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Promoting Political Engagement through American Government Classes
American government is the only course that all students are required to take while earning their degrees at Michigan’s Oakland Community College (OCC). This unique status brings with it scrutiny from a number of groups: students
from every academic and technical field, many of whom approach the course with less-than-fond memories of the American government class required for a high school diploma; collegewide review committees, who periodically wonder if the stand-alone status of this course is still justified after more than forty years; and local business and government leaders who seek employees and citizens who will participate in the political process with high interest and acumen.
As is the case with most classes, students will get more out of studying American government if they understand its importance and practicality in their everyday lives. Similarly, faculty outside the political science discipline and the larger community will develop an appreciation and enthusiasm for the work accomplished in the class if they have an opportunity to understand and witness the benefits the course brings to the college and to society as a whole. By developing a curriculum that is rich with both principles and application, American government teachers can overcome the initial cynicism that surrounds the course and provide students with the knowledge and experience needed to counter the cynicism that often permeates public attitudes toward government and the political process.
Finding Relevance in Everyday Political Experiences
The first step in developing relevance is to make sure students fully understand the depth of their daily political experiences. At OCC’s Auburn Hills campus, all class sessions include time to discuss current political events, and give students opportunities to sharpen their critical thinking and communication skills. This proves to be important, since many students use news sources that offer a surface view of current events, and observe political discussions that involve more chair throwing than respectful listening. The recent Democratic primary elections, in which the Democratic National Committee ruled that Michigan’s pledged delegates and superdelegates would not count in the nominating contest after Michigan moved its primary to January, served as a perfect opportunity to relate the fundamentals of political parties to today’s world. It also created an opportunity to discuss the relationship between political parties, the Constitution, and the attitudes of the Founding Fathers toward parties. By including these discussions, and assigning students the task of finding recent newspaper articles focused on government fundamentals, teachers give students the chance to reflect and respond to a variety of political issues, and to those holding differing viewpoints on those issues.
Once these individual skills are sharpened, there are many ways the classroom can be utilized to politically engage students, beyond the traditional lecture technique. Based on an experiential pedagogical approach, one set of exercises asks students to identify concerns that are relevant to them and act on those concerns, first at an individual level, and then to higher levels of collective engagement such as student issues conventions. One very successful individual-level technique has been an exercise that challenges a student to identify an issue that concerns him or her, and to “take action” on the issue in the political community. The scope of that political community is linked to the specific concern of the student. For example, political communities can be conceptualized at the local level when students choose an issue like getting a stop sign on a street corner, which requires communication with local government officials. The political community moves to a different level when students select broader concerns such as environmental issues, which often requires contact with state, national, and global-level administrators and institutions.
While frequently students express frustration with the “exercise,” they nonetheless discover what to do if they have a problem, and how levels of government can function to assist and sometimes thwart addressing whatever set of concerns the student identifies. Students are required to write a short reflective assessment of the exercise, which allows them to reflect on their individual efforts, and enables at least a crude measurement at the instructional level regarding the usefulness of the exercise. This exercise can take on life-changing proportions for some students; as a direct consequence of completing this project, some OCC students had the opportunity to work on national presidential campaigns, and a few went on to run for their own political office. One student was also offered employment as a congressional aide.
In addition to this exercise, students engage in voter registration and education at a variety of levels. In addition to registering themselves, students in some classes are required to assist an eligible voter to become a register voter. While some students are initially overwhelmed by this assignment, they soon become surprised to find a wide array of friends, families, and new neighbors who are often motivated to register only because the students invited them.
During an electoral cycle, students staff voter registration and information tables. The tables include voter registration forms and either the option to fill out the form (students deliver completed forms to the county clerk before the deadline) or to take the form with them. Students also distribute voter guides published by the League of Women Voters. During the 2006 electoral cycle, almost one thousand guides were distributed and hundreds of voters were newly registered as the result of the tables staffed by students.
For the 2008 electoral cycle another major effort is scheduled at OCC. Students note how fulfilling it can be to staff the tables, register voters, and discuss issues during an actual election season. The only challenge is to organize the effort quickly, as Michigan voters must be registered within a month before the election.
Transcending Classroom Work Through Voter Education Activities
Another voter education activity that has been used is Political Awareness Day. Students go into the community and find a candidate, interest group, or political party willing to come to OCC to participate in a political “fair.” Each participant is given a table to display his or her message to students in the OCC student center. Lasting for a full morning, Political Awareness Day gives local political entities exposure to thousands of students as they traverse the campus. Participants may share their political views, seek volunteers for membership or other activities, and raise public awareness of their existence. Political Awareness Day is promoted in the local newspapers and is open to the public as well.
