Toolkit Resources


Illinois State University: School of Communication

Steve Hunt
Professor & Executive Director, School of Communication


The School of Communication’s (SoC) legacy is more than 150 years old, stemming from the founding of the Forensics Union two days after Illinois State University’s (ISU) founding. The School is the largest unit (in terms of enrollment) in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and s home to approximately 900 undergraduate and 80 graduate students. In addition, the SoC is home to WGLT-FM radio (NPR affiliate), WZND student radio, The Vidette student newspaper, and TV-10 which delivers the only locally-originated daily newscast in McLean County, IL. Over 100 faculty, staff, graduate assistants, and students are employed within the School. The SoC offers four undergraduate programs including Communication Studies, Journalism, Mass Media, and Public Relations, as well as a Master’s degree in Communication.

The SoC’s mission and vision statement is to enhance the State of Illinois’ societal and economic conditions by providing comprehensive undergraduate and graduate degree, research, and service initiatives that are at the leading edge of theory and translate into viable applications. Faculty and staff in the SoC have integrated civic learning and democratic engagement into the curriculum and co-curriculum for some time. In 2009, they formalized their commitment to civic learning by adopting the following learning outcomes for each of the majors: 1) Public Opportunities—Students will identify the resources and subsequent value of civic and community engagement; 2) Responsible Citizenry—Students will develop the ability to function as responsible participants in the social, economic, technological, and political dimensions of life within local, national, and global communities; 3) Knowledge Formation—Students will foster an understanding of the social and collaborative nature of knowledge and learning related to civic engagement; 4) Diverse and Global Perspectives—Students will be exposed to diverse and global perspectives by developing and communicating an appreciation for the impact made in personal and professional lives; and 5) Democratic Awareness—Students will improve their knowledge and understanding of the democratic process. These learning outcomes and specific goals for each major can be found on the School’s civic engagement website.

Scaffolded Levels of Student Learning
Civic engagement initiatives are firmly embedded across our curriculum and co-curriculum, touching the lives of virtually every student on campus starting with COM 110, Communication as Critical Inquiry. This course, taken by all first-year students, continues to play a critical role in Illinois State’s Political Engagement Project (PEP). A complete list of COM 110 civic engagement activities is beyond the scope of this website; however, the following examples are illustrative of our efforts. Initially, the Social Issues Fair (SIF) allows COM 110 students to engage other ISU students and the larger community about current political and social issues. Each student is required to prepare a short briefing on her or his social issue and deliver the presentation to attendees as they move throughout the fair. The SIF provides an excellent opportunity for presenters to sharpen their civic engagement skills and for attendees to gain knowledge about significant issues facing our community, nation, and world. In addition, our COM 110 faculty partnered with ISU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning in fall 2016 to administer an assessment of key civic engagement outcomes. COM 110 faculty are also regularly involved in activities hosted by our campus American Democracy Project (ADP) and play an important role in encouraging their students to participate.

Although not exhaustive, the following list illustrates the breadth and depth of curricular integration of civic/community engagement into our undergraduate and graduate programs over the 2016-2017 academic calendar year: COM 163 Television Production (students create public service announcements on a number of important social issues relevant to ISU students); COM 223 Small Group Processes (students are tasked with identifying problems facing a non-profit organization and implementing a plan to contribute to a solution); COM 265 Advanced Print & Online Reporting (students work in groups to design and manage an online community news and information outlet specifically aimed at serving the Bloomington-Normal community and providing information citizens need in order to be more involved in and contribute to their community); COM 324 Theory & Research in Persuasion (students conducted analysis of the 2016 Presidential campaign using data from the Social Media Analytics Command Center); COM 352 Documentary Production on Social and Political Issues (students produce a documentary on social/political issues); COM 356 Executive Speechwriting (students completed a service learning project working with the Shaw Foundation); COM 361 Mass Media Law, Policy & Ethics (students complete a documentary assignment on important issues related to freedom of speech); COM 362 Non-Broadcast Television (students produced films for Labyrinth Outreach Services, Not In Our Town, Seeds of Hope Outreach, and YWCA Sexual Assault Program); COM 372 Theory and Research in Intercultural Communication (students complete an original research project related to civic engagement); COM 377 Public Relations Campaigns (students completed a service learning component working with area non-profits to develop a PR campaign plan); COM 378 Public Relations Management & Research (service learning activity where students worked with 6 community organizations to develop strategic plans); COM 435 Communication Training & Development (students work with local non-profits to develop communication training interventions); and COM 460 Seminar in Mass Communication (graduate students in this class completed a functional analysis of the 2016 campaign and presented their work at the 2017 Central States Communication Association convention).

