A Civic-Rich Framework for Liberal Education

How can we better prepare students to address contemporary problems and contribute to the public good? What if we rethink the way we teach our discipline to make civic learning central to our department? How might we build a framework for civic-rich liberal education that can prepare students for professional success and to lead lives of purpose and meaning? Inspired by our students as well as the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, these questions animated faculty efforts to rethink the focus, curriculum, and name of our undergraduate communication department at Willamette University.

Today, students and faculty in the Civic Communication and Media department draw on the classical liberal art of rhetoric to engage public issues. Building on intellectual histories that illuminate rhetoric’s important role in democracy, as a department we aim to foster rhetorical agency, “the capacity to act, that is to [communicate] in a way that will be recognized or heeded by others in one’s community. Such competency,” Karlyn Kohrs Campbell wrote in 2005, “permits entry into ongoing cultural conversations and is the sine qua non of public participation.” With this goal in mind, we developed a curricular framework for civic-rich liberal education. This framework is designed to give students a strong foundation in our discipline, on which we build diverse projects that engage civic issues, student interests, and faculty strengths.

Since its advent in 2014, the Willamette Civic Communication and Media department has become one of the highest enrolled majors. Students and alumni report high satisfaction with the program, particularly the challenging projects at its core. In addition to improving student experience and enrollment, centering civic learning increased our department's capacity to hire talented and diverse faculty, to attract grant funding, to address contemporary issues and media, and to maximize the strengths of our people and location.

To share our approach to civic learning in the major, I’ll first outline the process through which we redesigned the department. Next, I’ll describe the curricular framework we use to provide a civic-rich education in our discipline. Finally, to illustrate how we build on this framework—and why its flexibility is a strength—I’ll highlight a few recent Civic Communication and Media projects.

Rethinking Our Approach to Communication Education

Willamette University is a highly selective private liberal arts university in Salem, Oregon. Founded in 1842, Willamette is the first university established in the western United States, and our historic campus is located directly across the street from the Oregon State Capitol. Willamette’s core commitments include academic excellence, preparing global-minded students for meaningful lives of professional achievement, and civic engagement.

At Willamette, faculty led a two-year process that resulted in the adoption of a new department curriculum with a civic spine. In 2012, we participated in an external program review. While this review recognized strengths of the department, including its focus on rhetoric and rigor comparable to a master’s-degree-level program, it also identified significant opportunities for improvement. During the review, for example, “students noted that despite the proximity of the state government on campus, there appeared little if any use of state agencies as learning laboratories in communication issues,” and they called for more opportunities to transform knowledge into action.

Drawing on what we learned from the program review and what we knew from our experiences, department faculty worked to envision ways to sustain the rigor of the program while adapting its design to better prepare students for life beyond term papers. We studied peer and aspirant institutions, focusing not only on communication departments but also interdisciplinary initiatives such as the Engagement Lab at Emerson College and the Center for Democratic Deliberation at the Pennsylvania State University. We surveyed scholarship, drawing insight and inspiration from contributions including A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, Connected Learning, and Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture.

As we worked to connect what we saw as best practices with our specific situation, we considered Willamette’s strategic plan as well as insights from ongoing conversations with Willamette students, alumni, colleagues, and other community members. Next, in 2013, I drafted a program revision proposal, including a new major curriculum and a new minor curriculum. Following department discussion and approval, Robert Trapp and I presented the program proposal to the College of Liberal Arts. Because Willamette is faculty governed, the Academic Programs Committee as well as the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts voted on the proposal. With a strong show of support, these governing bodies approved the Civic Communication and Media program in 2014.

Today Civic Communication and Media is a top major at Willamette; in 2017, enrollment in the major ranked fourth among forty-eight programs in the College of Liberal Arts. To advance Willamette’s mission and accommodate student demand, the Civic Communication and Media department hired three new tenure-track faculty in three years. As the program continues to develop, our framework for civic-enriched liberal education allows us to engage new strengths, needs, and opportunities in our community while remaining grounded in our discipline.