Students also have the opportunity to work in groups that transcend classrooms and even colleges to advance their political concerns to elected officials, especially during elections. One successful technique used here at OCC has been organizing a campus student political issues convention, based on the model posited by Feinstein (1997). The project begins when students in each political science class develop a list of concerns or issues they would like to see addressed by government officials, or issues neglected by government (or even issues the government should NOT be involved in). The process of developing a class agenda takes approximately thirty minutes, depending on how involved the students get in terms of debate on relevant issues and how they reach a consensus on the actual class agenda (typically, a process of majoritarianism is agreed to by the class as the way to reach consensus).
Once the class has reached a decision on its agenda, it can be used as a basis to extend discussion on particular issues and form research groups that focus on one particular topic, and later, as an introduction to the eventual student issues convention. At the campus convention, participating instructors, classes, and institutions come together to reach consensus and share their research. Once a set of rules have been agreed upon and after all issues have been presented, participants meet in caucuses to select the topics of greatest interest and significance. The whole group then votes on the issues brought forth from the caucuses, and the topics selected by group vote are forwarded to government officials with the endorsement of the students involved. OCC has been participating with Henry Ford Community College (HFCC), located about twenty-five miles from OCC, for a number of years and will be working closely with HFCC during the 2008 electoral cycle as well.
As students begin to explore their chosen issue, additional research forms the basis of a presentation of the issue (in class and/or at the issues convention), with the emphasis on interaction; rather than a simple recitation of what the students have discovered, the goal of the presentation is to create audience interest in the topic, much like a legislator attempts to create consensus with colleagues in the real world. In emphasizing the goal of group interaction, the presentations and the caucus sessions are designed to generate discussion, requiring facilitators and audience members alike to fine-tune their skills of critical thinking and interpersonal communication. The agenda-setting exercises and the research projects begun in the classroom create an expectation for a higher level of discourse, one a student may have never been exposed to in his or her adult life. The presentations and caucus sessions also create an opportunity for students to sharpen the most essential tools of democracy—listening, finding common ground, and agreeing to disagree civilly. If the exercise is used in class, the agenda developed earlier in the semester can be revisited and explored after in class presentations. If the effort is linked to the larger collective convention exercise, students get to experience delivering their presentations to communities beyond the classroom and interact in caucus sessions comprised of participating classes, instructors, and institutions that cross regional boundaries.
Intercollegiate Political Issues Conventions
Taking the student political issues convention to an intercollegiate level has been a challenging and beneficial experience at OCC. In cooperation with their peers at Henry Ford Community College and other local colleges, universities, and high schools, OCC students have participated in a number of conventions. In 2006, OCC students presented workshops at a convention at HFCC and were able to interact with other participating students from across Oakland and Wayne counties. Through discussions between instructors across institutions before the semester began and integration of the convention into the class syllabus, the basic challenge is to bring participants into the project and ensure that students show up on the day of the convention. In one class, the convention date was approximately at the same time as the class meeting, so the event was essentially a “field trip” for that scheduled class meeting. For other classes, it becomes a bit more challenging. Sometimes incentives can be created by offering extra credit, or the class can collectively agree at the start of the semester to participate in the convention. In either scenario, a bit of preparation is involved, framed by two key variables: integrating the exercise itself into the class syllabus and working with other educators well before the semester begins. Preparations for a national Student Political Issues convention in October 2008 are already underway between OCC and HFCC, along with an expanded effort to bring in more participants from across the United States after all participating institutions have held their regional conventions. Using synchronous and asynchronous venues, OCC and HFCC hope to bring students’ concerns—both regionally here in southeast Michigan and nationally—to political actors via presentation of the national and regional agendas to those running for office at conventions and through other forums, like student-organized candidate interviews and Web-based forums such as Facebook, Yahoo groups, and other Internet forums.
Student evaluations of American government classes often cite the real-world activities as a course highlight; faculty colleagues bring their classes to Political Awareness Day and support students in their individual projects; college administrators and civic leaders welcome the ties these activities reinforce between the college and the larger community. By keeping an eye on the end goal of greater civic engagement and civic literacy, American government instructors at OCC’s Auburn Hills campus have discovered the best means is the end, and that practice moves everyone—students, faculty, college, and community—to a greater appreciation of empowerment and opportunity.
Chesney, J. D., and O. Feinstein. 1997. Building civic literacy and citizen power. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Jeffrey Farrah is a political science instructor; Patrick O’Connor is a political science instructor–both of Oakland Community College–Auburn Hills.