Rousseau in the Gallowgate:

Using drama-based pedagogies with first-generational political theory students

The newly formed Teaching Political Theory Network and UCL’s Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) recently co-hosted an online panel event on the theme of ‘Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Ruairidh Brown (Forward College, Lisbon), offers further reflections on using drama-based pedagogies to overcome barriers to the study of political theory facing first-generational students.

“Well, I would like to see Mr Rousseau come down and do a shift with me in the Gallowgate; soon see how long he holds on to those views.”

The Gallowgate is a street in Glasgow known both for its association with Celtic football club and for its reputation as one of the roughest streets in the city. It was where the student quoted worked as a barman when not studying for his politics degree. He was a mature student, older indeed than I was at time of teaching, and had disclosed over our seminars a hardened pessimism cultivated over many years serving pints in Glasgow’s roughest bars.

It was no surprise he had found Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s claim that ‘men are naturally good’ ridiculously absurd.

I nevertheless endeavoured to explain Rousseau’s optimism. I related his thought against the backdrop of the French Enlightenment; as reversal of the Christian tradition of original sin; as a seminal moment in revolutionary socialism. He was buying none of it. Whatever framework I placed it in, he insisted such philosophical optimism would collapse at the threshold of his Gallowgate bar.

In truth, the more I gave intellectual context the more I lost him, as the more ‘intellectual’ I made it the less relevant it appeared to him. I needed to change track: reconstructing the world of Rousseau would not help my argument, I needed instead to make it more relatable to the world of my student – I had to bring Rousseau into the Gallowgate.   

The Portal Between Worlds  

We can think of the interpretation of political thought as a portal: the historical world from which the thinker writes at one side, the contemporary reader at the other. The text is what connects them; interpretation taking ideas from one side and translating them into the other. 

The attention we pay to each side is, however, rarely equal. As academics, and teachers, we frequently prioritise the world of the thinker, with emphasis being put on reconstructing their historical context in order to gain accurate interpretation of their meaning.

This is in part the legacy of Quentin Skinner’s Cambridge School, hallmarked by a meticulous dedication to reconstruction of the political and linguistic context in which a past author wrote as to determine exactly what he or she could, and could not, have said.

Political Theory – and especially International Political Theory (IPT), in which my specialism lies – does have its issues with Skinner, especially on how such focus on history can be reductive, eclipsing consideration of contemporary relevance to the point of collapsing the portal between worlds.

Nonetheless, whilst IPT does aim to highlight the relevance of historical thought for the present, it still puts incredible emphasis on the need to reconstruct the historical context first before translation into the present can be attempted. Interpretatively, there is a soundness to this as it prevents us projecting ideas into the past and becoming guilty of anachronism.

Pedagogically, however, this can create a challenging environment for students as they are left with a forest of intellectual, historical, and linguistic context to navigate through before relatable ideas can be located.

The study of Thucydides, the embarking point for most IPT programs, gives clear illustration of this. Before we can even begin discussing ideas, students must quickly orientate themselves in a very strange and alien world: Corcyra and Corinth? Mytilene and Melos? And Lacedaemon, that’s Sparta? And that is before students even get to concepts rooted in the Classical Greek linguistic context, like Nomos and physis. Students’ very first encounter with IPT is thus being thrown into a dark wood of unfamiliar places, people, and words.

Importantly, not all students are thrown in with equal navigational tools. Typically, those who are ‘first-generational’ – those whose parents did not receive higher education; received State education; and/or are from low-income backgrounds – do not have the same background knowledge or tools to quickly reconstruct this historical linguistic context as, say, those who went to private schools with Greek on the curriculum. Nor do they have as much time to dedicate to this reconstruction, often having to work one, or even two, jobs to maintain their studies. They often instead feel alienated by theory classes, failing to see the relevance behind the thick phalanx of contextual tress, and abandon theory for something ‘more relevant’ to their world.

Providing the right machete that will allow the student to cut through these trees and uncover the core relevance needs to be an educator’s primary aim.

Finding Relevance   

Alcohol was the machete that came to mind for my Glasgow barman.

I asked him if alcohol made the behaviour of his clientele worse.

