Toolkit Resources


Gustavus Adolphus College: Communication Studies

Leila R. Brammer
Professor/Chair Communication Studies

Gustavus Adolphus College is liberal arts college of 2200 students located in rural southern Minnesota. The Communication Studies Department graduates 35-40 students a year. The College mission is to prepare students for “meaningful lives of leadership and service in society.” The 2017 Gustavus Acts Strategic Plan aims to “equip students to lead purposeful lives and to act on the great challenges of our time through an innovative liberal arts education of recognized excellence.” Growing out of the mission of the college and the civic commitments of faculty, over the past 15 years, the Department of Communication Studies has very intentionally developed and honed a community-engaged liberal arts curriculum and student experiences that emphasize civic learning and social justice. In our 2010 department strategic plan, we set our goal to provide the best possible 21st century undergraduate communication studies curriculum to meet the needs of students and society. This goal required us to re-examine our discipline, curriculum, courses, and assumptions, deepen civic learning in every course, and more widely implement community-based civic learning.

Communication Studies student learning outcomes reflect four areas of civic skills and learning—effective communication, theory into practice in critiquing and acting upon the creation of meaning and power, ethical engagement of different perspectives and communication practices, and civic action. Whether in community-based learning or in traditional courses, students encounter material and assignments to support their development of civic responsibility and skills. Our department defines effective communication (oral, written, and mediated) as ethical, audience-centered, and evidence driven, essential dispositions for community engagement. Our theoretical focus underscores issues of meaning and power and engaging that theory in audience-centered, evidence-based, ethical practice. Our courses emphasize and practice the ethical engagement of different perspectives and diverse communicative practices. Our final SLO requires that “Students effectively engage opportunities for positive social change.” Our senior survey asks students to reflect upon their overall learning and outcomes and specifically asks for civic learning SLO and how they will enact positive social change in their lives beyond college.
Because of our innovation and our civic social justice focus, the department has been recognized by the National Communication Association for our overall curricular design and our innovative community-based foundational course, Public Discourse.

Scaffolded Levels of Student Learning
From our foundational course through upper level experiences, students engage civic learning and with the community in a variety of contexts. Public Discourse, the foundational course in the major, is also a general education elective, a requirement for Elementary Education, Communication Arts and Literature Teaching, and Civic Leadership, and an elective for Environmental Studies and Peace Studies. In Public Discourse, students, generally in their first year, choose an issue in their community, research it thoroughly within the community, identify ways that other communities have dealt with similar problems, collaborate with community members in determining the best path for their community, and ultimately advocate for the community to take action. The process provides rigorous training in liberal arts civic skills—community-based research, critical thinking, argument, perspective taking, and oral and written communication—and fosters the empowerment and responsibility necessary for future civic work. This first experience of intensive community immersion instills the humility and collaboration required to fully understand problems and possible ways to address them prior to acting. This course empowers students to see themselves as citizens with responsibilities within their communities and provides a rich foundation upon which they engage in other experiences in the major, internships, and life beyond college.

In level two and level three courses, students further hone and develop knowledge and skills for effective involvement in their communities. Courses involve civic learning in materials and assignments, and many courses utilize civic community-based learning, in which students take theory into practice to collaborate with nonprofit and governmental organizations. In level two community-based courses, students build on their individual experiences by working in groups to collaborate with community-based nonprofit and governmental partners. In COM 270 Deliberation, students collaborate with community partners to research, develop, and facilitate deliberations and dialogues on community issues; in COM 227 Conflict, students consult with partners to understand and analyze conflict; in COM 245 Media and Democracy, students research and develop media/information literacy materials for use in elementary and secondary education; in COM 265 Video Representation, students produce videos to support the work of community partner organizations; and in COM 246 Nonprofit Communication, students work with nonprofit organizations to develop communication materials (ads, brochures, newsletters, event planning, etc.) to meet specific needs.

In level three courses, students continue deeper collaborative work with community organizations. In COM 399 Senior Seminar students canvass community resources and needs; COM 377 Organizational Communication students analyze structure and function of community organizations and recommend improvements, COM 387 Crisis Communication students consult with community partners to research and develop crisis plans; and COM 370 Public Engagement students work with public deliberative bodies to develop ways to more effectively engage community participation.

