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A Shared Commitment

Higher ed must prioritize students’ involvement in politics and civic life

By J. Cherie Strachan and Lori Poloni-Staudinger

June 29, 2022

Since it first emerged in the 1980s, higher education’s community engagement movement has evolved over the years to focus on engaging students in public life through service learning, which involves student learning through applied projects with community partners. But with the challenges facing democracy today—including maintaining the integrity and fairness of elections, protecting voter rights, overcoming political polarization, addressing racial tensions and wealth gaps, and other urgent issues—those working in the higher education community engagement movement now recommend a wider array of experiential learning activities—ranging from mobilizing student voters to facilitating deliberative forums—that are explicitly designed to help students cultivate the skills, knowledge, and identities to prepare them to become civic and political leaders.

To this end, the Shared Commitment statement which was adopted in 2021 and to which we authors are committed, aims to align the resources of higher education’s professional associations and institutions behind the goals of civic learning and democratic engagement. The initiative’s signatories—which include the American Association of Colleges and Universities as a founding signatory—also advocate building a “more inclusive and equitable future” that positions “equity and inclusion as . . . top priorities.” Hence, teacher-scholars committed to this endeavor must adopt innovative experiential learning that provides all students, not just those traditionally encouraged to step into civic and political roles, with robust civic and political socialization. Working with political scientists, we have allied with teacher-scholars from institutions of various types who are committed to civic learning and inclusion and who embrace an approach we label “intersectional civic engagement pedagogy.” Intersectional civic engagement pedagogy ensures experiential learning is tailored to meet the needs of all students, including those from minoritized and disadvantaged backgrounds.

What does an approach that prioritizes democratic engagement and inclusion look like? One example comes from research facilitated by the Consortium for Inter-Campus Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Research (CISR), which one of us—J. Cherie Strachan—cofounded to undertake her own civic engagement research and to help teacher-scholars with similar applied research interests coordinate multi-campus pedagogy research. As part of the study, CISR’s cofounders, along with two additional colleagues, randomly assigned students enrolled in political science classes on eighteen campuses to view clips of rude political interactions featuring interruptions and ad hominem attacks or civil political interactions featuring respect and reason-giving. Afterward, students completed a test to assess the effects of the clips on their attitudes toward civic and political participation. The study’s major finding was that rude politics alienated many students.

Yet while some students in this study who were very interested in wielding political power—mainly men—didn’t like rude politics, they were willing to be rude to gain political influence. Other students in the study who were not strongly interested in wielding political power—mainly women—felt particularly alienated by rude interactions. This means that if academics don’t want politics to alienate women, they should help students learn to deflect rude attacks. In our coauthored textbook, Why Don’t Women Rule the World?, we highlight a potential tactic: “Name it, shame it, pivot.” For example, to help all students, but especially women, respond to sexist name-calling, we ask them to practice saying, “That was a sexist thing to say. I don’t want that comment to detract from my campaign. Here’s why I’m running.”

Another difference the CISR research uncovered is that minoritized women responded to rude politics by becoming more willing to run for office, not because they have a high interest in power but out of a sense of civic duty. Work by scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins and Melissa Harris-Perry as described in Harris-Perry’s book Sister Citizen helps explain the deep histories of hardship, self-reliance, and activism that make African American women and Latinas apt to participate in community organizing and social movements. They might, however, need to be convinced that those activities qualify them for elected office. Hence, academics need to help students learn about disruptive politics and normalize this alternative pathway to power, which looks different from interning for a state legislator or going to law school. Widening the pathway to political leadership is essential if academics want to train a more diverse array of students for political leadership.

Another example of intersectional civic engagement pedagogy addresses higher ed reformers’ reliance on deliberative pedagogy, which cultivates civic identities and skills by helping students resolve public issues through civil discourse. A range of work, from the Political Engagement Project of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to political science studies of civic identity to research on best practices in K–12 classrooms, emphasizes the importance of deliberation. Discussion of controversial issues in the classroom promotes lifelong political participation because it bolsters political interest and peer expectations that shape intrinsic civic identity. Yet critics of deliberative democracy, such as Iris Marion Young or Lynn Sanders, point out that deliberative pedagogy works best for White men, who are often encouraged to express political preferences. It works less well for women and the minoritized, who are often judged harshly and disliked for violating traditional stereotyped expectations by engaging in political advocacy.