Worse of course, he conceded.

And did poverty and disadvantage turn many to drink?

Yes, indeed, it was intergenerational.

We were thus able to turn our conversation into a discussion about the ‘nature’ of his customers versus the structural factors that led them to behave this way (though admittedly I was borrowing a lot from T.H. Green here, inspired as he was by Rousseau, rather than explicitly the Genevan himself).  

Turning to J.S. Mill the next week, we centred the liberty principle on a debate over minimum pricing, not only as it was a current hot topic amongst my students at the time, but also as we could build on the entry point of alcohol and responsibility from the previous week.

For the following week on freedom of speech, I let the class identify and vote on a topic. They voted for the controversy over a planned Orange March in a neighbouring town. I created a role play for that week, where they simulated the local council deciding whether to let the march go ahead or not.

I found this approach resulted in greater participation amongst my students. The Glasgow barman notably had a lot to say on these subjects, but I also found students who had up to that time been largely silent get more involved; for, whilst they may have struggled to grasp aspects of the philosophy, they often had views on these local issues and, from these, I could introduce the main points of theory on more familiar and accessible ground.

The Most Simple Encounters

I have since then endeavoured to make my students’ first encounters with thinkers occur on more familiar ground. This often involves drama-based learning, where I reconstruct a relatable scenario in which they can first discover ideas.

This can of course be challenging and intensive work, as it requires changing classes according to students’ concerns and having some knowledge of these concerns. This arguably worked well with a largely homogenous Scottish audience, whose concerns I had a degree of familiarity with as a fellow Scot. This can be more difficult, if not impossible, in more heterogenous classrooms or with demographics more distant from the teacher – as I would learn when I left Scotland to teach in mainland China.

Nonetheless, one does not always need an elaborate pedagogy or classroom plan based on familiarity with students’ present concerns to learn from this. It simply requires one to be more sensitive to the situation in which the students are encountering these works. This can be achieved, I have found, by simply distilling a concept to its simplest and most relatable articulation for that audience – our machete to make first cuts into the forest of ideas.

Guest Post: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum? Embedding academic literacies in an undergraduate social sciences degree

Today’s guest post is by Dr Jenny Morrison from University of Glasgow

Academics increasingly recognise that we need to teach students the academic literacies we want them to have. While traditionally courses have focused on disciplinary content, students have often been left to work out how to research ideas, become discerners of information or write essays and other assignments by themselves. Such implicit expectations form the ‘hidden curriculum’ which particularly disadvantages students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds who often have had fewer opportunities and support to learn the norms and practices of academic writing. Nonetheless, despite increasing discussion of teaching academic literacies, the practicalities of embedding these in a context of massified higher education remains underexplored.

Continue reading “Guest Post: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum? Embedding academic literacies in an undergraduate social sciences degree”

Guest Post: Feminist Pedagogy within Constraints: Teaching Reflective Writing in a UK Higher Education Institution

Dr Cherry Miller
Dr Jenny Morrison

Today’s guest post is by Cherry Miller from University of Helsinki and Jenny Morrison from University of Glasgow.

Assessments are a core area for feminist teaching. Traditional assessments such as the essay or exam can reinforce gendered or other hierarchies in education through favouring ‘masculine’ forms of learning that prioritise disimpassioned objective expression. Thus, feminists have called for greater diversity of assessments in general, and assessments that value the personal alongside the ‘objective’ political in particular. While feminists engage with a range of assessments, the reflective journal (RJ) has become commonplace on feminist courses. 

Nonetheless, research cautions against the assumption that ‘alternative’ assessment automatically fosters more effective learning and teaching. Rather, all academic assessments include implicit expectations and exist within the constraints of the academy. That the reflective journal remains a less familiar – albeit growing – format in higher education means there can be greater uncertainty regarding the expectations of such an assessment. Therefore, we believe the drive to diversify assessments leads to certain tensions for feminist pedagogy.

