Feb 10, 2014Vol. 44, Issue 3

Our Town: Public Sphere Pedagogy Effects Change

Over the last few months, our town, Chico, has witnessed a very intense and polarizing debate around issues of safety, civility, and cleanliness in the downtown area. The focus of much of this attention has been on the homeless. On one hand, a coalition of downtown business owners and other citizens seek to rid our community of the homeless and transient populations, whom they find unsightly, threatening, and detrimental to attracting visitors and shoppers to the downtown. Strategies to accomplish this include hiring private armed guards to patrol the downtown area, prohibiting the homeless from sitting on city sidewalks, and giving them one-way bus tickets out of town. In other words, to remove them from our sight by various means.

On the other hand, there are members of our community who recognize that homelessness is not a condition that most choose and often there are other factors at play that contribute to it, like mental illness. Although similarly concerned with quality of life issues in our city and sympathetic to the concerns of the business owners, these citizens propose an approach that is guided by an understanding of the factors that cause homelessness and aims to address them as much as deal with the individuals who have turned up on our streets to live. 

The debate between these two groups, particularly as it has played out in City Council meetings, has not often been a model of civil discourse. It often feels more like a drive-by debate, as proponents for one side or another of this complex issue shout at one another and quickly rush to their hardened positions without a whole lot of interest or consideration for what others might say.

The challenge of conducting civil discussions, reaching reasoned conclusions, and achieving consensus on difficult and vexing issues is not unique to our community. But, a few years ago, recognizing the potential resource that the University represented in these matters, some city leaders turned to our campus for help. Our faculty and staff—and especially our students—responded immediately. This was the genesis of the Great Debate Program, which for four years now, has taken on some very thorny issues, including freedom of speech, immigration, the legalization of marijuana, and mental health. Beyond involving our students in studying these matters, that is, the substance of the annual Great Debate, the program has focused on the manner of the debate, that is, fair and sensible rules of engagement that underscore civil, respectful, and consequential dialogue. 

The Great Debate is part of a larger effort on our campus that aims to bridge classroom learning with the experience of public, democratic participation. It is linked to other programs, like the Town Hall Meeting and Book in Common, that also integrate academic and civic work and then showcase it in a public arena. All of these expressions of public engagement are elements of our First-Year Experience Program. In higher education circles these activities are collectively known as “public sphere pedagogy.” And no college or university has embraced this effort as deeply or as well as Chico State.

Led by Dean of Undergraduate Education Bill Loker and professors Thia Wolf, Ellie Ertle, and Zach Justus, and supported by a host of students and faculty who serve as mentors and facilitators, our public sphere pedagogy efforts have drawn national attention. One of the key reasons they have done so is the impressive evidence we now have after several years of experience with these programs that this kind of active learning positively affects student success. The first-to-second-year retention rate of students who have participated in the Town Hall, for example, is 5 to 7 percent stronger than those who have not.

In so many other ways, these programs emphasize the responsibility we have to prepare our students not only to take their place in our state’s workforce, but also to contribute to the quality of civic life as engaged, informed members of their communities. They reflect our belief that, through interactions with other students, alumni, local citizens, and public officials, the students who participate in these programs will gain a greater sense of their place in our community and strive to contribute to its betterment.

Public sphere pedagogy has blossomed in fertile ground here. Its roots and partners are myriad: CAVE, CLIC, the CCLC and other programs of student leadership development, such as LeadCat and the Freshmen Leadership Opportunity, the annual Blitz Build, the transformation of Cesar Chavez Day from a party time to a day of service, the restructuring of Greek life along lines of citizenship and service, and our new student orientation messaging that emphasizes high expectations for our students both on campus and in our community. These and so many other programs in our classrooms and across our campus are connected to the larger goals of active learning and responsible, accountable student behavior.

As with the homeless, we know that our students are sometimes cast in a negative light by members of the Chico community who look for easy targets to blame for whatever they think ails our city. But the evidence is so overwhelming to the contrary. Our commitment to public sphere pedagogy adds to that evidence. And in this season of gratitude and giving, we should be mindful of the civic values, good intentions, and immeasurable benefits that are connected to this effort.   

Paul J. Zingg