Revitalizing Democratic Engagement: Town Halls at Chico State
California State University-Chico Dean of Undergraduate Education William Loker remembers an evening in the fall of 2007 when he and a visitor from the CSU chancellor’s office mingled with students and faculty members after a “town hall” meeting in which students led discussion groups about topics of civic interest. “A student came up to me, not realizing I was with someone from the chancellor’s office, and started talking excitedly,” Loker remembers. “He said ‘This was the best thing that’s happened to me since I’ve been at Chico State.’ He explained how excited he was about his topic, how he’d been on the phone talking about it with his parents and friends, spending hours in the library working on his research. He was just incredibly jazzed.” Loker was thrilled to hear the student’s response. “I kept thinking, ‘Really, we’re not paying this kid to say these things!’ This is just how well the town halls work.”
Since the first Chico Town Hall Meeting in fall 2006, which included about 180 students and faculty and two community members, the meetings, held once every semester, have grown to fill a 1,000-seat auditorium. As a model of “public sphere pedagogy,” the meetings engage students in life outside the university and help them connect their in-class learning to the wider world of public discourse.
Building Civic Literacy
The Chico Town Hall Meeting idea was born in early 2006, when Thia Wolf, director of the First-Year Experience program at Chico State, and her colleague Jill Swiencicki, then a professor in the English department, began discussing whether the university’s first-year composition class could become more focused on civic literacy. Chico State’s new president Paul Zingg had begun his tenure with a focus on civic engagement, and Wolf and Swiencicki were thrilled to have support for advancing civic literacy as a core outcome of college from the campus’ highest levels. In collaboration with the university’s curriculum committee, they developed a curriculum with readings focused on civic participation and its role in a democratic society. The breakthrough, though, came when Swiencicki asked, “Why will students want to do this?” Wolf remembers. “We realized that we needed to design a culminating activity in which students could take the readings and the research they’d done on a public issue and use it in some way in a real public arena.”
They piloted the new format in fall 2006 with five sections of English 130, the basic composition course that most first-year students were required to take. Students spent the semester reading and writing about civic participation, and chose a topic of contemporary interest—subjects like homelessness, body image and media, environmental policy, LGBTQ rights, and First Amendment issues—as a research focus. During the Town Hall meeting at the end of the semester, students gave short presentations about their research topics, participated in concurrent breakout sessions for small-group discussion, and then met in groups with expert consultants who provided insight and advice about continued engagement with the topic.
| Students who participate in Chico State’s Town Hall program do significantly better than their peers on writing assignments and with selecting and citing research sources.
After the first Town Hall, other faculty members began expressing interest, and by 2007, more sections of English 130 using the civic focused curriculum were added, increasing the Town Hall grew to include 700 participants. Wolf and her colleagues refined the Town Hall structure to include an opening segment in which a speaker would frame the evening and explain how scholarship can benefit the larger community, as well as short speeches by President Zingg and a student keynote speaker. Participants could then choose from a list of fifteen to twenty topic meetings to attend. In subsequent Town Halls, students had a specific role to play, based on their research during the semester—either as presenters or as active participants who helped keep the small-group discussions going. More Chico community members and civic leaders were invited and attended, serving as discussants in the breakout sessions, as well as expert consultants for the final hour of the meeting. Discussions with these expert consultants often led to ongoing student involvement with the research topic. At the third Town Hall, one of the table topics was genocide. One student, a recent immigrant from Sudan, was linked with a consultant representing a Darfur action organization. She became deeply involved with the organization’s work, and was later invited to be the student keynote speaker at the next Town Hall meeting to talk about her engagement and activism.
Engaging First-Year Students
The Chico State Town Halls did not end up within the First-Year Experience program by chance, says Loker. “Our main goal is for students to make clear to themselves the link between their pursuit of higher education and the wider society in which they are a participant,” he explains. “We want them to become more engaged in their academic pursuits. And when you know your work will have a wider audience beyond the classroom, you tend to put forth more effort and become more engaged.”
In addition, Wolf explains, the concept of liminality, or the state of being “in between,” is particularly germane to first-year students. “Liminality is what happens when people are moving from one identity to another, and there can be a lot of stressors, not knowing what a new identity will look like,” she says. “Starting college makes students liminal, so the First-Year Experience program and the Town Hall provide students with identities they can try on”—identities like scholar, citizen, and community activist.
From the Town Hall program’s beginnings in 2006 through spring 2009, it was cohoused in the English department, with English 130 classes providing the academic preparation for the debate. But when problems arose in the English department with budgets and time usage, the political science department took over the program in fall 2009, bringing the academic component into a course called American Government: National, State, and Local, which many first-year students are required to take. Older political science students who have already experienced the Town Hall will become mentors and expert participants at subsequent meetings.
In conjunction with the city of Chico, the FYE program is also piloting a program this year called the Great Debate, in which students and community members meet in the city council chambers to debate important issues. The first Great Debate, which occurred in late April 2010, tackled legalization of marijuana—an issue that will likely face voters on a ballot measure in the near future. The Great Debate draws students from introductory communications and writing courses; between the Town Hall and the Great Debate, public sphere pedagogies now reach two-thirds of first-year students at Chico State.
Outcomes and Assessments
While the main goal of the Town Hall program is to make students aware of the connection between academic work and civic identity, administrators also want to ensure that students gain strong writing and critical thinking skills through their participation. To test whether the Town Hall produced these learning outcomes, Chico State associate professor of English Chris Fosen began assessing the program in spring 2008. In the first assessment, he looked specifically at how students used research sources to make claims for their Town Hall project arguments. “We wanted to investigate how students found and synthesized research to make claims in their papers,” Fosen explains. “We found that, in statistically significant ways, students in the Town Hall sections of introductory courses did a better job than students in non-Town Hall sections with sources—choosing them, citing them, and understanding them.” The next step, he says, will be to try to tease apart how much of this benefit comes from using a syllabus that’s research-focused (as the Town Hall section syllabuses tend to be) and how much comes from actually participating in the Town Hall event itself.
In spring 2009, Fosen, Loker, and other colleagues used the Written Communication rubric developed by AAC&U’s Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) initiative to assess student papers produced for classes using the Town Hall pedagogy, as well as control group of papers from sections of the same course using a standard, non-Town Hall pedagogy. Papers written by students who participated in the Town Hall pedagogy courses received significantly higher scores on the content development measure, and nearly significantly higher results on the genre and purpose scales. Students from the TH sections also received significantly higher overall scores on their papers, even when controlling for the content development, genre, and purpose scales.
Chico State has also assessed Town Hall students’ academic and social engagement, with a grant from the Bringing Theory to Practice program. “It was utterly clear that participation in the Town Halls improves academic engagement,” Wolf says. “When we’re analyzing summaries that students write after the event, we see a lot of what we call ‘change events’—students writing about changes in their perception of the subject matter, and even in their perceptions of themselves.” And, most importantly, she says, students write that their self-identities have evolved: “They tell us [the Town Hall program] has changed their lives—they actually use language like that. They say that for the first time, they feel good about their peer group and their generation and its ability to make a difference.”
More information about the Chico Town Hall Meetings is available online.