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The Town Hall Meeting: Imagining a Self through Public-Sphere Pedagogy
What lasting impact could a required general education writing course have on students’ well-being? We examined this question in the context of the California State University– Chico Town Hall Meeting, a campus event sponsored jointly by the Academic Writing Program and the First-Year Experience Program from 2006 to 2009. In the Town Hall, first-year students in over twenty sections of our required writing course gathered together in small groups with upperclassmen, faculty, staff, and community members to share their research on pressing public issues. They emerged from that required first-year writing course, Academic Writing: Writing in the Public Sphere, having experienced the intertwined processes of inquiry, dialogue, writing, and action that we believe are central to the formation of rich civic, academic, and emerging adult identities. The Town Hall component of this writing course is just one example of an approach to teaching we call Public-Sphere Pedagogy (PSP), which focuses on developing student well-being through purpose-driven dialogue and democratic participation.1
The Town Hall Meeting was developed during a revision of our university’s first-year writing course that aimed to move students’ classroom research into public spaces for discussion and reflection. The public space of the Town Hall Meeting was also the linchpin in our efforts to support collaborative relationships among faculty, staff, and administrators around pressing issues in our local community and larger issues of policy and social inequity affecting individuals and groups at the state, national, and international levels. The assignment sequence in our Academic Writing course was built around this public work.
Each semester, students in multiple sections of the course began their work by researching issues of local, national, or international importance, producing writing that helped them make sense of the difficult sources they encountered, talking back to those sources and each other while synthesizing information. Along the way, students wrote annotated bibliographies of their research, formed research teams with peers working on related questions, crafted research narratives to tell the stories of how they began to answer their questions, and outlined “impact work” that they could undertake in order to turn their writing and research into action. After the first Town Hall, the enthusiasm of students and teachers led to a remarkable increase in the number of participants from across campus in the second Town Hall: from 150 student participants and 55 faculty, staff, and community member participants in fall 2006 to a total of 300 participants in spring 2007. The largest Town Hall during the years it was part of the writing course took place in fall 2008, with over 700 participants.
Overview of the Town Hall format
At the Town Hall, students and all other participants attended an opening plenary session with speakers drawn from our campus’s administration or faculty as well as student speakers who returned from prior Town Halls to describe the impact the experience had on them. The middle segment of the Town Hall offered breakout sessions where students, faculty, staff, administrators, and community members divided into groups of roughly thirty to fifty participants focused on particular issues the students had researched. Typically, these breakout sessions started with brief student presentations and the framing of key questions connected to a public issue. Discussion by all participants was then encouraged, and was focused on three basic questions: What do we know about this issue? How do we know this? What can we do individually and collectively about what we know?
The concluding segment of the Town Hall asked students to imagine new opportunities for practical, engaged work in small roundtables of eight to ten participants. Student representatives from each research collective met with expert consultants who helped them discuss next steps and “action plans.” Based on these discussions, students worked together after the Town Hall to choose meaningful paths for action, including activities such as distributing pamphlets and flyers on campus or at farmers’ markets, organizing demonstrations, volunteering at local shelters or in clean-up efforts, building websites and viral campaigns to publicize social and political issues, writing or petitioning people of influence, and working with existing on-campus programs and groups.
Example of a Town Hall breakout session
In the spring 2008 semester, the guiding question for all students’ research was, what matters in the 2008 election? One particular breakout session featured students who were researching gender, race, and sexuality in the 2008 election season. In this session, a claim made by one white male student, who opposed Hilary Clinton’s bid for the presidency, ignited the entire room: “The president of the United States should not cry in public.” Those of us who were present heard a flurry of mumbled voices rise in the standing-room-only classroom; students squirmed in their seats, craning their necks to see their neighbors’ reactions. Voices rose in response to the gender assumptions that lay beneath the claim of the student and of a faculty member who thought to ask him if he had ever cried after losing a football game in high school (he admitted he had).
People listened, people took turns; one person’s comment got booed, and a student facilitator said, “No, that’s not how we do it here.” Standing beside the male facilitator was another student, an African American female, who managed to shift the focus in the room to her research, telling people that black women would be a powerful force in the election and that data she found during her research indicated this population did not mind a candidate with emotional range and vulnerability. Another student talked about reading Simone de Beauvoir’s discussion of binaries that privilege men as rational and women as emotional and the costs of that thinking for both genders.
