Can civic literacy and engagement be promoted in 100% online courses, even in the midst of a social distancing campaign that requires students to stay largely confined to their homes?
In an original PS Now essay Judithanne McLauchlan and I explain how civic learning goals rooted in experience can be advanced even when following CDC guidelines. As a resource for instructors adapting their courses for a 100% online environment, I am pleased to share my Spring 2020 menu of civic learning projects, as adapted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watch a City Council, School Board, or County Commission meeting online. Take a screenshot of the meeting and create your own transcript or summary explaining what was discussed and time-stamping each new topic. Don’t forget to include a reflection paper discussing what you learned about local government and how your experience shapes your understanding of federalism and your own options for future engagement.
Volunteer for a community agency. Volunteer at least 3-5 hours; include a worklog indicating what you did and when you did it, plus a note or email from the volunteer coordinator. Your work may involve deliveries and service to the elderly and medically vulnerable, but may also be work that is conducted via telephone or online. The key is for the volunteer coordinator to be able to certify your work effort. Also reflect on what you learned about yourself, the agency for which you volunteered, and our community.
Volunteer for a political campaign. Volunteer at least 3-5 hours; include a note or email from the volunteer coordinator (including title and contact information), plus a time log indicating what you did and when you did it. This work might be leafletting, phone banking, graphic design, social media messaging, mailing, or other activities that you can do while observing CDC guidelines regarding social distancing. Do not lick the envelopes! Be sure to include a reflection paper explaining how your experience informed your understanding of contemporary election campaigns and what type of involvement you plan to undertake in the future.
Conduct a phone interview with the local Democratic or Republican Party county chairperson. Ask about the local party. How many active members are part of the county party organization? What activities do they undertake? How do they support candidates during primary and general elections? What is the role of the party chair? Is the position paid or unpaid? What is the best part of the job? The most frustrating? The most challenging? What skills are required to perform the job? Submit your interview questions, a transcript of the chair’s responses, and your reflection on what you learned.
Attend a VIRTUAL campaign event (fundraiser, rally, town hall meeting, etc.). Take a screenshot of the event; write about what happened, who spoke, and what you learned. What were the key issues discussed? Did you learn more about the candidate’s experience, priorities, and policy positions? Was there audience interaction? Was the event engaging? Would the event have been more “impactful” if it were held face-to-face? Why or why not? If you were the candidate or campaign manager, what would you have done differently? How did this event shape your understanding of contemporary election campaigns?
Conduct a phone or Skype or Zoom interview with a Legislative Aid for one of your members of Congress. Include your list of questions and transcript (or summary) of their answers, in addition to your reflection paper about what you learned during the interview. What is the role of the Legislative Aid? What happens in the office? What does an average day look like? Are there any volunteers working in the office? What do volunteers do? How can constituents share their concerns? How does DC staff communicate with local staff? What issues are most important to the Member of Congress right now? What is the best thing about working for a Member of Congress? What is Congress doing to respond to the novel coronavirus? What is the role of Congress? What is the role of the states?
Contact an elected official about an issue that interests you. Explain why this issue matters to you and why you chose a specific elected official when voicing your concern. Is the issue a local issue, state issue, or national issue? What power does the individual you contacted have to shape this policy area? Does the official represent you? Do they chair a relevant committee? Submit a copy of your letter/email or the script of your phone call. If you received a verbal or written response, include that information, too.
Write a letter to the editor of a newspaper about an issue of concern to you. Explain why this issue matters to you and why you chose the specific media outlet you selected when voicing your concern. Explain the process and requirements for submitting a letter. What is the word limit? To whom do you submit the letter and how? What happens next? Provide a copy of the submitted letter and the newspaper’s response (if available).
Watch one of the Sunday morning political talk shows. Provide information about which program you watched, who appeared on the program, the topics discussed, and what you learned. Who made the most compelling arguments? With whom did you most agree and/or disagree? Why? Include a screen shot or photo of the program in progress. Consider watching a past episode of Politically Speaking (a weekly public affairs program airing on WNIT at 7PM Fridays, 2PM Sundays, and 5PM Mondays, and also available at www.wnit.org/ps).
Listen to a 2019 or 2020 Supreme Court oral argument online. What was the case name? The central issue? What were the key arguments outlined by the attorneys? Key questions by the justices? How long did it last? How much of the time was used by attorneys? By the justices? Do you think you could tell whether judges were supportive or skeptical of the arguments being advanced by the attorneys? What were the most interesting lines of questioning you heard? What did you learn about the Court and about oral arguments by viewing?