Continue reading “Guest Post: Feminist Pedagogy within Constraints: Teaching Reflective Writing in a UK Higher Education Institution”

Diversifying the Politics Curriculum: Lessons Learned and Possibilities for Progress

This academic year, the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) is hosting a series of online panel events. Our second event in the series was on the theme of ‘Liberating the politics curriculum: theory and practice’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Helen McCabe, together with Helen Williams and Andy Fisher, offer reflections on findings from a project at the University of Nottingham, led together with colleagues in Politics and IR and Philosophy.

Questions around why Politics curricula are so often “male”, “pale” and – consequently – “stale” have abounded in the last few years, often linked to wider calls to “decolonise” Higher Education, research, and teaching. As well as this, there has been increasing recognition of, and concern about, the award gap between white undergraduate students and those from Black and minoritised ethnic backgrounds. Closing this gap needs a multifaceted and multidimensional approach, much (though not all!) of which is out of individual academics’ control. However, some elements of a curriculum-based approach are in our control – for instance, as educators we could make significant efforts towards regularising ethnic presence on the curriculum (and diversifying it in other ways).

Making politics curricular more diverse in a variety of ways is a positive pedagogical aim, but efforts in this direction face several challenges. Many of these are practical, as we found when investigating this issue. Sharing best practice can save time, but overall, a balance needs to be found between securing sufficient institutional “buy-in” to succeed, and the whole endeavour appearing to be something being inauthentically imposed from above, causing resistance.

One reason diversifying the curricula is an important thing to try and do is that descriptive representation matters to students and for student outcomes. If we care about diversity and the attainment of all our students, we should be mainstreaming perspectives that are not the traditional white, European, middle-class, male ones. What is more, these diverse perspectives should not be an “add-on” treated in one special week. Nor should authors from specific minoritised groups be treated only as experts on issues seen to affect that group (e.g. female authors included on reading lists for the one week on feminism in a political theory course, but not in other weeks on other topics).

However, there are several barriers for engagement, which might be termed: principled, implacable and practical.

Principled challenges and how to address them. People may be put off by the terminology around “decolonising”, feeling it is either an attack on their current practice (implicating them in colonialism), or that it is not a term which ought to be used in a UK context. That is, decolonising the curriculum is a laudable endeavour in countries which were colonised (e.g. South Africa, where the movement began). But it is not appropriate in countries which were colonisers (such as the UK). These principled reasons for not engaging can be at least somewhat overcome through careful use of – and discussion around – terminology (see our collection of Useful Resources) and awareness around the internal and external politics of this kind of project.

Implacable barriers are harder to overcome. Some people do simply reject the pedagogical bases for diversifying the curriculum along ethnic (or gendered) lines. One version of this view holds that students should be introduced to a range of views, but it is the ideological spectrum which should be diverse, not authors’ demographic data. Another version sees these kinds of efforts as “gimmicky”, and does not want to engage. These barriers may simply need recognising, with related decisions taken about which battles to fight.

A different version relates to some academics’ deep-seated aversion to teaching anything on which they do not themselves feel “expert”, which limits their flexibility around what they teach. (And damages their well-being when they feel forced to teach something on which they are not, in their view, “an expert”.) Although for some this might be an excuse not to develop their teaching year-on-year, it is easy to understand why academics may be very risk-averse in terms of changing their teaching such that they feel they are teaching topics or texts for which they do not have a deep understanding, not least given student expectations to be taught “by experts”, and the negative impacts on career progression and staff well-being from negative or low student evaluations. This may be increasingly an issue as lectures are more routinely recorded, and the likelihood of one slip or apparent revelation of ignorance “going viral”, with potentially wide, and severe, consequences. (This may also underpin reluctance to “diversify” reading lists and include writers who may be seen as controversial.) For these reasons, academics may appear implacably opposed to changing their teaching in any significant way, but this position may be softened by the same sorts of solutions which also aid academics who are positive towards the idea of diversifying, but face practical challenges.

Indeed, practical barriers to are the ones most commonly cited and experienced by academics. These include: lack of relevant decision-making power; lack of time; and lack of space.