Students in our graduate program were also engaged in a variety of community initiatives during the last academic year. Since 2009, our graduate students have participated in Operation Santa every fall semester (to provide deployed men, women, and K-9 units in war zones with homemade stockings filled with comfort items and holiday care packages). In addition, COM graduate students were very active over the last year in the TRANSFORMERS initiative (assists local school districts with anti-bullying programs, social emotional learning skills, tutoring, and mentoring). As noted earlier, our Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) also integrate civic and political engagement activities and projects in the sections of COM 110 they teach every semester.

Exemplary Courses That Highlight a Civic Lens
Syllabi for courses in School of Communication can be accessed here:

COM 110: Communication as Critical Inquiry
Communication as Critical Inquiry seeks to improve students’ abilities to express themselves and to listen to others in a variety of communication settings. Effective oral communication is viewed as an essential life skill that every person must possess in order to function in today’s society. The course emphasizes participation in a variety of communication processes in order to develop, reinforce, and evaluate communication skills appropriate for public, small group, and interpersonal settings. The course content and experiences will enable students to assume their responsibilities as speaker-listener-critic in a culturally diverse world. In short, the course is designed to make students competent, ethical, critical, confident, and information-literate communicators. COM 110 is a required, general education course for all ISU students.

COM 201: Communication and Social Issues
This course examines social issues from rhetorical and critical perspectives of social movements, civic engagement, and community activism. Students investigate social change theory by analyzing social movements, case studies in activism, and methods of community engagement. Students also consider the importance of different communication media – as well as the significance of rhetorical strategies – to better understand how to participate in civic and community engagement.

COM 371: Political Communication
This course provides students with opportunities involving knowledge, skills, and attitudes to realize the potential for a more active citizenry in the global community. This course examines basic theory and research relating to global political communication, with special attention paid to the persuasive process of political communication relating to the media, political decision-making, current events, construction of political messages, and the critique of such messages. In line with the overall program objectives, at the end of this course students will know the basic concepts, theories and methods in international relations as they relate to political communication; determine how global political communication relates to their area of study and everyday lives; and demonstrate research, analytical, and presentation/communication skills.

Exemplary Project Descriptions
Fell Hall Call to Action Assignment (Com 110)
The purpose of the Fell Hall Call to Action (the School is in Fell Hall) assignment is to provide a way for COM 110 students to positively affect their community while implementing the lessons already learned and reflecting on this experience later in the semester while learning about persuasive and group communication. Although this assignment has been employed for several years to support a wide variety of causes, this specific assignment outlines a food and clothing drive to benefit the Salvation Army and Center of Hope outreach programs. The assignment was originally created by Alauna Akins who currently serves as Dual Credit Coordinator for Heartland Community College in Normal, IL.

Small Group Community Engagement Project (Com 223)
In COM 223 (Small Group Communication), students explore theories and skills related to successful group communication in a variety of educational and professional contexts. The highlight of the course is a comprehensive group project that affords significant community engagement opportunities to students. For this project, students are assigned to work with a non-profit in the Bloomington-Normal area. The project is broken into several components (instructor project assessment, team portfolio, campaign closeout meeting, peer evaluations agendas and minutes for 12 group meetings, project proposal, midterm presentation, and a final application paper). The purpose of these assignments is to emphasize the small group process and to reward consistent, diligent teamwork.

