Project Citizen: Building Citizenship Skills in an Introductory American Government Course

Today’s guest post comes from Dr. Brooklyn Walker at Hutchinson Community College, Kansas!


This semester, on the first day of class, I asked my introductory American Government class to generate a list, in teams, of how they come across American government and politics. They couldn’t think of a single example. I concluded that many of my students haven’t thought about themselves in terms of politics. They lack political efficacy. They are turned off by polarization and negative affect. And they don’t notice the role government and politics play in their everyday lives. 

But years after they graduate, I want my students to be aware of their political environment and equipped to engage it. I wasn’t convinced that exposing students to interesting information or ideas would address the problems I was seeing. Instead, I wanted to help my students learn about themselves as citizens, develop citizenship skills, and see government in action. I developed Project Citizen to advance these three goals, and to create a bridge for my students between the classroom and the ‘real world.  

Project Citizen is the overarching title for a set of five assignments distributed throughout the semester. It comprises approximately a third of the semester’s total points, signaling that that civic engagement is a priority in the class.

Students begin the semester by writing a brief introductory essay (400-500 words). This essay reflects on a class reading making the case for civic engagement, and they describe what an ideal citizen does and knows. Then they detail their own civic engagement and the hurdles they face in becoming the ideal citizen they described. This essay forms the foundation for the remainder of the projects and marks the baseline of each student’s civic engagement.

Students then select three projects from a menu, each of which results in a 500-word essay. Each prompt is linked to a topic we cover in class, and the prompts are intended to advance the three main goals. Giving students choices is a core feature of Project Citizen. Some of the prompts may be triggering for students. For example, a Black male in my class asked if he had to talk to a law enforcement officer, and another student with social anxiety was worried about contacting a local civil rights group. Project Citizen encourages students to choose prompts that take them out of their comfort zone but gives students space to avoid prompts that they feel could be harmful. Finally, choice promotes equity. Many students, especially those with lower socioeconomic statuses, do not have easy access to someone who’s running for office or reliable transportation to civic meeting spaces.

ProblemGoalRelevant Prompts (course topic in parentheses)
“Don’t know who they are as citizens” Learn about self as citizenTake a survey to identify your party identification and ideology (Public Opinion); Make your voting plan (Participation); Develop a media diet plan after comparing news articles (Media)
“No efficacy, intimidated by polarization”Practice political skills, including political  discussionsTalk to a police officer about the role of civil liberties in their work (Civil Liberties);Talk to a local civil rights group about their work (Civil Rights); Interview someone who’s run for office about the role of money in politics (Elections); Complete an action recommended by an interest group (Interest Groups); Contact a member of Congress (Congress)
“Don’t know how government actually pops up in their lives”See politics / government in actionAttend a local meeting (Constitution and Federalism); Identify party linkage strategies via party communications (Political Parties); Analyze presidential communications via inaugural addresses (Presidency); Observe a courtroom (Judiciary);Evaluate bureaucracies after speaking with a recipient of state or federal services (Bureaucracy)

Finally, at the end of the semester, students revisit their initial essay. They annotate that essay with 8 comments, reflecting on what they learned from class readings, lecture, discussion, and their projects. Their comments can introduce new information or examples to support or refute their initial points, reflect on how they have changed through the semester, or describe their next steps for developing their citizenship skills.

While most of the students’ Project Citizen work occurs independently, projects are woven into class periods. I mention project prompts during lectures, pointing out information that may be relevant or questions the project may help them answer. Students learn from each other during a peer review session (for which they also earn Project Citizen points). I print copies of the assignment rubric and students provide feedback on two peers’ essays, using the rubric as a framework. After projects are submitted, we dedicate class time to discussing student experiences and connecting those experiences to course material.  

Some semesters I’ve integrated badges, which are essentially extra credit opportunities, into Project Citizen. Badges encourage students to take more ownership of their learning experience. Some of the badges I’d used include:

  • Jack-of-all-Trades Badge: complete one project for each of the three goals 
  • Design Your Own Adventure Badge: create your own project prompt (in consultation with me)
  • 10,000 Foot View Badge: complete a meta-learning worksheet about a project
  • Second Chances Badge: revise and resubmit a project
  • Collaborator Badge: complete a Project Learning prompt with a co-author

Ultimately, students have reported positive experiences with Project Citizen. One student said that Project Citizen “let me build up my ideas about who I am and about my beliefs. I got to explore what my point of view is and I learned things about myself I never knew.” Another appreciated seeing the government in action. After attending a local meeting, they commented that, “Normally people wouldn’t go out of their way, but Project Citizen gave me exposure to see how my community is run.” 