The first is most commonly experienced by early-career colleagues (including PhD students) who might be able to introduce more diverse readings into seminars, but have no control over the content of lectures, modes of assessment, or the aims and objectives of a module. The second and third are more commonly experienced by those who have the relevant power, but lack the capacity to make use of it. Academics generally do not get as much time as is really needed to update reading lists; re-design assessments, lecture slides, reading lists and other resources; or gain the required expertise on new content. Even where these efforts are recognised in an official workload planner, the time allocated is not generally sufficient. And even where there are helpful resources which might be used, there is concern about garnering satisfactory expertise to bring something into the curriculum (as noted). There is also often as concern about what has to be taken out in order to fit in something new, given the limited time available for a module (e.g. 10-12 weeks). Escaping from that problem probably takes a significant module re-design and re-think: and colleagues are already suffering from a lack of time.

All these practical concerns are significant issues, which need to be taken seriously if curricula are to be diversified in a meaningful and sustainable way. Staff need time and resources to make significant change and feel confident in delivering new material, and this in turn necessitates buy-in from people with power within the University. However, if the move to diversify the curriculum feels imposed in a “top-down” and/or “gimmicky” fashion, this is likely to be counter-productive. Indeed, power structures in academia may need to be “decolonised” before the curriculum can be.

Useful Resources:

All our resources here hosted here

This includes some “top tips” available here

And a toolkit for thinking about terms and terminology

There is also some great advice from colleagues at Sheffield Hallam available here

A Crowdsourced IR Playlist

A new guest post by Dr. Summer Marion from Bentley University, Waltham, MA:

Since Fall 2022, I have taught ten sections of Internationals Relations at Bentley University. Each semester, I experiment with integrating music into my curriculum as a means of both encouraging my students to apply abstract concepts in their everyday lives, and better understanding what IR means to them. Inspired by others’ impressive IR playlists, I take a slightly different approach from faculty who have curated their own lists to share with students in class. I challenge students to: 1) expand and improve my taste in music, and more importantly 2) contribute to making IR more relevant to their generation by proposing songs of their own for a small amount of extra credit on the final exam. Students brainstorm songs that they enjoy listening to and find relevant to a topic covered in class over the course of the semester. They then share their songs alongside a brief explanation in our class discussion forum. I encourage students to submit songs as we cover each topic, but final submissions are not due until the end of the semester. I occasionally play a student submission to kick off a new topic at the beginning of class, inviting students to discuss and share their thinking.

Continue reading “A Crowdsourced IR Playlist”

Generative AI changes teaching and learning: how to protect the integrity of assessment

This academic year, the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) is hosting a series of online panel events. Our first event on 30 October was on the theme of ‘Using technology to teach politics’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Simon Sweeney (University of York), offers further reflections on the challenges involved in higher education’s embracing generative AI, where tools such as ChatGPT call into question issues of authorship and have profound implications for assessment.

A few years ago, we were worrying about students’ using essay mills, a form of contract cheating that plagiarism detection software struggled to identify. The Covid-19 pandemic and online delivery coincided with a reported increase in academic dishonesty (AD). In late-2022 the arrival of generative artificial intelligence (GAI) chatbots like ChatGPT is a further challenge to the integrity of assessment.

Universities realised that banning chatbots was not feasible, as AI has become an established feature in our lives and graduate employment. As educators, we need to respond positively to the opportunities AI presents, recognising its benefits and assimilating AI into teaching and learning practice.

This means developing strategies that accommodate students’ use of GAI while protecting assessment integrity.

Continue reading “Generative AI changes teaching and learning: how to protect the integrity of assessment”

(Not) teaching employability: One case for inactive learning?

Another great guest post by Dr. Jeremy F. G. Moulton at the University of York!

(As for this Pigeon, I just finished teaching a voluntary overload semester: 5 courses, plus developed a 6th course for CSU Online. It’s a workload I’m not in a hurry to repeat. Now back to Jeremy!)

I read with interest Amanda Rosen’s recent blog post on why it is not necessary to choose a ‘side’ in the debate between lecturing or active learning. 

Rather than choosing to be loyal only to one approach, Rosen notes that ‘we should choose our teaching techniques based on our learning goals and the demand of the questions, concepts, cases, and other material that we are teaching’. 

