Communication and Civic Participation
at The University of Texas at Austin
Associate Professor, Department of Communication Studies
Associate Director, Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation
University of Texas at Austin
What is citizenship? What are the characteristics of a good citizen?
Many look to high school government courses and college political science courses to help students grapple with these questions. Scholars have voiced frustration, however, with contemporary efforts to teach citizenship and civic participation. Some forward structural concerns, which claim that it is nearly impossible to teach empowered citizenship and democratic processes in the hierarchical context of schools and school classrooms (McMillan, 2004). Others advance a curricular critique, fearing that the sanitized content appearing in widely adopted textbooks prevents the discussion of current issues, conflicts, controversies, and local matters that would be most meaningful for students (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse, 1996; Knight-Abowitz & Harnish, 2006). Still others bemoan historical shifts, noting how schools used to offer civics courses with practical skills instruction but, over the years, such instruction unfortunately has become more closely tied to information that can be assessed on standardized tests (Kahne & Westheimer, 2003).
The attached political communication course, Communication and Civic Participation, was born out of a desire to supplement contemporary civic instruction.
It was inspired by the American Trustees (AT) Project at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation at the University of Texas. The AT Project contains a collection of short biographical films of everyday people engaging in extraordinary acts and aims to help students see how they can make an important difference in their communities and in the world.
I built this course on four assumptions about millennial students (students born in 1982 or later). Namely:
1. Millennial students have come of age in a time of partisanship, presidential scandal and political cynicism, and feel distanced from political life (Mindich, 2005).
2. Millennial students have a more global worldview than their parents and grandparents, and question curriculum that focuses purely on national level concerns (Dalton, 2007).
3. Millennial students are a good fit for team-based projects that involve media and technology (Coomes & DeBard, 2004).
4. Millennial students are heavily influenced by their peers; asking young people to create narratives to persuade each other can influence both the authors and the audiences of pro-social causes (Strauss & Howe, 1997).
The attached syllabus describes this college-level course. Specifically, students study definitions of citizenship and trends in civic and political participation, select an approach to citizenship that is meaningful to them, work in groups to locate a role model who embodies that form of citizenship, create a five-minute documentary film about that role model, share the film with classmates and post it to youtube.com, and engage in self-reflection about the process. Two recent class films can be viewed online: Senator Leticia Van de Putte, a Texas State Senator who shares how she went from being a pharmacist to a state politician; and Queen Lola, a local restaurant owner who feeds and houses the homeless out of her restaurant. Additionally, recent reviews of the class can be viewed in Communication Teacher (Jarvis & Han, 2010a) and The Electronic Journal of Communication (Jarvis & Han, 2010b).
Coomes, M. D., & DeBard, R. (2004). A generational approach to understanding students. New Directions for Student Services, 106, 5-16.
Dalton, R. (2007). The good citizen: How a younger generation is reshaping American politics. Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press.
Hibbing, J. R., & Theiss-Morse, E. (1996, March). Civics is not enough: Teaching barbarics in K-12. PS: Political Science & Politics, 29(1), 57-62.
Jarvis, S.E., & Han, S. (2010a). Teaching citizenship: Student-led documentary film projects in the communication classroom. Communication Teacher, 24, 35-42.
Jarvis, S. E., & Han, S. (2010b). Communication and civic participation: Promoting engaged citizenship through digital filmmaking, Electronic Journal of Communication, 20, Article 2.
Kahne, J., & Westheimer, J. (2003, September). Teaching democracy: What schools need to do. Phi Delta Kappan, 34-40, 57-66.
Knight-Abowitz, K., & Harnish, J. (2006). Contemporary discourses of citizenship. Review of Educational Research, 76(4), 653-690.
McMillan, J. (2004). The potential for civic learning in higher education: ''Teaching democracy by being democratic.'' Southern Communication Journal, 69(3), 188-205.
Mindich, D. (2005). Tuned out: Why Americans under 40 don't follow the news. New York: Oxford University Press.
Strauss, W., & Howe, N. (1997). The fourth turning. New York: Broadway.
Dr. Sharon E. Jarvis (Ph.D., University of Texas-Austin, 2000) has been the recipient of numerous teaching awards and honors, including the Texas Exes Outstanding Professor for the College of Communication, the Eyes of Texas Teaching Award (in 2001 and 2009), the Outstanding Professor in the College of Communication, the Glen Maloney 40 Acres Award, and the Texas Blazers' Faculty Excellence Award. In 2010, she was admitted to the Academy of Distinguished Teachers, and in 2005, she was the second Assistant Professor in the history of the University to receive the Friar Centennial Teaching Fellowship, the largest undergraduate teaching honor at U.T. Austin.