Project Citizen is constantly evolving, so I look forward to your reflections and comments.  

Don’t Look Up as possible teaching material

Spoiler alert: Not really, especially as there’s only a couple of ways things could go in a film like this. But if you’re feeling sensitive, then watch it first.

I’ll admit to having been a bit confused about this film, since my timeline had some very divisive opinions about it, when the film itself is about the perils of divisive opinions. Stupid irony.

Anyway, with the time on my hands to invest yet more of it into American cultural products, the obvious question – apart from my daughter’s query about how the hell they got Timothée Chalamet in it – is whether it tells us anything useful for our classes. Since The Matrix or Independence Day are now apparently ‘too dated’.

For the record, I’m on Team “curate’s egg” on the qualities of Don’t Look Up (DLU): it’s got lots of engaging comments to make on The State of Things, but it’s much weaker on any kind of systemic critique of modern American society.

And it is a very American piece: evidently planet-destroying asteroids don’t necessarily produce complex patterns of deep international or global coordination. Or maybe the location budget wasn’t so big.

If there is something that could well be taking into a classroom discussion, then it’s the relationship between science and politics, most obviously with man-made climate change, but also with Covid. Objective facts are one thing, but their representation is another, while their appropriation for other ends is different once again. DLU simplifies this by having one big fact – the big rock thing is going to hit the Earth – that (seemingly) shouldn’t in doubt, and yet is annexed to a number of personal projects by assorted cast members. If students can follow that line, then the path to better engagement with the multiple pathways and dynamics of climate change or the much more conditional and evolving understanding of SARS-CoV-2.

Part of that discussion needs to centre around the disconnect between knowledge of some fact or facts and any question of what to do about that knowledge: DLU has only a limited engagement with this, most obviously when lovely Leo asks the camera how we’ve got to a place where we can’t even agree that a giant asteroid heading to Earth is A Bad Thing, but there’s scope here for debate about one gets from agreeing just that point to doing something.

Ultimately, the issue rests on narratives and interests that are grounding in a range of factors that spread far beyond any objective calculation. The film provides a number of examples of both rational (Bash’s big plans) and less-than-rational (in Bojo Mambo’s) responses to information.

Beyond this major theme, it’s slim pickings, I’d argue.

As a middle-aged, white Professor who does a bit of media, I took rather more note of Leo’s transmutation from hyper-anxious sad-sack to trim Voice of Reason than I should, especially as I’ve never noticed any of the other effects of this change. You might also note the marginalisation of women aspect too. However, as critique of how others see academics it might be of interest to a communication class. That said, the scene of the grad class working on the calculations did stray close to being included in any update of my previous comments on screen representations of teaching.

Similarly, any reflection on the relationship between politics and Big Tech is made difficult by the very personalised relationship between the President and Bash’s Peter. Moreover, Mark Rylance doesn’t seem to have decided if Peter is Steve Jobs or James Halliday or even the BFG, so that’s also a bit frustrating. As is the totally unexplained course of the deflection mission.

So yes, there’s some material here, but it’s not really shaping up to be a classic of the genre. Unlike The Lego Movie.

The Article Summary

(Photo credit: Joanne H. Lee, Santa Clara University)

Today we have a guest post about teaching the research process by Anne Baker, assistant professor of political science at Santa Clara University. She can be reached at aebaker [at] scu [dot] edu.

Getting students to use academic articles for research papers can be a challenge. In my experience, many students, even those in upper-level courses, are not familiar with search engines such as JSTOR, Lexus Nexus, or Political Science Complete. And if students do happen to use Google Scholar, they frequently rely on excerpts from sources instead of entire articles that they might not have access to. So, what can be done to replace these habits with better practices?

In my advanced writing course on the presidency, I have developed a class activity which provides students with skills they will need if they are going to successfully locate and utilize academic references for their research papers. First, I want them to be able to use the library’s website to access search engines. Second, I want them to understand that research is an iterative process. Sometimes you don’t find what you need for a variety of reasons and you should be able to determine what those reasons are—whether its human error, the need for a wider search net, or that no one has written on the topic (this last possibility always surprises the Google generation). Third, students need to become acquainted with the literature on the presidency, including the subfield’s primary journal, by discovering how research practices in political science have changed overtime, even in a subfield which remains largely qualitative.

I have students work in pairs and I provide them with two search terms related to the institution of the presidency (e.g. signing statements, executive orders, oath of office). I pick the search terms carefully knowing that some topics have no scholarship and represent dead ends and others have later but not earlier scholarship or vice versa. The first step of the activity provides instructions about how to first locate JSTOR on the library’s website and then how to access Presidential Studies Quarterly using JSTOR’s advanced search options. Helpfully, for the purposes of this activity, JSTOR only has copies of the journal until 2000. To access later copies, students have to use the Wiley database, which students have to figure out how to find.