Rather than abandoning deliberative pedagogy altogether, academia should improve this experiential learning experience so that it is effective for all of our students. For example, Christopher Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg, as they describe in their book The Silent Sex, found that procedural rules affect women’s voices in campus settings when students deliberate and resolve issues with one another in small groups. Those who want women and minoritized people to participate in such deliberations should consider relying on supermajority votes or consensus building instead of a simple majority vote to make decisions. This modification means that rather than be ignored or talked over, women and minoritized people must be consulted by their peers if enough votes are to be gathered to move forward with a recommendation.

Campuses can also develop discussion groups that help students practice resolving public issues of concern via deliberation and for which women make up close to half of the members. This composition can promote female-gendered communication norms of facilitation and listening, making it easier for women and minoritized students to contribute. Another option for making deliberative pedagogy more inclusive is to have students use parliamentary procedure, which enforces norms of civility (for example, waiting to be recognized, limiting speaking time, and giving reasons). These practices make it easier for those who are expected to be quiet and deferential to advocate without being judged.

A third example of intersectional civic engagement pedagogy comes from another multi-campus CISR project that assessed civic learning in student organizations. CISR’s cofounders surveyed student club presidents on more than thirty US campuses and found that Greek organizations provide the best opportunity for students to hone civic skills (facilitating meetings, managing budgets, and coordinating activities, for example). Fraternity presidents overwhelmingly recognized that they could use these skills to pursue political influence. Despite the same robust civic learning in their own organizations, sorority presidents were less likely than all other types of student organization presidents to seek political influence.

When women self-select into groups that promote traditional gender roles, like sororities, they are less likely to envision themselves as prominent civic and political leaders, even if they are exceptionally well prepared. Academics who prioritize equity should want to change this outcome.

The survey of student leaders also found that the percentage of first-generation students on campuses was typically much higher than the percentage of students serving as club presidents. After learning how this outcome affected first-generation Latinx students on its campus, one institution worked to recruit and train them for student leadership positions—a simple, effective strategy to promote intersectional civic learning.

Sometimes more in-depth effort is required. When professors teach classes about the civic and political participation of women and minoritized groups (ethnic/racial groups, LGBTQ+ folks, and others), their classes are likely to enroll women and minoritized students—and it is important to incorporate experiential civic learning designed to be effective for them. That sentiment inspired us to fundamentally change the way we teach about gender and politics and to write the textbook Why Don’t Women Rule the World?

Social science research shows, aside from voting, that women have lower levels of political participation and are less interested in elected office than men. Yet it also reveals experiences, described below, that bolster women’s political interest and ambition. Hence, we relied on the following insights as the basis for end-of-chapter activities in Why Don’t Women Rule the World:

  • Political scientists know that women need to be asked repeatedly to run for office and must be encouraged to view their experiences as relevant. One class activity in the book requires students to conduct interviews and write encouraging letters to each other.
  • Political scientists also know that women are more likely to run for office when they perceive policymaking as an extension of caregiving. So, we ask students to think about the people they could help if they had the power to draft public policies.
  • Finally, political scientists know that in many deliberative settings, men often appropriate women’s ideas. So, we ask students to use classroom time to practice a tactic called “amplify,” which is when allies agree to give credit to women when their ideas are restated by men.

We share these concrete examples of how prioritizing democratic engagement and inclusion transformed our teaching and research with the hope that our academic colleagues will be inspired to further develop intersectional civic engagement pedagogy. Embracing this approach as a collective endeavor will ensure that all of our students are encouraged to participate in civic and political life. This will help promote the Shared Commitment statement’s goal of building a “more equitable and inclusive future.”

Sections of this article were excerpted from the authors’ keynote address delivered at the American Political Science Association’s 2020 Teaching and Learning Conference.


  • J. Cherie Strachan

    J. Cherie Strachan

    J. Cherie Strachan is director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and professor of political science at the University of Akron. She is also cofounder of the Consortium for Inter-Campus Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Research.

  • Lori Poloni Staudinger

    Lori Poloni-Staudinger

    Lori Poloni-Staudinger is dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and professor in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona.