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  • The Civic Institute Relocated:Designing a Syllabus for Undergraduate Students at a Public University
  • Susan Orr (bio)

"What we are against: The weakening and downright disappearance of the public spirit, understood not simply as a commitment to the common good and public service, but as a commitment to help create a better world."

—statement from the framers . . . of the Institute of Civic Studies

I left the Summer Institute of Civic Studies in the summer of 2011 still unsure about what I thought of the central puzzle, what makes a "good citizen." I had enjoyed two weeks of fun, free-thinking and sometimes passionate debate about just that topic. I left full of ideas, questions, and a great deal of enthusiasm. While I am sure that I will use much that I learned to shape and frame future research, my immediate task was to try to capture the inspiration behind the institute in an undergraduate course. This essay describes my attempt to accomplish that goal. I include thoughts on designing the syllabus along with reflections on teaching the class—"Perspective on Citizenship." I view this course very much as a work in progress, in part because I find that I am still processing and "sorting out" the many conceptualizations and ideas about citizenship presented at the institute. In addition, not everything that I incorporated into the syllabus worked as planned. My hope is that this essay will contribute to a conversation among educators who strive to introduce the spirit of civic studies to the undergraduate classroom. [End Page 172]

Aims and Obstacles

My primary objective when designing the course is captured by the above epigram which is excerpted from the framing statement for the Institute of Civic Studies. In the current political economic circumstances, college students and the general public are increasingly focused on the benefits a college degree will garner on the job-market. While the civic purpose of higher education has not been entirely overlooked (the Presidents Higher Education Community Service Initiative, the work of the National Corporation On Citizenship, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities' American Democracy Project, and the home of the Summer Institute: the Tisch College of Citizenship are exemplars of projects that endorse higher education's civic mission), it has certainly been overshadowed.1 I believe this is unfortunate. Thus I wanted to offer a course that would prompt undergraduates to think seriously about their role as citizens; one that would allow them to critically examine various notions of citizenship and ponder their future role in their communities. It seemed appropriate, given this goal, to adopt three of the four discussion questions from the Civic Studies Institute as the central issues for my course. Namely: What kinds of citizens (if any) do good regimes need? What should such citizens know, believe, and do? What practices and institutional structures promote the right kinds of citizenship? The remaining question from the Civic Studies Institute, "What ought to be the relationships among empirical evidence, ethics, and strategy?" seemed to me a little too complex for my undergraduate classroom. I decided instead to encourage students to think about the various approaches to social science, from normative and empirical theories to quantitative and qualitative methodologies. As you will see, in order to accomplish this I incorporated readings that traverse common disciplinary boundaries.

Selecting accessible texts was the primary challenge I faced when putting together the course. I teach at a college in a public university system that attracts many first generation students and a substantial number of transfer students. While most are traditional age undergraduates, there are generally a handful of older learners in most classes. Thus the background and college preparation of students varies significantly. In addition the course was to be offered as an upper-division political science class, but without [End Page 173] any prerequisites. This meant that it would attract a number of students from other majors, such as criminal justice, communications, and history who are required to take classes outside their major. In most respects this is all ideal—it ensured I would have a pool of participants who were coming into the class with varied academic interests, backgrounds, and life-experiences. However...


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