In 2017, we launched the Gustavus Public Deliberation and Dialogue Program to more fully engage students in challenging conversations on significant issues and develop a regional resource with community organizations. The Program will infuse dialogue and deliberation training and practice throughout the curriculum and student life to prepare students to work with each other and in their communities to lead, support, and collaborate in evidence-based decision-making processes. Students in the Program will also work with public organizations and deliberative bodies to research, develop, facilitate, and report on deliberations and dialogues on pressing community issues.
Our majors graduate with multiple deep experiences within communities, learn and hone critical civic skills, and are interested and invested in work within their communities.

Exemplary Courses That Highlight a Civic Lens
COM 120 Public Discourse
Public Discourse introduces students to the principles of public advocacy, community-based research, and civic engagement. Students gain knowledge, enhance and hone skills, and thoughtfully consider their place in their communities. Readings, class time, and assignments focus on the skills and concepts necessary for successful application of rhetorical and argument theory to a community-based public advocacy project. The Public Advocacy Project provides rigorous training in research, critical thinking, argument, problem solving, perspective taking, advocacy, writing, and oral communication—core liberal arts and civic skills.

COM 245 Media and Democracy
The current political climate has heightened attention toward the role of information in society. From news sources to social media, media offer the most prevalent and immediate opportunities for citizens to access information to make political decisions on local and national issues. Media and Democracy explores ways media ownership concentration and contested truth influence content and access to information. In the final project, students develop media literacy curricula for children to help them navigate the changing nature of information in society.

COM 270 Public Deliberation
Public Deliberation examines democratic deliberation theory and tests it in a local, civic context. Students examine and critique deliberation theory and models and bring theory into practice by designing and facilitating a public deliberation in the community. Working with a community partner, they identify a pressing question or problem that requires public discussion. Students research models for deliberation in order to develop a structure that will best fit the particular question and community context. They host, facilitate, and document the community deliberations and provide a report and recommendations to the community partner.

Exemplary Project Descriptions
Public Advocacy Project (COM 120 Public Discourse)
The Public Advocacy Project introduces students to rhetorical/argument theory, community-based research, and public advocacy. Students gain knowledge, enhance and hone skills, and thoughtfully consider their place in their communities. Readings, class time, and assignments focus on the skills and concepts necessary for successful application of rhetorical and argument theory to a community-based public advocacy project. For the project, each student identifies community problem in a community of which they are a part, thoroughly researches it with the community, studies ways that other communities have dealt with similar problems, collaborates with community members in determining the best path for their community, and ultimately advocates for the community to take action

Media Education in Action (COM 235 Media and Society)
Using knowledge gained from critically interrogating media and society for a semester, students create a media literacy project for a group. Students choose a group to which their project will be presented (e.g., a Girl Scout troop, a group from the Senior Center, a class of middle school/high school students) and present the materials to that group. Students conduct formal audience analysis research and talk with individuals in this demographic (or representatives who work with individuals in this demographic, e.g., a teacher). Based on this information, students develop and present their media literacy lesson to the group they chose.

Community-based Collaborative Video Production (COM 265 Video Representation)
Students studying video production theory and techniques collaborate with nonprofit/government organizations in the local community to produce one or more short videos for use by the partner organization. Working either in small teams or as a cohesive whole (according to the demands of the project), students manage all aspects of production including ideation, scripting, production planning, filming, editing, and postproduction. Once final versions are approved by the instructor and community partner, students deliver the videos to the partner organization to be deployed according to the organization’s needs. 

Crisis Plan (COM 387 Crisis Communication)
Students utilize course learning of rhetorical and organizational theory to create a Crisis Management Plan for a local non-profit organization. For the project, students work in teams to create an effective plan that meets the needs and desires of their partner organization. Students complete a series of interviews and mini-presentations with their partner clients, including a needs assessment, a training session on media relations, and a fact-finding consultation. The plan is written in a series of section drafts that are revised based on feedback from the professor and clients. The assignment culminates in the delivery of a hard copy of the plan and a presentation of the plan to the community partner at the end of the semester.