A Framework for Civic-Enriched Liberal Education

The Civic Communication and Media major is designed to provide a flexible framework for civic learning that is rooted in a strong foundation in our discipline. Two required courses, Rhetorical Theory and Analyzing Public Discourse, develop a shared understanding of disciplinary history, theory, and methods. Then, elective courses and projects provide opportunities for students to transform knowledge into civic action. Prior to graduation we expect every Civic Communication and Media major to meet the following learning outcomes:

  1. Pose and develop answers to significant, manageable, relevant questions about civic communication and media.
  2. Identify, synthesize, and evaluate relevant scholarship related to significant questions about civic communication and media. Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of methods of inquiry in rhetoric relative to other liberal arts.
  3. Become familiar with competing theories of rhetoric, and with the reciprocal influence of media and public culture upon one another.
  4. Become familiar with historically significant uses of communication and media to address controversies, to constitute communities, and to effect change in public culture.
  5. Make cogent critical arguments that demonstrate understanding of methods of inquiry in rhetoric, and that contribute to ongoing conversations about civic communication and media.
  6. Make public arguments in multiple modes of communication, including writing and speech. Adapt theories of rhetoric to practices of civic communication and media.

One place students demonstrate mastery of these outcomes is Senior Seminar. In this required capstone course, seniors complete a major project that contributes to ongoing scholarly conversations regarding communication and media practices that foster civic engagement. The first Civic Communication and Media graduate's major project illustrates how seminar students connect academic knowledge, vocational interests, and civic learning. With an eye toward a public service career, the student researched digital rhetoric strategies for women in politics. After reviewing existing scholarship, she conducted interviews with high-ranking public officials who identify as women, and she analyzed social media data. She then shared her findings by writing a thesis manuscript as well as producing a more widely accessible “guide to social media use for women in politics.” Before graduation, she accepted a job as director of communication for the National Foundation of Women Legislators.

Building on Our Framework for Civic Learning

Between foundational courses in theory/methods and capstone projects in Senior Seminar, Civic Communication and Media majors complete elective courses that often challenge them to transform knowledge into action. This curricular framework supports disciplinary integrity as well as innovation and deeper learning. Below, I highlight a few examples of the diverse, civic-rich projects Civic Communication and Media students and faculty have built on our framework. To help illustrate development over time, these examples appear in chronological order.

Engaging the Public Sphere: Debate Watch

Shortly after I joined the Willamette faculty I inherited a course on public sphere theory, which examines how the concept of the public leads to rhetorical and political action. To incorporate civic learning into this course I created two projects.

The first project, Willamette Debate Watch, aims to bring together community members to view political debates, discuss public issues, and build civic engagement. As students study public sphere theory, they transform knowledge into action by working with Debate Watch and facilitating civic dialogue at the events. In 2012 and 2016, Willamette Debate Watch events led by my students drew more than 1,500 participants on campus. In 2016, my students also developed strategies to facilitate engagement via social media, connecting with journalists, scholars, civic leaders, alumni, as well as students from more than twenty-five campuses across the United States during the debates.

The second project, Networked Publics, aims to contribute through research to ongoing conversations about digital media in civic life. In 2016, this lab project focused on the role of Twitter in the 2016 US presidential campaign. With grant support from Willamette’s Mellon Foundation-funded Learning by Creating initiative, a department alumnus worked with students and me in the lab, strengthening connections between academic research, career pathways, and civic action. Before the inauguration of the forty-fifth US president, our lab released a collaborative, self-published book entitled Networked Publics in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign. In a letter accepting Networked Publics for presentation at the 2017 HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) conference, reviewers characterized the book as “a project that perfectly marries digital humanities, data visualization, connected learning, participatory learning, and contemporary politics.”

Engaging Learning Laboratories: Internships

In 2014, one of our faculty members developed an internship course for Civic Communication and Media majors to increase opportunities for students to connect what they are learning in the major with action in the community. All internships in the majors focus on communication and media work, yet student placements are diverse; recently a student interested in food justice interned at Marion Polk Food Share, while a student who aspires to a sports marketing career worked with the Portland Trailblazers. Capitalizing on our proximity to state agencies, in 2017, one of our Civic Communication and Media majors served as the first strategic communications fellow in the Oregon governor’s office.

