Departmental Designs for Civic Impact

This issue of Peer Review focuses on how departments can structure the design, expectations, and experiences for all their majors to achieve greater civic impact while deepening students’ learning in the discipline. It marks another milestone in establishing education for a diverse US democracy and globally responsible citizenship as nonnegotiable purposes of a college education. Such a commitment does not displace the importance of advancing knowledge or of preparing students for jobs; rather, evidence abounds that it accelerates student learning and self-authorship while also preparing graduates with skills employers seek and a greater capacity to exercise social responsibility in their lives.

Seventy years ago, in the morally numbing aftermath of World War II, the President’s Commission on Higher Education issued a clarion call to departments in its six-volume report, Higher Education for American Democracy:

The first and most essential charge upon higher education is that at all levels and in all its fields of specialization it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and process. (Zook 1947, 102)

To accomplish that radical aspiration, the commission identified three goals for higher education that “should come first in our time” and can provide a blueprint for departments:

  • Education for a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living.
  • Education directly and explicitly for international understanding and cooperation.
  • Education for the application of creative imagination and trained intelligence to the solution of social problems and to the administration of public affairs. (Zook 1947)

As part of practicing “a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living,” the commission asked for the establishment of a comprehensive community college system and the end of racial segregation in US colleges. Today, college students are more diverse across all kinds of markers than ever in the nation’s history. That achievement expands perspectives, stories, knowledge, and relationships without which students could not become effective “carrier[s] of democratic values, ideals, and process.”

In addition to examining who comes to colleges as students, faculty, administrators, and staff, departments have reexamined and expanded what they teach. The new scholarship derived from diversity has opened libraries of unread, unstudied, dismissed, and sometimes unrecorded histories of the nation and the world, disrupting unexamined notions about American democracy and its unfinished work.

Coupled with what was taught has been the revolution in how teaching is done. Student-centered, project-based, and problem-based learning pedagogies are now more routine, along with group work and collaborative learning, intergroup and deliberative dialogues, and service learning, the most popular pedagogy with the greatest influence on student learning. In 2005, the Corporation for National and Community Service reported that 33 percent of American students experience service-learning (Kecskes 2006). By 2014, NSSE data showed that 52 percent of first-year students and 62 percent of all seniors had taken at least one service learning course (Soria and Mitchell 2016).

Finally, where students do their academic work has contributed to the evolution of possibilities as departments begin to define more explicitly how they can design education for a diverse democracy through their majors. The campus gates have opened as students engage with communities beyond the campus boundaries to apply “creative imagination and trained intelligence to the solution of social problems.”

The Department’s Turn for Center Stage

These streams of influence make this an ideal time for departments to seize the opportunity to finally till their own disciplinary acreage. In 2012, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future echoed the commission’s earlier call:

A socially cohesive and economically vibrant US democracy . . . require[s] informed, engaged, open-minded, and socially responsible people committed to the common good and practiced in ‘doing’ democracy. . . . Civic learning needs to be an integral component of every level of education, from grade school through graduate school, across all fields of study.

Although there had been an explosion of investments in civic pedagogies, partnerships, and problem solving, such investments were scarce in one of the most fertile, yet fallow, arenas for civic learning: a student’s major area of specialized study. The report therefore recommended that higher education defines “within departments, programs, and disciplines the public purposes of their respective fields, the civic inquiries most urgent to explore, and the best way to infuse civic learning outcomes progressively across the major.”

AAC&U took up this challenge in 2014 through a pilot project with Chicago colleges funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation that resulted in Civic Prompts: Making Civic Learning Routine Across the Disciplines (2015). With the department as the unit of change, Civic Prompts offers a process for reflective departmental conversations to explore a series of questions about appropriate lines of civic inquiry, civic pedagogies well suited to the discipline, assignments that generate civic outcomes, and civic and democratic outcomes that could be achieved through the study of the major.

A grant from the Endeavor Foundation has enabled AAC&U to move from creating a process for rethinking a department’s civic dimensions to demonstrating what building civic impact into the design of a department actually looks like. This issue of Peer Review offers nine of the strongest and most varied approaches to structuring civic-rich departmental designs among 123 departmental submissions. A new AAC&U website scheduled to go live at the end of January 2018 will provide thirteen more. It will be regularly replenished as innovative designs for majors increase.

Why Learning in the Major Matters

Thirty-five percent of a student’s time in college is devoted to courses in a major. If departments ignore educating for socially responsible and informed citizenship, the consequences are formidable. It affects not only how graduates will or will not participate in the polity nationally and globally but also what kind of professionals they are likely to become in the workplace. Tolerating civic-free zones in majors threatens to weaken US democracy and produce moral blinders at work about decisions that could have significant public consequences.

When trying to follow civic routes through all four years in college, too many students discover “road washed out” signs when they begin studying in their major. Instead of curbing students’ civic development, departments need to structure majors so that multiple kinds of civic knowledge, skills, values, and actions are understood as a dimension of the discipline itself.

What’s New about AAC&U’s Approach with Departments

Focusing on disciplinary investments in civic engagement is not a new idea. But zeroing in on the disciplinary designs for majors is. In 1997, Edward Zlotkowski began his pioneering Service-Learning in the Disciplines monographs that eventually covered twenty-one different disciplines before Stylus recast the publication in 2005. What distinguishes the evolution twelve years later is the shift from using the disciplines to influence a single pedagogy—service learning—to using the disciplines to define the civic contours of a department’s intellectual terrain and its methodologies of investigation for its majors.

