Combining First-Year Engagement and Civic Engagement

Two curricular trends, when joined, can produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, proponents say.
January 28, 2008

For experts on the undergraduate curriculum and student life, two areas of focus in recent years have been the first-year experience and civic engagement. While frequently talked about in separate conversations, speakers at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities Saturday said that combining these two efforts made them both more successful.

And by successful, they stressed that they weren't just talking about economies of scale, but mission. Martha LaBare, associate professor of English at Bloomfield College, in New Jersey, said that it is too easy for freshman programs to turn into "watching the bottom line" by focusing just on keeping the bodies enrolled (and presumably paying tuition). The civic engagement piece makes these programs about more than retention -- but about learning, too, she said.

LaBare is editor of First-Year Civic Engagement: Sound Foundations for College, Citizenship and Democracy, which is forthcoming from The New York Times and the National Resource Center for the First Year Experience and Students in Transition, which -- like the session at the AAC&U meeting -- is based on the idea that these approaches deserve a wider audience.

The programs described Saturday vary widely, but generally involve a mix of traditional, in-class learning with work off campus, and lots of intense discussions.

For example, George Mason University's New Century College is a program that allows freshmen to take a series of demanding courses that fulfill most of their general education requirements through broad explorations of issues. Andrew Wingfield, an assistant professor in the program, described the "Self as Citizen" course, in which students meet for four hours a day, Monday through Thursday.

During the morning sessions, the focus is on texts, starting with foundational documents of the United States (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, for example) and moving to philosophers who contributed to American ideals of citizenship (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau), thinkers who wrote about the development of these ideas in the United States (Tocqueville) and then a range of poems, novels and other writings from the 19th and 20th centuries.

The overarching idea, Wingfield said, is to give students the ability to explore "the big questions" about citizenship and society, such as asking which ideas have had the most influence and why, or how citizens can create change in their societies.

The afternoon time each day is spent in a series of more hands-on activities. One assignment is called "Practicing Citizenship" in which the students work in groups to develop a peer advocacy campaign on an issue of their choice. Another assignment has students pick one of the national monuments in Washington (George Mason is in the Virginia suburbs just outside the city) and conduct a "rhetorical analysis" of the meaning of the architecture, sculpture and words in constructing "national memory." Wingfield said a particularly popular assignment is called "citizens of the watershed," in which class time is devoted to reading literature about "sense of place" in defining citizenship and the students then break up into groups to remove trash from two streams that run through the campus.

The students want -- literally, he said -- to get their hands dirty, and they come up with various contests, such as the most unusual piece of trash they can remove. "This is giving them a chance to walk the walk," he said.

Other programs discussed are designed in different ways. At Franklin Pierce University, in New Hampshire, faculty members responded to a series of racial incidents a decade ago by developing a program of "structured conversations" to take place in classes and outside them about issues of race, gender and ethnicity, among other topics. Faculty and students have been trained to lead the discussions. Joni Doherty, director of Franklin Pierce's New England Center for Civic Life, said that over the years, a view has evolved that it is important to give current students the chance to define the topics for conversation. Of late, they have focused on issues of alcohol and sex. Doherty said that the important thing is not how the conversations start, but that the students learn how to have honest, difficult conversations about important issues.

While many of the programs relate broadly to society and are based in humanities or social science departments, some are not. Pace University's computer science department, for example, has developed a course called "Intergenerational Computing," in which students learn about the sociology of aging and teaching skills. Then they are assigned to go to assisted living centers and nursing homes to teach older people how to use the Internet and e-mail.

Some of the discussion concerned the need to be sure that off-campus experiences have some structure and aren't just a matter of looking for some charitable organization to help. A general theme was that "service learning" can be either meaningful or not, depending on how it is organized. One sign of the effort to promote structure and coherence to these efforts is a new book, Service Learning Companion, just published by Houghton Mifflin. One idea in the book is that students need time to think about what they are going to do, and how it went.

Roxanne Moayedi, associate professor of sociology at Trinity University, in Washington, spoke about applying these principles to first year civic engagement at her institution. When the program was started, students found their own projects, and they didn't get much out of them. Nor did professors see the point, Moayedi said. Now, faculty members help select the programs, the projects relate to courses, students perform their service in teams, and the social service agencies that make use of the Trinity students also visit the campus.

Moayedi said that it was important to show students and faculty members that this isn't just about feeling good, but about substance. Students prepare posters about lessons they have learned from the experience, present their findings, and receptions are held for discussions with professors and community group leaders. Moayedi said that Trinity's president, Patricia A. McGuire, makes it a point to attend these events, and in so doing sends a message to the campus about their importance.

Do they influence student behavior over the long run? Moayedi noted that Trinity's student body is overwhelmingly low-income and minority (a demographic not known for high voting rates) and yet on the National Survey of Student Engagement, Trinity students show both high rates of participating in service learning and in voting in state and national elections. "And I think that's fantastic," said Moayedi.


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