For each search term, I have students locate one article published in the last few years and then another for 1995-2000—a total of four articles. Next, students identify the research question and method the authors used, noting whether it is qualitative or quantitative, the sources of data regardless of method, the type of analysis (e.g. text, interviews, statistical), and the date of publication. After they have their four articles and perform this analysis, I ask them to compare the results of both searches. Finally, we have a class discussion in which we explore road blocks and challenges encountered and review how the field has changed over time.

I have found that this activity makes students more likely to cite academic articles in their final research papers and use them more effectively to support their arguments. Students also exhibit a much better understanding of the subfield and are more likely to use the other search engines that they encountered while on the library’s website. And they learn that research takes time and requires shifting your strategies to find the information you need.

Why I Got Arrested (Twice) Last Semester

Today we have a guest post from Andre Audette, assistant professor of political science at Monmouth College. He can be reached at aaudette [at] monmouthcollege [dot] edu.

It’s about time that I come clean publicly: last semester I was arrested not once, but twice, at the start of class. My crime? Teaching constitutional law.

Students in my Civil Liberties course were wrapping up a unit on criminal procedure, which includes case law involving proper arrests and interrogations. To give them firsthand experience, I asked for two volunteers to arrest me and then achieve a conviction without using any unconstitutional evidence.

Before class started, I discretely asked one student to watch over my snack-sized bag of “drugs” (oregano). At the time of my arrest I was handcuffed (using fake handcuffs that were easy to get out of) and brought over to the interrogation room where I was placed under a portable clip lamp I had concealed in a canvas bag.

Throughout the simulation I did not make the arrest easy. I admitted to the crime before my rights were read, after which I vigorously denied the charges. I pretended not to understand my rights while accusing the officers of violating them, signed the rights waiver under a pseudonym, asked for and then rescinded my request for a lawyer, and pretended to be under the influence of mind-altering substances. Each of these represents one of the surprisingly common complications in criminal procedure.

After the simulation concluded, I asked the class to determine which evidence could be used against me in a court of law. The results were . . . murky. The “easy” constitutional interpretation of Miranda v. Arizona began to look a lot more difficult.

Students responded positively to the experience and gladly arrested me again on the last day of class. This time I played an intelligent and peaceful extraterrestrial who had been living in the United States for many years, a scenario that asked students to extend the logic of Plyler v. Doe, a case about the children of undocumented immigrants. Students acted as a jury to determine whether I, as an extraterrestrial, could be tried under a military tribunal, executed, and denied admission to law school despite being otherwise qualified. The exercise served as a review of the semester and a reminder that constitutional rights come from cases that push the boundaries of the law.

This simulation requires that the instructor cede a great deal of control to students in a way that may not be comfortable or even advisable for everyone. The professor should have a rapport with the students beforehand. The number of students in the class and its physical location is another consideration.

But my students reported that the exercise gave them a new understanding of what can otherwise be dry and unapproachable legal reading. Anecdotally students seemed more attuned to the complexities and nuances of constitutional law in their exams and hypothetical case briefs after the simulation than they were before. And in their writing they were able to wade deeper into legal reasoning by analogy rather than a strict factual application of precedent. Students also noted in their course evaluations that they learned that the law is not as straightforward as they thought.

Thus, the exercise appeared to have achieved my goal of demonstrating that the law is not as cut-and-dried as students usually assume, and that most constitutional law is advanced through these tough cases, if it is ever settled at all.

Teaching Election Results

The 2018 midterm elections are over in the US, and it was a night of mixed results.  The Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives, winning at least 27 seats previously held by the Republican Party, while the GOP increased their majority in the Senate, toppling North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and my own state of Missouri’s Claire McCaskill.  

While clearly not as momentous an election as 2016, or the Brexit referendum, or many other elections, the midterms were still an important point to take stock of the impact of Trumpism on American politics, and whether Democrats who were somewhat over-confident in the fall of 2016 could manage to overcome pro-Trump sentiment, a strong economy, congressional district gerrymandering, voter suppression efforts, and the other structural reasons why succeeding at the polls can be difficult. 

Teaching the results of American elections is a frustrating enterprise.

Continue reading “Teaching Election Results”

Unexpected Teachable Moments

I had two unexpected moments in the last week completely outside of the classroom that led to (or will, in the future lead to) great teaching moments.