Process for Adoption
Our journey started with our dissatisfaction with our foundational course. For years, we wrestled with how to return Public Speaking to the civic foundations of rhetoric by more fully emphasizing argument and involving students in the community. we tried many things, including speeches about civic issues and speeches to community groups. Finally, we decided that Public Speaking was unfixable. We spent a year developing Public Discourse, an innovative foundational course based in research, argument, critical thinking, and civic life. In the last decade, over 2000 students have completed Public Discourse Public Advocacy Projects within their communities. Assessment demonstrates that students gain civic knowledge and skills and are transformed by the experience. After this initial experience, our students demanded more community engagement and civic content, and we began a process for re-imagining our entire curriculum. Knowing that every course could not and should not directly engage the community, we purposefully identified and developed courses where community engagement would enhance learning and where we could effectively partner with organizations. In other courses, we included course materials, readings, and assignments on civic learning, community issues, and citizenship. We more deeply infused ethics into every course and have developed guidelines and processes for student work within communities. Our commitments to civic engagement and social justice are reflected in our mission statement, student learning outcomes, and our strategic plan. As we continue to develop and refine our curriculum, we purposely assess both our community-based courses and other civic learning opportunities, community needs and capacity, and our student outcomes. In longitudinal assessment, alumni demonstrate civic consciousness and involvement and value the learning and support they received in the major. Further, this journey has been meaningful for faculty in realizing and deepening our disciplinary and personal commitments to civic life. Our journey is not complete; we continue to examine, revise, and develop courses to best meet the needs of our students and society.

Internal and External Influences
Support from the Provost at the time of our development of Public Discourse was essential. Involving individual students in their communities seemed very risky, but she fully supported the innovation and gave us permission to fail. That created the climate for us to launch a very successful course that we continue to refine, but, over 2000 students later, none of our initial fears were valid. Two years later, well-timed strategic planning processes set the stage for departmental discussions about curricular direction, course revisions, and a ten-year vision. Our 2010 external review touted the department as a national model, which encouraged our continued work to embed community engagement and civic purpose throughout our curriculum. In 2012, AAC&U released A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, which reclaimed and propelled the civic purposes of higher education. The AAC&U commitment provided vital foundation, encouragement, and critical support for our work when faced with those not as interested in innovation, civic good, or our successful work with students. We continued our work and have been nationally recognized for our efforts. This journey has transformed our department, our students, and faculty by deepening our own civic commitments. Our dedication to civic engagement and social justice is fostered through seeing how important this work is for our students and the communities in which they live and engage.

Prior to implementing Public Discourse, we assessed student content and civic learning outcomes to provide a baseline for assessing future curricular changes. In the first year, measures of argument skills and civic inclinations indicated that the course was a success. Students responded with significant gains in argument skills and with deep interest in and confidence for becoming more involved in civic life. Despite being a challenging course with a significant workload, nearly all students rated the course as essential to their academic experience and write and speak effusively about what they gained from it. Almost one-half of students continue working on their project after the class is finished. Despite giving fewer speeches, students have more significant improvements in communication apprehension and report greater confidence and skills (and it shows in their presentations throughout the major). Students consistently report and demonstrate empowerment with statements such as “I will not hesitate to become involved in important community issues,” “I find myself taking a much greater interest in my community, and, when people talk to me about community problems, I encourage them to do more research to determine whether it is a problem and how to best address it,” and “I understand what it means to be a citizen. I am pursuing other opportunities to become involved in my community.” Over the years, we have utilized many different measures (argument skills, critical thinking, communication apprehension, leadership, self-efficacy, and civic learning) and have presented some of our assessment data. We continue to collect student project assessments, self-reflections, and websites, and assess them for learning gains and areas for refinement or increased emphasis.