This kind of informed discussion around contested views was not unusual for Town Hall breakout sessions. Often students in such sessions started sentences by saying, “In my research I found that. . .” and asked “Where did you get that idea? What have you been reading?” Students arrived at the breakouts with paper and writing implements at the ready to make notes about each other’s sources. The conversation in the breakout session described above became a robust analysis of our unstated sexist and racist assumptions about public figures. The last speaker that day was a student from the previous semester who enjoyed her Town Hall experience so much that she decided to come back and participate again. She was from southern Sudan, and lived without her family in a refugee camp before emigrating from Africa to the United States. “This is why I came here,” she said. “I came here to have talks like this, about things like this.”
Near the end of the evening, the young man who had spoken out against “crying presidents” referred to the challenges he had faced during the breakout session and said, “That woman [the faculty member who had questioned his own habits of crying] really did me a favor.” He told his teacher that he was starting to “see this woman candidate thing from a whole new angle.”
The emergence of positive possible selves
Multiple studies, many of them focused on first-year college students, indicate that psychological and social well-being are directly affected by the ways individuals think about their “possible selves,” a concept introduced by Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius in 1986. These imagined selves are defined as “individuals’ ideas of what they would like to become, what they are afraid of becoming, what they could become” (Penland et al. 2000, 963). Research indicates that students with well-developed negative possible selves and/or few strategies for imagining positive possible selves in the university environment are significantly more at risk than their counterparts who have a repertoire of positive possible selves (Christie et al. 2008; McElwee and Haugh 2009).
These studies suggest that positive possible selves are effective not only in providing an individual with an optimistic self-view, but also in creating a motivating method for achieving a desired future identity. Given students’ positive responses both to the experience of the Town Hall and to their own roles within the event, it is not surprising that many students wrote in follow-up reflections about “eye-opening” experiences, newly positive views of self and of their generation, and emerging confidence that they could make
a meaningful difference in the world. These comments, captured in written civic reflections following the event, provided early indications that, following the Town Hall, students begin to leave their high school identities behind, replacing these with possible selves that are competent to face a world fraught with difficulties.
The Town Hall provides students with a range of possible selves both modeled for them by more experienced participants (i.e., faculty and community members) and directly, if inexpertly, experienced by them: the identities of scholar-participant, community participant, activist, public speaker, involved citizen, successful college student, voter, and engaged and contributing adult. Students entered some of these roles first in the familiarity of the classroom setting, where sequenced research and writing assignments deepened their understanding of scholarship and introduced them to the ways reading and writing created dialogues that constructed new knowledge. Fortified with information, sources they could cite, and a semester of reading, thinking, writing, and discussion focused on a particular public issue, students found that the Town Hall afforded them a place where they could let their voices be heard.
As one student noted in a written follow-up reflection, “I feel like the short two hours I spent in the discussions made me really open my eyes to [the fact] that there is a world out there and we can make it a better place . . . . [the Town Hall Meeting] has made me want to be a more educated person about current events.” The self-view expressed here indicates a sense of civic efficacy—the belief that one can participate in public life in ways that make a positive difference. The student’s description of the Town Hall experience “opening his eyes” serves as an indicator that this point of view is new, and the content of the insight correlates with an emerging positive possible self: a person with a future in the world, who can contribute to the larger good in the company of others, and who has an understanding of and a stated commitment to an ongoing process of remaining informed about current events as part of the path to reaching and becoming this future self.
Short- and long-term impacts
Assessments show that students’ positive engagement and identity development correlated with some features of well-being. One recurring assessment—a survey about academic engagement, civic engagement, and wellness (as measured by Keyes’s languishing/flourishing scale) given at the end of each semester to students in PSP and non-PSP versions of the same course—revealed that Town Hall students were more academically engaged than their counterparts.