This is something that I have been thinking over a lot in the last year in relation to the subject of employability. Usually, I am someone who prefers to lean slightly towards a more ‘active’ form of learning. Whilst I do see the benefits of the lecture format, I also love experimenting with new modes of engagement in seminars, workshops, and in online learning environments. 

However, employability has stuck in my mind over the last year as one area where there seems to be a strong case for relative inactivity.

Continue reading “(Not) teaching employability: One case for inactive learning?”

Anxiety, excellence, and reflexivity in the classroom

Today we have a new guest post. Last month Roxani Krystalli published an article on teaching and learning reflexivity in the world politics classroom. In this blog post, she discusses some of the anxieties that arise when embracing reflexive pedagogies and articulates her hopes for what reflexive inquiry with and about the natural world may make possible.

A few weeks ago I gave three lectures as part of the required introductory module to international relations that all 500+ students who study this subject must enrol in during their first year. Colleagues in the department, which draws together scholars from a range of disciplines, co-teach this module, meaning that we are each responsible for a themed week every semester. My lectures centred on the theme of ‘the environment,’ prompting students to reflect on what counts as environmental knowledge, what forms this knowledge takes, how we can meaningfully get to know our environments, and what all these forms of knowledge might have to do with political action.

I find it difficult to teach—not just ‘about’ the environment, but about anything at all—in the abstract. I prefer teaching ‘with,’ rather than ‘about.’ Teaching with the environment, in this instance, involved making offerings of different ways to ground ourselves in place as teachers, students, and learners. My favourite offerings are questions, each paving one path for engaging with the world. I asked the students to recall how they began to learn the trees, birds, or clouds near their home when they were children. I asked them to consider whether they would recognise the geese that regularly fly over St Andrews, or how they might get to know the flowers that bloom here, even if they did not know that the birds honking overhead were pink-footed geese and even if they could not name the specific flowers.

The birds honking overhead were pink-footed geese

Beyond recalling and considering, I invited students to spend some time outside, noticing, wondering, paying attention. They could, if they wanted, download an app that helps them identify birdsong, or name plants, or they could take a walk with someone who knows this environment well. They could focus on one sense over others: What does West Sands beach smell like? I encouraged them to think about the environments that are dear to them here in St Andrews and then to focus on getting to know one aspect of those environments. What would getting to know the trees look like, and how might that change their—our—education and experience of politics?

Many students are at once intrigued and overwhelmed by these offerings, which I consider to be part of an approach to teaching and learning that encourages reflexivity, though I am more interested in the practice than the label. The fascination with the world beyond the classroom is perhaps obvious, and the overwhelm stems from realising how little knowledge (let alone language) some of us have for the features of that world. How did a politics and international relations education come to be devoid of geese honking, and where might we begin to put the honks back in?

When I consider this question, I bump up against the anxieties of performance. It helps, yet again, to be specific. Much inquiry – in the Q&A following lectures, in tutorials, in Office Hours – begins and ends with assessments: “Can you help us answer the set essay question for the team-taught module?” “If I want to argue X, would that be okay? Would that be enough?” The question at the heart of such inquiry is “how can I do this well?”

This is a question I know intimately, and one I simultaneously worry about. I worry about the questions that this form of inquiry displaces, the birds we do not hear when we direct anxiety towards the essay instead. The anxieties of excellence were drilled into my own encounters with educational expectations, starting at too young an age. When teaching students for whom the question of “how can I do this well?” is an urgent one, I feel a sense of empathy—and a simultaneous desire to set this question aside, or at least to consider it alongside the other questions that make so many of these students (and their teachers) anxious in this era: How can we live together and enable life amidst so many sources of violence, grief, and threat to life?

It is possible to carry the overwhelming (there is that word again!) magnitude of this question alongside worries about performance. (Telling someone not to worry about performance or excellence is akin to telling a distressed person to “calm down,” a plea that rarely has the desired effect). My hope is that reflexive offerings in the classroom—invitations that ground people in their environments, in their bodies and senses and relations—widen the scope of what we notice and direct attention and care towards. Locating ourselves in place and in the body, in the senses and in the world, may actually broaden, than relieve, sources of anxiety. But it also offers us potential forms of companionship and ways of sense-making that can make it possible to imagine different ways of living and relating in an aching world.

Roxani Krystalli is a Lecturer at the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. She is currently the co-Principal Investigator of a research project on the politics of love and care in the wake of loss.

Little by little: Challenging awarding gaps in UK higher education

We have another great guest post by Jeremy F. G. Moulton at the University of York!

The Financial Times recently published an analysis of data from HESA (the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency) which revealed a troubling trend in UK universities. As the analysis’s headline read: ‘Non-EU international students at UK universities less likely to get top grades’. The data was clear – undergraduates from outside the EU were twice as likely as UK students to receive a lower-second or third-class degree in 2021-22 (and therefore missing out on the upper-second or first-class degrees that employers most favour).

This trend is especially concerning given the significant growth in the number of non-EU international students studying at UK universities in recent years, with almost three times as many studying in the UK today than in 2007. With these students making up a larger proportion of those within our classrooms, there is a need to ensure that universities are not providing them with a second-class education.

The problem with awarding gaps is not, however, limited to the difference in degree outcomes between non-EU international students and EU and “home” students. There is a wealth of data already covering racialised awarding gaps, socio-economic awarding gaps, and disability awarding gaps, for example. 

The question is – what can be done to help challenge these trends?

I work at an institution which has the ambition of ‘eradicating’ awarding gaps by 2030. This has given those working on teaching and learning a serious opportunity to engage with the issue, to understand the challenges, and to make some early steps to address those gaps.

Of course, there are many factors that shape awarding outcomes where we have limited power to respond. Structural issues will often be the deciding factor on, for instance, whether students will have to take on part-time work to fill the increasing gulf between the costs of student life and the student loans provided. 

This is not a niche issue, over half of undergraduates in the UK are now in part-time employment. Some universities are already experimenting with compacting students’ timetables so classes only cover three days of the week. This gives students clear days for paid work and, hopefully, ensures that they don’t miss any teaching. This compartmentalisation of the week might also be of benefit to academics by providing set days for research, writing, and tackling that ever-growing pile of emails. 

However, there are also opportunities for individual, course-level initiatives to achieve the ambition of combatting awarding gaps.

The first opportunity is to reflect on how we are assessing our students. In particular,  optionality could be one particularly effective path forward. Letting students select from a range of assessment formats, tailored for respective modules, would allow students the choice of assessment to best suit their learning style and the skills that they are seeking to develop through their studies. A recent report on optionality in assessment highlighted its potential to limit awarding gaps, making the recommendation that ‘Educational institutions should prioritise the introduction of diverse assessment formats to explicitly address accessibility and concerns about fairness, ensuring access to necessary resources and skills development to prevent the unintentional widening of awarding gaps’. 

The second opportunity is to take the time to consider the range of cultures and approaches to learning that are present in our increasingly diverse classrooms, and to engage students on these matters. It is easy to take for granted that the approaches to teaching and learning that have been taught or socialised to us are in some way the ‘standard’ but this is a practice that risks alienating some students. 

For example, research on students from China’s learning styles has highlighted that they often do not have experience in or enjoy some of the norms of active learning that are the mark of much of the teaching and learning in Western institutions. Therefore, engaging all students at the start of courses about the hows and whys of the approaches to learning that will be utilised will provide at least some shared understanding of the expectations and benefits of getting involved in seminar discussions. 

Finally, taking the opportunity to support students’ confidence in engaging with learning should never be missed. Learning students’ names; encouraging students to interact and learn with each other outside of the classroom; giving students the chance to speak individually (ending teaching sessions a few minutes early but sticking around can give students the chance to ask questions that they might be self-conscious about asking in front of a group) – these are all relatively easy ways to try and give students more confidence in themselves, as well as the learning process. This, in turn, has the potential for increasing engagement and attainment. 

In sum, these above suggestions boil down to one simple but key idea – that we should find space for empathy in our teaching. Certainly, there are a host of other pathways to begin combatting awarding gaps. Whilst sector- and institution-level data is vital in identifying problematic trends, it will take a more granular approach to understand the specific, course-level issues and responses. This is a big issue but it is also one that academics can begin engaging with and combatting by instituting small changes.

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.