Claiming the “Civic” in Academic Civic Engagement

25 April 2024

Director’s Note, Spring ’24

Having recently returned from the national Campus Compact conference, a network of which Carleton — and thus all of you — is a member, I find myself with a heightened focus on the “civic” part of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement title and the Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) course designation. 

The goals of civic learning are sometimes obscured by the ethical and logistical complexities of community engagement. However, as we head into a high-stakes election year, this year’s Campus Compact conference put civic learning on center stage. 

I’d like to share two resources from the conference that sparked my creative thinking and might do the same for you, along with some concrete examples of recent related work at Carleton: 

Democracy is a Downer

I don’t feel this way, but it sounds like many Americans on college campuses do. 

Many students have become clear on the limitations of our current American expression of democracy. Taken alone, this perspective leaves many of us with cynicism about the concept of democracy. Nancy Thomas of the Institute for Democracy in Higher Education (IDHE), now part of the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), sees this as a problem — and I do too. 

Thomas and her research colleagues argue that in order to counter cynicism, we need to have conversations about the democracy we aspire to. How is it characterized? What values undergird it? What skills do we need in order to bring it about and sustain it?  Thomas and team are conducting initial research regarding a new framework they call “Democracy Re/Designed,” which they intend to be a guide for structuring college civic learning. 

As a first step, Thomas encourages us to define democracy when we talk about it and be clear that it is both a system of governance and way of working together: “We understand democracy as both governance (systems and structures) and culture (ways people live and solve social and problems together)” the authors write on the graphic depiction of their emerging model.

What builds a culture of democracy? 

Civic learning, especially the type the CCCE is tasked with supporting, is focused on learning how to use democratic modes of collaboration and public problem solving. When students have positive experiences with those aspects of democracy, and when we explicitly name them as such, we’re building investment in the future of American democracy as a project driven by positive values. 

According to Nicholas Longo’s Practicing Democracy toolkit from Campus Compact and AAC&U, in a robust culture of democracy, we would all know how to 

  1. Craft public narratives about social issues in ways that draw in a wide array of stakeholders, 
  2. Listen deeply, such that one is “able to discern the interests of others and find common ground,” 
  3. Frame community issues including “articulating the trade-offs and benefits of various choices,”
  4. “Collaborate with diverse stakeholders” in ways that “unleash stakeholders’ assets and skills,”
  5.  “Create democratic spaces for dialogue and deliberation,”
  6. Engage in public work where we “co-create community projects that produce sustained public value,” and
  7. Review our experiences such that we can “articulate knowledge, growth, and lessons learned.”

Recent Examples of Civic Learning at Carleton

Carleton faculty and staff, along with community partners, are developing these capacities in our students in so many ways, but I am most familiar with examples from ACE courses. For example, Chloé Fandel, assistant professor of Geology, and Daniel Williams, associate professor of Africana Studies and Sociology, have both taught or are teaching ACE courses in which students present their research at public meetings to help frame and inform public deliberation about contested local issues related to natural resource extraction and affordable housing, respectively. 

However, students don’t necessarily have to enter government buildings or formal committee meetings to be engaged in civic learning. Adriana Estill, director of American Studies and professor of English, is currently offering a new ACE class, The Poetics of Disability, which grapples with how we can be together in relationships across differences through a creative collaboration with Laura Baker residents. Her course asks students to “reflect on what it means to use poetry as a mode of disability justice.” This too is civic learning, if it is framed that way. 

I am also aware that Carleton is rich with expressions of civic learning beyond ACE. For example, it was a delight to get to know Moon Duchin, professor of citizenship and public service in mathematics at the Tufts Tisch School for Civic Life, through this year’s Math across the Cannon Lecture. Duchin’s work as an expert witness in redistricting cases offers a peek into what specific disciplinary expertise can do when approached with a public scholarship ethos and focused on a civic question. 

I also recognize a significant overlap between the skills needed for the democracy we aspire to and those needed to advance equity and belonging. For example, dialogue and deliberation are a linchpin in Longo’s education for democracy model, and our campus IDE plan also cites dialogue as one of the ways we will build our capacity to engage issues of race and racism. Carleton is rich with such dialogue programs and resources, from the IDSC 203 “Talking about Diversity” class to the student-led Students Engaging in Essential Dialogue (SEED) organization and the CCCE’s Peace, Conflict, and Democracy student fellows’ community conversations. Mia Strubel Iram ‘25 has had a range of these dialogue experiences while at Carleton, and I was proud to watch her speak about “Bridge-building and Engagement Across Lines of Difference” at the Campus Compact conference plenary panel. 

What about voting? 

Too often, civic engagement is conflated with voting. Equipping students to vote is essential, but it is not enough to sustain an equitable, inclusive, and just democracy. That’s why voting hasn’t made an appearance in these remarks, until this point. However, voting isn’t made easy for college students, and on many other college campuses, students have to fight to exercise their 26th amendment right to vote at age 18. 

In recognition of that, I’d like to thank the non-partisan 2024 CarlsVote Working Group, the members of which have committed to supporting Carleton students in voting this year: Palmar Álvarez-Blanco, Marshall Bell, Quinn Buhman ‘24, Megan Cablk ‘25, Will Clausman ‘26, Elise Eslinger, Dylan Evans ‘26, Rachel Everrett, Sarah Fortner, Adele Fredericks ‘25, Valentina Guerrero Chala ‘24, Tanya Hartwig, Robert Healy ‘25, Graci Huff ‘25, Baird Jarman, George Lefkowicz ‘25, Jesse Lewis, Katie Lewis, Andrea Mazzariello, Garrett Pauly ‘25, Ben Scott Lewis ‘25, Max Serota ‘25, Sunny Sun ‘26, Temitope Williams ‘26. 

An Invitation

If you would like to discuss ways to foreground civic learning in a course you designate as ACE theoretical or applied, please reach out to Emily Seru, our associate director for academic civic engagement and scholarship at eseru@carleton.edu. And if you’d like to contribute to the CarlsVote working group in any way, please contact me at snichols2@carleton.edu.  

-Sinda Nichols, Director, Center for Community and Civic Engagement

Posted In