Town Hall students’ written reflections help us understand these measurable differences. Frequently (at the rate of nearly 70 percent in our random sample of reflections written in spring 2009), students’ reflections show signs of at least one change event. We define a “change event” as a narrative moment when students express either an altered view of themselves or of the meaning of their studies, as in this statement: “I was given a chance to discuss a subject, once out of my league, with my peers; each of us was able to expand our minds while contributing to the discussion as well. This meeting meant a lot to me.” The references to “inspiration” we frequently see in students’ work following the Town Hall capture the moment when students’ perspectives change. A statement like “[this] was once out of my league” reveals rising self-esteem. Students frequently mention plans for more research or for civic participation as a member of an organization or movement, indicating emerging possible selves that are purposeful, adult-like, and well-suited to a college environment.
The effects on students’ writing—the content focus of the original PSP course in English—were also positive, as revealed in a campuswide direct assessment of student writing from both Town Hall and non–Town Hall entry-level writing courses. This assessment showed that students in Town Hall sections ranked significantly higher than other students in summarizing and responding to sources in their writing. Educational Opportunity students (first-generation, low-income students), who three years prior to the assessment had the highest failure rate of all first-year writing students (23 percent), had a failure rate of just 6 percent in the Town Hall sections.
Our first longitudinal study, a civic survey delivered to all seniors in spring 2010, sought to capture and compare any long-term results of Town Hall participation among students who were in the first graduating cohort to have started college with a Town Hall experience.2 In this survey, students responded to nationally normed questions about civic and political participation and civic dispositions. For every statement, students who experienced a Town Hall Meeting responded affirmatively to a higher degree than did those without experience of a Town Hall Meeting. Overall, sixteen of the twenty-one statements showed a significantly different response pattern between the two groups: those who experienced a Town Hall Meeting and those who did not. The response pattern indicates a better-developed sense of civic engagement, of citizenship, and of agency. Possible selves constructed around ideas of citizenship, staying informed, engaging in issues-oriented dialogues, and participation exhibit enhanced staying power for students who began their college career with a Town Hall experience.
The Town Hall Meeting and other examples of PSP have had positive effects on the students, community members, faculty, administrators, and staff who have participated in them. The experiences students have in the Town Hall, or in PSP activities and events attached to other first-year classes, encourage students and faculty alike to conceive of learning and change not in the chunks of a week or semester but over years, in both formal and informal environments, according to no particular set pace. They encourage us to recognize the tremendous change processes happening for first-year college students of many backgrounds, and to take seriously those processes as not just correlated with but central to the academic work they accomplish during their college years. Students’ positive emerging selves in PSP courses are civic in nature, with scholarship seen as purposeful when used in public dialogue and linked to plans for action. A college education means more than the promise of a job; it becomes the foundation for participating in multiple communities for the public good.
Christie, H., L. Tett, V. E. Cree, J. Hounsell, and V. McCune. 2008. “‘A Real Rollercoaster of Confidence and Emotions’: Learning to Be a University Student.” Studies of Higher Education 33 (5): 567–81.
Markus, H., and P. Nurius. 1986. “Possible Selves.” American Psychologist 41 (9): 954–69.
McElwee, R. O., and J. A. Haugh. 2009. “Thinking Clearly versus Frequently about the Future Self: Exploring This Distinction and Its Relation to Possible Selves.” Self and Identity 9 (3): 298–321.
Penland, E. A., W. G. Masten, P. Zelhart, G. P. Fournet, and T. A. Callahan. 2000. “Possible Selves, Depression, and Coping Skills in University Students.” Personality and Individual Differences 29 (5): 963–69.
1 California State University–Chico now offers several kinds of courses with a PSP approach: the entry-level political science course adopted the embedded Town Hall after its three-year run in English; two entry-level communication studies courses offer a day of presentations and debate in our city council chambers; an entry-level economics course provides a two-day economic challenges series examining state and national budget crises; and the first-semester orientation course includes a civic dialogue museum with exhibits and dialogue tables. For an overview of these, see: http://www.csuchico.edu/fye/.
2 The full results of the 2010 longitudinal study are available online at http://www.csuchico.edu/fye/ thm/thm_results_table_sp2010.
Jill Swiencicki, formerly associate professor of English and coordinator of the Academic Writing Program at California State University–Chico, is assistant professor of English at St. John Fisher College. Chris Fosen is associate professor of English, Sofie Burton is lead student researcher, Justin Gonder is student director of the First-Year Experience Program, and Thia Wolf is professor of English and director of the First-Year Experience Program, all at California State University–Chico.
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