Students are informed that while most non-profits indicate that they primarily need funds, the project does not need to solely focus on fundraising. Teams can log volunteer hours as a part of the project, or complete a long-needed project that the organization might otherwise have to pay for. Groups must determine what they are capable of and how that matches up to what their organization needs.

PR Campaign Assignment (Com 377)
COM 377 Public Relations Campaigns is one of two required “capstone” courses in the public relations major. The course’s purpose, blending lecture, in-class discussion, and out-of-class work, is to reveal how effective public relations campaigns are created, implemented, and measured. The focal point of the course is conceiving, developing, and proposing a complete public relations campaign plan for a real client during the semester. Students compete in agency teams for the client’s business. Most of these campaigns developed in COM 377 are directed at non-profit organizations in the community.

Process for Adoption
As noted earlier, faculty in the SoC have long been advocates for civic and political engagement; however, a group of faculty and graduate students came together in 2009 to develop a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) grant to facilitate the adoption of a School-wide civic lens for all our majors. This working group identified two clear problems that needed to be addressed: 1) many students lack the civic and political engagement skills necessary for meaningful participation in our democracy, and 2) an incoherent and disjointed framework for attempting to address those skills in the SoC curriculum. The group sought to address those problems by re-focusing the curriculum toward civic and political engagement skills across all four majors and the graduate program.

As a starting point, the group mapped current SoC curriculum to identify courses that already offered civic/political engagement learning opportunities. The team then developed learning outcomes and sample civic goals for each major (see the School’s civic engagement website). Once the learning objectives were in place, our working group developed and delivered several professional development opportunities for SoC faculty to facilitate the vertical and horizontal proliferation of the pedagogy of engagement throughout the curriculum. Through this process, our team also worked with faculty to develop new courses where appropriate. Finally, the team developed a comprehensive assessment plan for the SoC to determine the effectiveness of the interventions and to modify curriculum based on findings.

Internal and External Influences
Several internal institutional factors have influenced the School’s civic engagement activities. Initially, the University adopted a strategic plan (Educating Illinois) in 2000 that elevated civic engagement as a core value of our institution. This plan solidified the School’s commitment to civic learning and opened new opportunities and incentives for faculty work with civic learning. For example, Illinois State was one of eight institutions across the country selected to participate in PEP in 2007. This initiative sought to infuse the pedagogy of political engagement into the curriculum, especially courses that students take in their first year in college. Given that our COM 110 course was one of two courses required of all first-year students and considering that COM 110 course goals contained a civic learning student outcome, it made a great deal of sense for the School to participate in PEP. Following success with this initiative, SoC faculty asked to play a larger role in the University’s ADP.

The fact that our faculty were involved in leadership positions with our campus ADP and PEP initiatives led to greater involvement with the national ADP and PEP initiatives. Relationships that our faculty built at the national level created an avenue for significant external influence on our work at the departmental level. The connections that our faculty have made with campus and national leaders of the civic engagement movement positioned ISU faculty to exert significant influence on other units in the University as well as the larger Bloomington-Normal community. For example, one of our faculty served as Co-Chair of our campus ADP for a number of years and spearheaded numerous initiatives (e.g., Community Engaged Campus, Social Issues Fair, and several other campus activities such as Congressional district debates, election watch parties, and tweet-ups,). Another School faculty member created and served as the Director of Illinois State’s Civic Engagement and Responsibility (CER) Minor. In this role, the faculty member advised students into the minor, collaborated with all six colleges on campus to develop electives for the minor, recruited new students, delivered the training for faculty who complete the “redesign your course for civic engagement” initiative through our Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT), and oversaw a small grant program supporting pedagogy in the minor.