Last week I was recording a script I’d written in a studio, for a project I’ve been working on for two years.  In the lecture I was reviewing cross tabulation tables, and the example I had looked at 2016 presidential vote choice and gender.  Unbeknownst to me, someone in the control room changed the text on the teleprompter so that every time I used the words ‘man’ or ‘women’ they used ‘male’ and ‘female’.  Rather than stop the recording, I just started changing the words back as I spoke, which led to some awkwardness (man-Clinton voter does not roll off the tongue the same as ‘male Clinton voter’).  Finally the folks in the control group stopped me, and I explained that the original text used man and woman deliberately, and that changing it without speaking to me was an issue. I was talking about gender, not sex, and I wanted it to stay consistent.  This paused the recording for a few minutes, and during the lull I explained to the camera operators why this was important enough to stop for. We had a really nice conversation on the difference between sex and gender, and this turned into what we sometimes call ‘teachable moments’.  Script corrected, I continued recording.

The second moment was completely different.  Today I had jury duty. For those of you outside the US, this is when we get called to the courthouse to sit and wait until you are called into jury selection for a trial.  Sometimes you just sit in the waiting area for a day or two and are dismissed; other times you get put on a case right away, and spend the next day or two answering questions from the attorneys while they pick and choose who to put on the jury itself.  Sometimes they case will settle or be dismissed while jury selection is going on

I don’t mind jury duty.  Its one of the only things asked of me as a citizen, and I do see it as a civic duty. Since I teach American politics, I’d like to have the experience of actually serving on a jury, but that has yet to happen, and many of my legal friends indicate it’s unlikely to ever happen. Since I already had guest lecturers lined up this week for my daytime class, I didn’t request a postponement, and headed downtown this morning to serve.

Walking into the building, right after I passed through security, a police officer noted that I was carrying a heavy bag, and I stopped and chatted with him for awhile.  It turned out this was the sheriff himself, and he used to be a public school teacher in his early career.  Soon we were exchanging business cards, and he agreed to come talk to my students during our lesson on the judiciary next semester.  Did I teach him anything in our short conversation this morning? No.  But I’ll be able to create a great teachable moment for my students in a few months, all because I stopped to chat with someone rather than doing what I normally do, which is plug in my headphones and hurry on my way.  I’m not going to suddenly change my ways or anything, but sometimes an unexpected but nice conversation can serve as a reminder of the good things in this world.

Badges and recognizing success

Badges are not exactly a new concept, but like many ideas that come from games, they are still not widely known in the world of higher education and learning.  As many of us know from playing sports or participating in Scouts-style programs as children, badges are physical marks of achievement given to those that show competency at a particular skill or for doing well in a competition. In video games like World of Warcraft, meeting a particular goal is called an ‘achievement’.  Each achievement you earn flashes across the public chat, allowing for recognition, and some of them come with special items or titles in the game.  Defeat the Lich King, and you not only get to bask in the glory of victory, but you earn the title ‘Kingslayer’. While typically meant as a form of visible recognition for an achievement, earning achievements or badges can motivate behavior and can be seen as credentials in their own right.

Motivation, recognition, and credentialing skills–sounds like what we want to do in the classroom, right?

Electoral College Exercise

While I realize many of our readers are not based in the US nor teaching American government, the Electoral College is such an interesting oddity in electoral decision making that its a subject that may come up in Comparative Politics courses as well.  Certainly when I teach US politics I use quite a few comparative examples, as one of my themes of the course is how government arises from a series of decisions made by individuals and groups, none of which are or were set in stone.  Showing alternative models is a very useful way of doing this.

So here is a data analysis exercise that I use to teach the American Electoral College. It can be done either as homework or as an-in class as an activity after a basic introduction to the Electoral College and how it works (the basic premise of state-by-state popular vote, proportional votes based on number of seats in Congress, winner take all systems, and if no one wins a majority, the decision is made by the House with state-by-state voting).  

This exercise can be easily reformed for a final exam. Simply change the data and situations.  In the version below I use 9 states in a fictional world; in the exam version, I use about 20 states in a different world.  I never use the entire US or actual vote totals–this is largely to keep the math simple enough that it is not a test of arithmetic but of analysis.  Feel free to change the names of candidates and states to suit your own interests. 


Continue reading “Electoral College Exercise”

An Exercise for Teaching Campaigns and Elections

Today’s post comes courtesy of Dr. Julia Azari, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University.  Her exercise can be used in American politics classes that include a unit on campaigns and elections.  It can be done in a single class or as a multi-day exercise. These are the instructions she gave to the students, reprinted here in full. Where page numbers are given, they refer to the text used in the class:Matt Grossmann, John Sides, Daron Shaw and Keena Lipsitz, Campaigns and Elections, WW Norton, 3rd Edition.