Our keen attention to Public Discourse outcomes set a foundation for assessment of other courses, particularly community-based courses. Student course reflections, community partner responses, and senior surveys point to significant civic learning and interest. In 2015, longitudinal assessment of alumni demonstrated that they continue to report significant gains in civic skills and knowledge and enhanced community involvement. From over 50 pages of positive alumni responses, a few comments provide a sense of civic learning gains:

  • I learned about the local government system that I grew up in and the processes by which change comes about in that setting—this has translated to a continued interest in local government to influence those around me. I attend city council meetings and feel that I have a much better understanding than my peers of what is going on around me.
  • An attitude that I began to acquire in Public Discourse was an attitude of curiosity—asking what is really going on out in the world, be it across the street or across the ocean, and then being mobile enough and assertive enough to find out.
  • You don’t need to wait for an organization to be formed or to invite you to join to make a difference; you can simply isolate a problem, organize and create a solution, and implement it, not necessarily on your own, but with your own initiative.
  •  I currently work in local government, and want to continue a career in local government, with the ultimate goal of becoming a city manager. I think Public Discourse helped to instill a lot of the values that I hold, especially working in the public sector and doing things for the betterment of the entire community.
  • The way I learned to see the inequalities in communities and ask questions why and how things could be improved have remained with me for the last six years of life as I've studied, worked in different regions in the U.S. and internationally.
  • The work you are doing is important. The short-term and long-term benefits of building citizens who have the tools to civically engage in a productive manner will help change the world.

In 2020, we plan to do a deeper alumni study in conjunction with our ten-year external review. Beyond student and alumni outcomes, we as faculty have been transformed as well. Our civic commitments have found clear expression in our teaching, research, and service. Reimagining a 21st Century civic-based communication studies curriculum required us to examine every course, assignment, and reading with new eyes. Courses are innovative and differ from the standard communication curriculum. The reinvention of our courses and the investment in community-based learning takes much work, but the personal and professional outcomes are worth it. We teach differently than we once did, cut many traditionally-offered courses, developed new course offerings, constantly assess, continually refine, and do so with enthusiasm as we endeavor to provide the best possible undergraduate liberal arts communication studies curriculum and experience to serve both our students and society.

Words of Advice
For our department, we started by returning to the civic foundations of our discipline. The study of rhetoric, democracy, and civic life are symbiotically connected. Through accentuating those connections, we reimagined our curriculum and reignited our commitments to teaching, research, service, and civic life. Although we continue to examine, refine, and develop our courses and curriculum and probably always will, we can offer some pieces of advice for beginning the journey:

  • Place civic learning centrally in student learning outcomes. Identify what existing disciplinary learning outcomes support civic learning and focus on those areas.
  • Examine the assumptions embedded in the current curriculum. We no longer teach Public Speaking (the traditional foundational course of our discipline). Our replacement much better meets the goals of public speaking and results in significant gains in argument, critical thinking, research, writing, and civic responsibility. We believed we could do better and did. Hold no course, content, or assignments sacred. Wipe the slate clean. What are the student learning outcomes necessary at level one (two or three)? What academic and disciplinary knowledge and skills meet those outcomes while engaging students in civic learning?
  • Not every course can or should be community-based. Which courses naturally lend themselves community-based learning? Where are the places where course offerings, knowledge, and skills intersect with community needs? Find the right balance between developing the best community-based learning experiences and supporting those experiences with class-based civic learning.
  • Involve students. Our success is entirely based in the support and help of our students. We constantly ask them for feedback and use that feedback to shape our courses and course offerings. They know that and willingly, often without prompting, provide feedback, ideas, and recommendations. They take a great deal of pride in being involved in building our curriculum.
  • Seek help, both internally and externally. Identify resources, people, and institutions that can provide examples, guidance, feedback, and support. We certainly are open for consultation and collaboration (
  • Assess from the beginning. Gather as much baseline data as you can. On what measures do you want your students to demonstrate civic learning and other gains? Assess starting now.
  • We had the support of the Provost at the time, who encouraged our efforts and told us that if we were innovating to improve student learning, we could not fail. We eventually learned that is true. We regularly experiment with new and refined courses, materials, and assignments, assess continually, and allow ourselves time to develop the best approach. Prepare, research, work closely with community partners, but, even when not perfect, students learn and we grow as teachers.

Looking for more information on the courses and projects? Please return to the top of the page and click on the “Exemplary Course Specifics” and “Exemplary Project Details” buttons found under the campus logo.