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Discourse and Democracy
“Life changing,” “empowering,” and “inspiring”: this is how students have described Public Discourse, an innovative approach to civic education at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Strategic planning and assessment led the Communication Studies Department to infuse the core disciplinary concepts of deliberation, democracy, and civic life throughout our curriculum. Public Discourse, created to replace the traditional public speaking course, emerged as a keystone in that curriculum and has revolutionized our approach to civic education. In teaching methods of effective citizenship, Public Discourse has empowered students, energized faculty, and spurred sustainable community change.
The course—required for our major but drawing enrollment from across campus—teaches the skills of deliberative inquiry and collaboration, including collaborative research, critical thinking, argument development, and problem solving. At its heart is a semester-long civic engagement project that requires students to identify and address a problem in a community of which they are part. Each student selects and defines a problem, researches the issue to establish its causes and implications, studies other communities facing similar challenges, and actively engages the community in addressing the issue.
After identifying appropriate ways to address their chosen issue, students take action. They propose motions to the city council, organize neighborhood committees, or persuade businesses to modify their practices. As they refine and implement their plans, students facilitate public dialogue through presentations, meetings, and open conversations with community members. They also engage in dialogue in the cooperative classroom setting, where they share progress and advice and reflect together about community, citizenship, and democracy.
Through their exchanges with community members, students come to recognize the complexity of their chosen issue and the differing perspectives of stakeholders. They quickly learn that realistic, sustainable progress is impossible without addressing the breadth of relevant perspectives; in this way, engaging diversity becomes a practical resource for problem solving as well as a tool used in service of real and inclusive democracy. Thus the projects provide important intrinsic motivation (beyond extrinsic moral obligations or social mandates) for students to deeply and authentically engage diversity.
Throughout the process, students come to see themselves as vital contributors to, not mere observers of, community conversations. Their projects give them real-world opportunities to hone new skills in uncontrolled environments, requiring them to practice effective deliberation in meeting actual community needs. Over the course of the semester, students embrace both the opportunities and responsibilities of their newfound role as citizens. Past projects have addressed a range of concerns, including bovine growth hormone in local school lunches, toxic chemicals in local well water, food waste at a local bakery, and traffic control at dangerous intersections. (See Madison Pettit’s article in this issue for more examples.) About one-quarter of students reach their intended project goals within the course, but most continue their advocacy well after the semester ends.
Students achieve community outcomes, encounter their communities as active citizens, and show significant gains in content knowledge, skill acquisition, and community investment. They complete the class with the capacity and motivation to make positive change in the world around them. They also become practiced in the deliberative collaboration essential to effective membership in diverse communities. Moreover, assessment data show that Public Discourse yields stronger student gains in critical thinking, research, communication, and leadership skills than were generated by the traditional public speaking course it replaced.
These powerful outcomes result from the pairing of course content with the principles of active citizenship, allowing students to see classroom learning put to consequential use. Their personal investment in community dialogues (and the diverse perspectives therein) drives them to new levels of engagement and proficiency. The successes of Public Discourse have provided the foundation and momentum for our department to continue implementing other ambitious curricular innovations, including establishing a new faculty line in public advocacy and civic leadership, developing related course offerings at advanced levels, and launching a new minor in civic leadership. Ideally, our efforts will continue to enhance and enrich deliberative democracy by empowering citizens to act in their communities.
Martin Lang is an associate professor of communication studies, and Leila Brammer is a professor of communication studies—both of Gustavus Adolphus College.