The scenario: In April 2019 (just a few months from now!), President Donald Trump has once again shaken the political world by announcing that he will not seek reelection to a second term. Citing the decisions of Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, James K. Polk, and Rutherford B. Hayes, the 72-year-old entertainer-turned-politician said that he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren, missed his old life, and was satisfied with his incredibly successful first term.[1]

As a result, we have a 2020 election with no incumbent! After tough primary battles on both sides, in July 2020, Republicans and Democrats are settling in for the general election. And it just so happens that candidates from both major parties are eager to hire consultants who have studied political science at Marquette.

Political conditions: Economic growth is steady and no new wars have begun. Trump’s favorability ratings have improved a bit with his decision not to seek reelection, but have remained around 45%.

Now you have to form a consulting firm (a group with 4-5 classmates) and decide which party’s candidate you are advising.[2] Unfortunately, instead of collecting a handsome fee, your end goal is to turn this sheet into me and get a participation grade for the day.

Here are the decisions you’ll need to advise the candidate about:

  1. Fundraising.

How will you do this? Who will you ask to contribute? Do you want to make promises about your commitment to “clean elections” or resisting a certain kind of contribution?

You can’t coordinate with expenditure-only organizations, but how much are you comfortable with letting them pick up the bulk of the campaign spending? Does their existence give you some breathing room to back off of fundraising in favor of other activities? Can you count on their help? What are some benefits and risks of counting on it?

What kinds of campaign fundraising do you expect from your opponent? How will you respond to attacks from independent expenditure groups?

  • Television ad buys (see page 268). What states/media markets will you focus on? Which states do you consider safe and which will be competitive, but attainable? Will you take a risk on running ads in states where your opponent still has the best chance to win?
  • Travel. Where will you go? How many appearances will you make between Sept. 1 and the election? (See page 269) What are the costs and benefits of this strategy?
  • Messages and priorities. What issues will you emphasize? What will you say about the status quo – knowing what you know about forecasting models? How will you balance your appeals to swing voters and your political base?

[1] Note: I don’t think this is an especially plausible scenario, but I don’t this exercise to be focused on the current president because we have other things we need to discuss.

[2] You can speculate about who your candidate is, but again that’s not really the point of the exercise.

From Frying Pan To Fire?

A brief meditation on teaching in the era of Trump. From a comparative perspective. In more ways than one.

As someone whose income is in the world’s top one percent, I have the luxury of partaking in long-distance travel on a purely voluntary basis. Soon I’ll be vacationing outside the USA, a country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters. My destination? A country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters.

So yes, I see parallels, despite the geographic and cultural differences. The tribalistic nationalism. The sexism. The religious justifications. The cronyism. Most of all, the constant attempts to de-legitimize the very institutions that originally put these people into positions of power.

I know that I’m a bit more sensitive to the symbiotic relationship between popular prejudices and abusive government than many people, in part because my wife, as a Muslim and an immigrant, is classified as both a terrorist and a rapist in Trumpspeak. But history demonstrates that those who engage in idol worship and willful ignorance as a means to an end rarely see their expectations met.

And here is the connection to my teaching: the basic principle that I try to convey to students is that one benefits by comparing, as open-mindedly as possible, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Curiosity-driven analysis leads to unexpected insights, sounder judgments, and more satisfying outcomes in life. And it is quite acceptable to make mistakes along the way as long as one takes the time to try to figure out why things went wrong.

Unfortunately I am seeing an increasing resistance to this message among U.S. undergraduates. Far too many expect to be intellectually and morally validated solely on the basis of personal opinion. Far too few exhibit a willingness to consider the possibility that perspectives which differ from their own might have merit. If some students perceive my teaching as a threat to the comfortable psychological environment that they have constructed for themselves, I get labeled authoritarian, racist, sexist, or otherwise unprofessional — revenge for being told that their academic performance is not of the quality that they believe it to be. Who am I to tell them that they are not perfect?

This probably makes me sound like a disgruntled, insufferable elitist. But I wonder if we folks in the USA are in the midst of a disaster of our own making. Unstructured and unsupervised play during childhood has become the exception rather than the rule. Reality TV, online personae, and the War on Terror have been background noise for as long as today’s teenagers have been alive. Anxiety and depression are epidemic on college campuses. And now government by distortion, outrage, and caprice has been normalized. It’s probably only natural that many undergraduates think everyone has the right to their own immutable set of alternative facts.