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"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Margaret Mead

How do we construct an educational philosophy build around the notion of practical reason and judgment for the purpose of action?

At Chico State, we have already begun construction of such a philosophy with an approach to teaching and learning called “Public Sphere Pedagogy.”   Developed by Thia Wolf, director of the First-Year Experience, PSP is an approach to teaching and learning that

  1. Organizes student reading, class discussion, and research around one or more public issues;
  2. Connects students’ class work to public arenas or “spaces” (Town Hall Meeting, Great Debate) in order to demonstrate to them through direct experience the relevance of civic studies and scholarly activity in the larger world;
  3. Places students as active participants in dialogues with diverse campus and community members concerning issues of public importance;
  4. Benefits students and the campus and community through shared experiences of productive dialogue, debate, and collaborative problem-solving around public issues; and
  5. Increases students’ sense of civic efficacy and personal responsibility (i) through reflection following their participation in civic events or projects and (ii) through “next step” activities that prepare students for long-term commitments to involvement in civic life.

Thus far, Public Sphere Pedagogy on our campus has focused on reaching first-year students in order to engage them early in their academic careers, encourage persistence, and increase retention by building direct links between civic engagement and their academic learning.  The overall purpose of this proposal is to extend PSP into upper-division General Education.  This is a crucial task for several reasons:

  • Continuing civic development:  Students need, and indeed have requested, follow-on experiences to events like the Town Hall Meeting and Great Debate.  Once exposed to PSP, students want to continue acquiring the knowledge and skills that will enable them to fully develop their civic identities and capacities.
  • Reinforcing civic learning:  Just as effective academic learning requires iterative and scaffolded learning experiences that move students to higher levels of competence, civic learning likewise requires iteration and increasingly complex encounters to drive development. 
  • Making excellence inclusive:  Like many universities, CSU, Chico has a substantial percentage of undergraduates who transfer in from other institutions, chiefly community colleges.  PSP opportunities need to be incorporated into our upper division general education curriculum in order to reach all students attending the University.  (Making Excellence Inclusive (MEI) is an integral part of the AAC&U Compass Project cited above.  MEI entails ensuring that all students, including those historically underrepresented, have access to High Impact Practices (Kuh 2008).) 

Through the Town Hall Meeting and the Great Debate, we have built a foundation for fostering the growth in students of an active civic identity.  Now, in addition to steadily improving these two foundational experiences, we need to extend the principles of Public Sphere Pedagogy into the upper division (i.e., beyond the first year) of the General Education program in ways that capitalize on the aspirations and expectations we have awakened in students and that deepen their insights and civic commitments.  PSP generates energy and a sense of possibilities, but we need to provide faculty and students with well-conceived follow-up opportunities.  An example of such opportunities is the GE “capstone project,” mentioned above, that allows students to revisit public sphere work through a course that provides them with the opportunity to publish issues-based writing.  (Another example is participation in the “Neighborhood Connections Project.”)

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