All of these initiatives contribute significantly to student learning and benefit the community. Students have gained a better understanding of a myriad of social issues, including an understanding of how those issues affect people in their community and how to make a positive difference. Throughout the majors in the School, students are developing a deeper understanding of civic and political processes while simultaneously sharpening their abilities to use reasoning to justify claims, present evidence in support of a position, and communicate competently.

In terms of formal assessment, we used a quasi-experimental design to examine student reactions to courses containing civic pedagogy across all four majors in the School. Our sample included over 400 students, distributed evenly between the control and experimental groups. The survey tool, adapted from the Carnegie Foundation, measured indicators of student civic and political engagement including political skill, motivation to engage in politics, political knowledge, and affective learning (see the School’s civic engagement website for an overview of our assessment procedures). Our analysis of the data revealed that students who received enhanced instruction reported significantly higher means on measures of civic and political engagement (political knowledge, skill, efficacy, and anticipated political participation) compared to their counterparts in the control group. Importantly, students in the experimental sections reported liking the content, instructor, and course in greater numbers than in the control sections. Students also reported that they were more likely to engage in the behaviors recommended in the course and take another course of similar skill content. Finally, students in the experimental courses reported larger gains on measures of communication skills than students in the control group.

In addition to the quantitative data, student reflections on their experiences indicate that the enhanced instruction has been well received. For example, one student in a PEP section of COM 110 noted that “For our persuasive speech we had to pick a political topic, and I chose the No Child Left Behind Act. Not only did I gain loads of information, to which I am still confident talking about, but it gave me inspiration. It inspired me to research something, figure out where I stand, and to express my opinion and try to make a difference.” Another COM 110 student noted that the course “helped students like me realize that the real world is closer than we think and that in order to be good citizens we have to learn what problems we have as a country and what we can do to help make them better.”

Taken as a whole, the School’s civic engagement activities have a substantial, positive impact on the Bloomington-Normal community. Students in the School raise money in support of civic organizations, heighten consciousness about important civic and political concerns affecting the community, and their work bridges gaps between the University and community on a number of fronts.

Words of Advice

  • First, we would advise those looking to recalibrate outcomes for students in the major to start by identifying and recruiting faculty leaders. Such leaders will be critical to bringing others along and communicating successes of the program.
  • Second, for those working with tenure track faculty, it is important to recognize and reward participation in civic learning in the tenure and promotion process. Faculty are more likely to embrace these initiatives if they perceive that doing so will help them earn tenure and promotion.
  • Third, for those working in large departments or schools with a number of majors it is important to promote multidisciplinary collaboration. Doing so will help build a department-wide commitment to your initiatives and lay the groundwork for lager, institution-wide participation.
  • Fourth, it is essential to communicate to faculty that the pedagogy of civic learning and democratic engagement and disciplinary pedagogy are mutually reinforcing. Some faculty may feel overwhelmed with requests to add civic learning to the already significant disciplinary content in their courses. We have found that the pedagogy of civic and political engagement provides an excellent vehicle for the delivery of communication content. Many communication educators recognize that the skills of civic and political engagement rest on the foundation of the communication, critical thinking, and information literacy skills that form the core of our discipline. In short, as students become more competent communicators, they become better prepared to participate in our democracy. Once faculty embrace the notion that civic learning is not “just another add on,” they will be more likely to integrate it into their courses.
  • Fifth, it is important to develop professional development opportunities for faculty. Use these opportunities to communicate what is at stake for our students, communities, and the nation if we fail to prepare students for democratic participation. Share with faculty extant research indicating that infusing this pedagogy into the curriculum has a significant, positive impact on student learning outcomes. Developing workshops and other training opportunities can go a long way to equipping faculty the knowledge, skills, and motivation needed to successfully integrate civic learning into their courses.
  • Finally, it is essential to include community partners in your civic work. These community partners obviously have a great sense of needs in the community and nurturing these relationships will provide numerous opportunities for student civic learning.

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.