common, but seldom consistently defined since it …

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