In the late nineties, John Saltmarsh, then a senior leader at Campus Compact, launched the Engaged Department Institutes. The institutes raised significant questions about faculty rewards, and the larger institutional ecology helped departmental civic efforts flourish. But according to examples in Kevin Kecskes’s illuminating edited volume, Engaging Departments: Moving Faculty Culture from Private to Public, Individual to Collective Focus for the Common Good (2006), the principal outcome for teams was to begin offering service-learning courses within a department. Most participants stopped short of adopting a more comprehensive civic redesign for departmental majors.

Because the driving force at that stage for engaging departments was an almost fixated focus on community engagement as the single means to civic ends, many other modes of civic learning were erased. For example, almost no attention was given to how students might acquire other crucial civic capacities through (1) examining key democratic texts and universal democratic principles, as well as fierce historical and contemporary debates about them; (2) gaining historical and sociological understanding of several democratic movements for greater justice, both from the United States and abroad; (3) expanding knowledge of diverse cultures, histories, and values; (4) interrogating ethical dilemmas in the face of competing rights and responsibilities; (5) becoming adept at navigating political systems; or (6) honing skills in deliberative and intergroup dialogue.

In AAC&U’s initiative, Civic Learning by Design in the Major, the unit of analysis shifts from the individual faculty member teaching a civic-rich course to the collective agreement of a department about how to harness the power of the discipline for public purposes and democratic ends of justice, equity, and social responsibility. In the following Peer Review articles, departments describe how such education can be embedded in the departmental definitions of their disciplines (Lehigh University/University of Tennessee) and departmental learning goals (Bates College/Providence College), in defined understanding of the public responsibilities of typical career paths for their majors (Willamette University/James Madison University/Texas Woman’s University), or in intentionally designed community partner experiences (Saint Mary’s College/University of Puget Sound).

Community and Democracy

The language of community has gradually, without much notice, displaced the language of democracy in most civic engagement scholarship and its practitioners’ vocabularies. That has had deleterious consequences. A community is not the same as a democracy. Community surfaces the language of unity, shared space, and common affiliations. By contrast, democracy surfaces the discomforting language of rights, justice, equality, voice, and opportunity. And when coupled with diversity, even more discomforting language arises: difference, exclusion, invisibility, stratification, and inequity.

To address this issue, James Madison University distinguishes between community engagement and civic engagement, but supports both. It wants to be sure students acquire political skills to effect change in the public sphere. Providence College calls its major Public and Community Service to emphasize the twin goals of citizenship and social justice. Civic scholar Tania Mitchell sought to address the issue by coining the term “critical service-learning” (Soria and Mitchell 2016). She challenged her colleagues to help students “gain a more nuanced and complex understanding of the causes of inequality and oppression.” Mitchell goes on to explain, “The distinction between service-learning and critical service-learning can be summarized in its attention to social change, its questioning of the distribution of power in society, and its focus on developing an authentic relationship between higher education institutions and the community served.” In moving from service and outreach to social change and more equitable power and agency, democratic ideas are inserted within the softer, less controversial words “community” and “service.”

Community engagement is a critical component of education for social responsibility, but democratic engagement is also necessary for responsible citizenship. Departments need to calibrate their disciplinary emphasis as they assume a higher profile as a marked site for civic learning and democratic engagement.

A Major Transformation

In the articles that follow, authors describe in detail how they transformed their majors in intentional ways by embedding civic learning in a latticework of courses in the major, and what such designs look like in practice. With multiple purposes and methods, they seek to increase students’ engagement with and comprehension of their discipline’s goals—enhance students’ voice, self-authorship, and agency; introduce moral, ethical, and civic responsibility issues that are likely to be part of professional lives; and give hands-on practice in addressing challenging public problems in concert with others different from themselves.

None of these institutions would claim their departmental designs are complete. But each has begun a transformation for both faculty and students and waded into intellectually invigorating territory. As Mary Huber and Pat Hutchings assert in Citizenship Across the Curriculum (2010), “When faculty from different disciplinary communities teach their fields wearing a civic lens, both the concept of citizenship and even the field itself (as taught and learned) are subject to change.” Instead of a road washed away, then, faculty within these departments have constructed highways where students can press further in civic inquiries, problem solving, discoveries, and inventions, through the requirements and design of the major.

These departments are taking renewed pride in realizing that becoming a global and national citizen is deeply dependent on how students use a civic lens as they learn to think like sociologists, nurses, chemists, communications experts, or African American Studies majors. But too few departments have such roads yet. This issue of Peer Review gives a glimpse of how to engineer and invent transformative departmental civic designs. We hope it will usher in a profusion of new thoroughfares within departmental majors. The future of democracy depends on it. 

Civic Learning in the Major - By the Numbers

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Huber, Mary Taylor, and Pat Hutchings. 2010. “Civic Learning: Intersections and Interactions.” In Citizenship across the Curriculum, edited by Michael B. Smith, Rebecca S. Nowacek, and Jeffrey L. Bernstein. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Kecskes, Kevin, ed. 2006. Engaging Departments: Moving Faculty Culture from Private to Public, Individual to Collective Focus for the Common Good. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Soria, Krista M., and Tania D. Mitchell. 2016. Civic Engagement and Community Service at Research Universities: Engaging Undergraduates for Social Justice, Social Change and Responsible Citizenship. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Zook, George F. 1947. Higher Education for American Democracy: A Report of the President's Commission on Higher Education. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Caryn McTighe Musil, Senior Scholar and Director, Civic Learning and Democracy Initiatives, AAC&U

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