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Civic Spotlight: Teaching Political Engagement Inside and Outside the Classroom

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This week’s civic educator spotlight is written by Elizabeth Matto, a professor at Rutgers University. Do you have a story to tell? We’d love to hear it – so head over to the submission guidelines and drop me a line.

Civic engagement education doesn’t end with high school graduation. In fact, the college campus serves as an ideal environment for instilling the political knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for informed and engaged democratic citizenry. Young adults’ tenuous connection to voting as well as widespread distrust and disillusionment among the Millennial Generation with the political process make such lessons in civic engagement even more critical as young adults begin to test the political waters.

Thankfully, a growing body of scholarship in civic engagement education has provided those in higher education with a “pedagogical toolbox” of best practices for such instruction. Nonpartisan and evidence-based, these best practices are available to faculty from all disciplines as well as administrators campus-wide.

Such experiential political learning has been a fundamental component of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University-New Brunswick throughout its over 60 year history as well as the Center for Youth Political Participation (CYPP) that I direct. In this reflection, I’ll share ways in which I utilize elections as a springboard for political learning – learning that includes work both inside the classroom and throughout the campus itself. I hope it offers ideas for others looking to enhance their instruction, connect students to the political process, and prepare their students to be active citizens.

Regardless of their future career, all students need to be prepared and motivated to play a part in civic life.

Elections are Teachable Moments in Civics Education

For civic engagement practitioner-scholars, elections are always “teachable moments”. By weaving CYPP’s mobilization efforts on our campus with our academic offerings, we allow students the opportunity to extend their learning outside the classroom and explore the linkages between how we conceive of politics and how we practice it. This is done by including participation in CYPP’s RU Voting effort with a 1.5 credit topics course entitled “Experience Politics”.

RU Voting is a nonpartisan campus-wide effort meant to encourage Rutgers students to pay attention to politics, to register to vote, and to get to the polls on Election Day. The “Experience Politics” course is a component of a larger effort, the Darien Civic Engagement Project, designed to enhance students’ appreciation of the U.S. Constitution and tenets of American citizenship.

The purpose of the course is to explore how well the ideals and core principles of American democracy align with the realities of American politics, and we explore this topic through the lens of youth political participation. Through readings, discussion, reflection, experiential and project-based learning, students consider the ways in which our ideals as American citizens are realized and ways in which they are thwarted in contemporary elections.

The readings offered in “Experience Politics” walk students through the academic literature regarding the voter registration process, political interest and awareness, and voter mobilization with consideration given to the experience of young adults’ political participation. Readings and discussion about their generation specifically (such as their size, diversity, and connection to social media) provide a necessary foundation for considering the structure of America’s political process and its impact on young adults’ political participation. For example, we consider the effects of diverse registration and Election Day practices between states (such as same-day registration and voter identification laws) and the effects (often negative) on youth turnout.

Learning by Doing: Participating in RU Voting

In the spirit of John Dewey, civic engagement education holds that teaching citizenship requires students to “learn by doing”. For students enrolled in “Experience Politics”, the realities of youth political participation are made more real for my students by involving them in our RU Voting efforts.

By actually administering voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, the academic literature we’ve read and discussed together in the classroom comes to life on campus. Students experience up close the realities involved in encouraging students to participate – experiences that can range from frustration to elation. Additionally, students all create various RU Voting projects meant to equip and encourage their fellow students to participate in elections that are posted on CYPP’s website and shared on social media platforms. Such projects range from infographics that outline the voter registration process to public service announcements to inspire political participation among their peers.

Connecting Theory with Practice

All elections offer invaluable learning opportunities for students, and educators at all levels have a role to play in preparing our next generation of informed and engaged citizens. Political learning that links the theory with the practice not only enhances students’ appreciation of the academic understanding of politics but also develops in them the skills and inclinations of citizenship. The experience of encouraging peers to register to vote or go to the polls on Election Day demystifies the political process and better prepares young adults for their role as citizens. Grounding these experiences in readings, discussion, and reflection enriches the learning experience and heightens the likelihood of future engagement.

College life affords young adults their first experiences of independence as they attain the knowledge and training they need for their chosen professions. Regardless of their major or future career though, all students of all disciplines need to be prepared and motivated to play a part in civic life. Hopefully the examples offered here and in other civic engagement education literature provide educators some guidance as they go about the important work of preparing America’s youth to assume their place in the political process.

Elizabeth C. Matto is the Director of the Center for Youth Political Participation at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. She’s the lead editor of the book Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines published by the American Political Science Association and the author of Citizen Now: Engaging in Politics and Democracy, published by Manchester University Press.

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