Educating for Political Engagement at Illinois State University
By Stephen K. Hunt, Professor, Associate Director, & Co-Chair of ISU’s ADP, School of Communication, ISU
Civic and political disengagement among the youth of this country is an issue that should concern all of those in higher education (Beaumont, Colby, Ehrlich, & Torney-Purta, 2006; Colby, Beaumont, Ehrlich, & Corngold, 2007; Colby, Beaumont, Ehrlich, & Stephens, 2003; Saltmarsh & Hartley, 2011). Unfortunately, the reality today is that few colleges and universities offer programs that are designed to intentionally develop students’ political engagement knowledge, motivation, and skills (Beaumont et al., 2006; Colby et al., 2007).
However, one significant effort to address the youth political participation gap can be found in AASCU’s Political Engagement Project (PEP). This project launched in 2006 with eight AASCU campuses and holds the explicit goal of institutionalizing education for political engagement in the curriculum and co-curriculum (see the PEP website for more information: http://www.aascu.org/programs/adp/PEP/). Illinois State University was one of the original eight PEP institutions and this post provides a brief overview of our political engagement efforts.
Students’ exposure to political engagement at Illinois State begins in their first semester through the First Year Learning in Communities (LinC) Seminar. The LinC, a one credit hour course, serves several hundred students annually and is taught by instructors representing numerous disciplines on campus. LinC students complete a number of assignments designed to intentionally address involvement and political engagement perspectives in the context of Illinois State, the surrounding community of Bloomington-Normal, the state of Illinois, and the nation.
First year students also receive PEP instruction in the introductory public speaking course (COM 110). COM 110 is a required component of the general education program and services approximately 1,600 students each semester. Our COM 110 instructors incorporate political examples in their lectures and assign reflection essays that require students to couple course concepts with political issues.
In order to enhance students’ group communication and political engagement skills, faculty teaching PEP sections of COM 110 modified the group presentation assignment to include the development of a grassroots-style campaign. Students are asked to research multiple, sometimes competing, perspectives on a current and controversial topic. Students then work together to develop a communication campaign that both raises public awareness and presents policies designed to address the root causes of the problems they isolate. Students conduct all of the public relations for these events, deliver persuasive speeches about the issue to numerous audiences, and construct web sites promoting the events. Some faculty also require students to document the problems and solutions generated by the campaign with the creation of a short issue film.
In some cases multiple faculty teaching COM 110 have joined together to link sections in order to develop larger-scale campaigns. For example, one group of faculty organized the Fell Hall Call to Action campaign that resulted in the collection of over 6,000 items (food and clothing) to benefit the Salvation Army and Center of Hope Outreach Programs. During the fall 2008 semester, instructors joined together to create a voter registration and education campaign called Trust Me, I’m a Voter. The campaign aimed to educate students across campus and motivate them to participate actively in the 2008 election cycle. It should be noted that voter turnout at Illinois State in 2008 was six times as large as the turnout in 2004. Our faculty are currently working to develop a new voter education/registration drive for the 2012 election cycle.
Our PEP team has also partnered with other units on campus and organizations in the community on several notable programs including a Washington, DC study trip, Global Youth Service Day (GYSD), Congressional District Debates, Town Hall Meetings with Senator Kirk and Representative Kinzinger, webinar on campaign finance reform with the Stevenson Center for Democracy, political engagement internship program with the city of Bloomington, and a campus-wide Social Issues Fair. These programs represent a thumbnail sketch of the types of political engagement opportunities available to ISU students. In addition, we have partnered with our colleagues at Heartland Community College, a TDC school, to host numerous programs, speakers, and events.We recognize that efforts to widen faculty commitment to PEP across a wide variety of disciplines requires a commitment to faculty development. Our PEP team, under the leadership of the Provost, collaborated with the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology to design faculty development opportunities focusing on integrating political engagement into the curriculum. In addition, the team developed several competitive small grants for faculty to support classroom-based political engagement assignments. Thanks to substantial funding from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, we were able to offer a stipend to faculty to participate in a course redesign process this summer focusing on political engagement. Ten faculty from diverse disciplines such Theater, Communication, Criminal Justice Sciences, and Social Work completed the redesign process this summer and will begin offering the “new” courses in fall 2012.
In conclusion, ISU faculty have embraced the notion that beyond equipping students for personal success, we in higher education have an obligation to prepare them to be engaged citizens. One look around our current political environment should give any reader pause—our democracy is not especially healthy. If our country ever needed a new generation of savvy critical thinkers that know how use their political engagement skills for the common good, we need that generation now. More information about the implementation of PEP can be found in Educating Students for Political Engagement: A Guide to Implementation and Assessment for Colleges and Universities. Edited by Johnny Goldfinger and John W. Presley, this monograph provides a description of the work of the PEP including lessons learned and detailed project and course descriptions.
Learn more about PEP at ISU here.