Engaging Global Citizenship: China Debate Education Network

Willamette University received a $3 million grant from the Open Society Foundation to create a sustainable debate network in the People’s Republic of China. During the three-year grant period, Willamette worked with 380 Chinese universities and almost 6,000 Chinese students to teach methods of public speaking, argumentation, and debate. Constrained by the fact that this program had to conform to the laws and regulations of the People’s Republic of China, we did not explicitly say we were training students in democratic philosophies; we taught debate and public speaking in a way that conformed to principles of civic engagement. In 2016, three of our department faculty participated in the China Debate Education Network, and this international partnership continues to enrich civic learning in our department courses, including Arguing about the Right Thing to Do and Ethics of Public Argument.

Engaging Civic Memory: Oregon Black Pioneers

Several courses allow students to engage the role of public memory in civic life, focusing on modes of communication through which histories are collected, curated, and circulated. In Remembering Emmett Till, first-year students studied representations of Till and then took a tour through the Willamette Valley to learn about memorial projects dedicated to Oregon’s African American history. The tour served as inspiration for students to design memorial projects to commemorate histories they felt lacked recognition. One student chose to commemorate the formation of the Black Student Union at Willamette. Building on this project, the student applied for and won a competitive research grant that funded her study at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York. She will present her findings in an exhibit at Willamette’s Hatfield Library during Black History Month and in a three-article series in our Collegian newspaper. She also now works at Willamette’s Center for Equity and Empowerment.

Engaging Campus Community: Asian American Media

In Asian American Media, students planned campus film events for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Through this project, students connected knowledge developed in the course to community needs, devising ways to use media to promote dialogue, challenge racial injustice, and build community.

Engaging Environmental Justice: La Chispa

La Chispa (or “The Salem Spark”) is a project that seeks to enhance Willamette University’s communication about its sustainability contributions and challenges while collaborating with diverse partners in Salem and in the larger Willamette Valley. This student-centered project is committed to uncovering and uprooting environmental racism, addressing the inequities of environmental privilege, and advocating for environmental, climate, and energy justice. Guided by nine Willamette University undergraduates, La Chispa seeks to enact communication praxis, including by developing workshops with Willamette Academy students and coordinating a weekly radio segment on KMUZ community radio. The radio program seeks to amplify perspectives and experiences that often are marginalized in dominant sustainability discourses and yet are essential for creating a just and equitable community. La Chispa connects with department courses including Media and the Environment, and this approach to civic learning won grant support from Willamette University’s Green Fund.

Developing Agency and Engaging Civic Life

The development of a new focus, curriculum, and name for our communication department empowered us to engage students in civic-rich liberal education. The framework that now structures Civic Communication and Media supports the integration of practices and values that animate a healthy democracy. Philosophically, a curricular structure that purposefully opens space for faculty and student influence is also consistent with our department’s aim to foster rhetorical agency—the capacity to act, the competence to have an influential voice in matters. As we move deeper into the twenty-first century, we hope to continue to build on our department framework in order to address emergent civic needs and opportunities.



I am grateful to my department colleagues—Robert Trapp, Maegan Parker Brooks, Vincent Pham, Catalina de Onís, Courtney Dillard, and Una Kimokeo-Goes—for their invaluable work, including developing and describing grant, internship, course, and community projects cited in this essay. With appreciation, I acknowledge Matthew Bost’s significant contributions to the Civic Communication and Media program, and Trina Morgan’s administrative support.



Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. 2005. “Agency: Promiscuous and Protean.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 2 (1): 1–19.

Ito, Mizuko, Kris Gutiérrez, Sonia Livingstone, Bill Penuel, Jean Rhodes, Katie Salen, Juliet Schor, Julian Sefton-Green, and S. Craig Watkins. 2013. Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

Jenkins, Henry, Katie Clinton, Ravi Purushotma, Alice J. Robison, and Margaret Weigel. 2005. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Chicago: The MacArthur Foundation.

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. https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/crucible/Crucible_508F.pdf.


Cindy Koenig Richards, Associate Professor of Civic Communication and Media and Ringe Media Lab Director, Willamette University


Select any filter and click on Apply to see results