Watch a 2019 or 2020 Indiana Supreme Court (or Indiana Appeals Court) oral argument online. What was the case name? The central issue? Key arguments by the attorneys? Key questions by the justices? How long did it last? How much of the time was used by attorneys? By the judges? Do you think you could tell whether judges were supportive or skeptical of the arguments being advanced by the attorneys? What were the most interesting lines of questioning you heard? What did you learn about the Court and about oral arguments by viewing?
Follow a proposed Rule change and post a comment Why did you choose this rule? Why is the topic important to you? What research did you do when preparing your response? What questions did you ask? What data did you gather? Be sure to cite your sources. Submit a copy of your comment, and proof of submission.
Interview a lobbyist regarding their organization’s legislative agenda. Who did you interview? Did you use Skype, Zoom, Facetime, or phone? What did you discuss? Share your questions or talking points and the lobbyist’s responses to your questions/ideas. A few ideas: Where do they work? Is the position salaried? Do they work in one issue area or several? Do they work for one client, or many? How do they contact policy makers? What type of policy makers do they contact? Do they work primarily at the state level or the federal level? Do they meet with legislators, legislative aids, legislative agencies, members of the executive branch, or all of the above? How do they persuade policy makers to consider their viewpoint? What legal rules do they have to follow? What informal rules do they follow to maintain access and be effective? What is it like to serve as a lobbyist? What is the best and worst part of the job? Be sure to submit a 1-2 page reflection paper discussing what you learned about political lobbying and how this knowledge shapes your attitude toward lobbying and lobbyists. Do you think you will engage in any (paid or unpaid) lobbying activities in the future?
Interview a journalist who covers state, local, or national politics. Who did you interview? Where does the subject work? Include your interview questions and the reporter’s responses, and briefly discuss what you learned about political journalism today. A few topics to consider: How long have you been a journalist? How long have you been reporting on politics? What type of political stories do you cover? What is the most challenging part of the job? The best part? The worst part? Are there any stories you are particularly proud of breaking or writing? How accessible are public officials? Have you had to use the Freedom of Information Act to request documents that government agencies refused to provide? Why is it important to cover politics? Is it difficult to do this work when the president labels journalists the “Enemy of the People” and dismisses unfavorable stories as “fake news”? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the media landscape in the United States? Why?
Learn more about how to register to vote and cast a ballot in your state. First, go to indianavoters.com. Second, contact the Supervisor of Elections Office (election board or county voter registration office) and find out how people in your state and county can register to vote – and cast a ballot. What options exist to register to vote in person? Is it possible to register to vote online? How? When? Where? What options exist for voting? When is Election Day? (Include the dates of your state’s 2020 primary election and 2020 general election). When and where can people cast their ballots on Election Day? What races will be on the ballot? Is early voting (absentee-in-person voting) an option in your state? If so, when and where? What about no-excuse absentee voting by-mail? What circumstances does a person have to swear or affirm to qualify for a mail-in ballot? What about people who are SCARED to go to the polls due to the coronavirus? Do local election officials have any advice for these people? What BOX can they check when requesting their absentee ballot?
Students can also be encouraged to learn more about the politics of the pandemic. I encouraged my students to consider the following as they complete their projects: What policy changes and government actions do local, state, and national candidates/officials propose to respond to the health and economic threats posed by COVID-19? How is the pandemic affecting the work of journalists, lobbyists, and civic leaders? What key arguments are people making about the pandemic on the Sunday news programs? How are election rules being adapted to address the need for social distancing? How are local government meetings addressing issues related to the pandemic (e.g. school closures, park or beach closures, travel restrictions, and funding packages).
Students can practice civic skills and learn more about the political world through engagement of many types. Online-only civic opportunities extend well beyond being a “keyboard warrior” on social media. For more details about this menu-based, experiential learning approach to civic education see my PS Now essay with Judithanne McLauchlan.
Elizabeth Bennion, Ph.D. is a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University South Bend, where she teaches courses in American Politics. She is the founding director of IUSB’s American Democracy Project, President of the Indiana Debate Commission, and host of Politically Speaking, a weekly TV program on WNIT – PBS for Michiana. In these capacities she moderates political discussions, public issue forums, and candidate debates for local, state, and national candidates. A nationally recognized expert on civic education and political engagement, Professor Bennion has won numerous local, state, and national awards for her teaching and service, and has published widely in academic books, journals, and professional newsletters. Professor Bennion is co-editor of two APSA-published books on teaching civic engagement: Teaching Civic Engagement: From Student to Active Citizen (2013) and Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines (2017).