Interdisciplinary VCU-JMU Team Recognized Nationally for Innovative Teaching Strategy in Civic Learning

The JMU-VCU “Debate Across the Curriculum” project received an honorable mention in the 2019 American Civic Collaboration Awards (“Civvys”).

By Jenny Pedraza

Twelve faculty members and four administrators from Virginia Commonwealth University and James Madison University involved in a year-long, interdisciplinary faculty learning community have collaborated to combine debate pedagogy and civic learning outcomes, garnering national recognition. The JMU-VCU “Debate Across the Curriculum” project received an honorable mention in the 2019 American Civic Collaboration Awards (“Civvys”).

“VCU is a national leader in the conversation about academic-community partnerships in higher education, and VCU's Division of Community Engagement works closely with faculty instructors who want to deepen students' civic learnings,” said Lynn Pelco, associate vice provost of community engagement. “Given these priorities, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with debate pedagogy experts from JMU's Communications Center.”

Hosted by leaders in the civic renewal movement - the Bridge Alliance Education Fund, Big Tent Nation and the National Conference on Citizenship - the Civvys is a national awards program dedicated to celebrating projects that emphasize working together across divides to strengthen communities and empower citizens. Three submission categories in national, local and youth areas represent a range of projects, programs and people that use civic collaboration best practices to achieve real results in facilitating dialogue, enabling cross-partisan action or putting civility and community above ideology.

Citing “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future” from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, the faculty group is working to actualize the message that “A socially cohesive and economically vibrant U.S. democracy…require[s] informed, engaged, open-minded, and socially responsible people committed to the common good and practiced in ‘doing’ democracy…Civic learning needs to be an integral component of every level of education, from grade school through graduate school, across all fields of study.”

Virginia is one of only three states in the U.S. with a statewide policy for developing undergraduates’ civic engagement competency.

Paul Mabrey, assistant professor of communication studies and communication center coordinator at JMU, said civic learning is a natural fit with using debate-based assignments in the classroom because of the emphasis on developing evidence-based reasoning, listening, critical problem-solving, collaboration and communication skills around discipline-specific controversies or local public problems. JMU administrators and faculty have worked to incorporate the teaching strategy on their campus for the last eight years.

VCU faculty members, including Michael Rackett in ASPiRE; Michael Pyles in the Dept. of Kinesiology & Health Sciences; Susan Bodar-Deren, Liz Coston and Dingani Mthethwa in the Dept. of Sociology; Tammy Swecker in the School of Dentistry; and Emily Peron in the School of Pharmacy, are the first six faculty members to take part in the pilot program to launch JMU’s Debate Across the Curriculum initiative at VCU.

Rackett teaches his neighborhood research seminar using debate for civic learning. The one-credit course focuses on the history and character of the Richmond community and its neighborhoods. As part of a small-group neighborhood research project, students visit a specific Richmond neighborhood, collect statistical and contextual information about the neighborhood and present their experiences and findings to the class in an oral presentation.

“Incorporating a debate activity in this course allows students to focus on community-identified needs and community assets, and it gives them the opportunity to practice civil discourse and oral communication,” Rackett said.

Pyles utilizes debate in his course, “Health Care Delivery in the U.S.” The course introduces almost 250 students each semester to the U.S. healthcare system, including the roles of government and public health in the delivery of healthcare and their impact on health outcomes, inpatient and outpatient services, healthcare financing, the role of technology and an introduction to health law and health ethics. 

“Using debate in this course provides students a unique opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of course concepts via meaningful, practical discussions,” Pyles said. “A debate format allows students to see themselves as current and future stakeholders in the U.S. healthcare system, and it’s extremely useful to students as they contemplate questions pertaining to the production and distribution of healthcare within the context of the two broad, theoretical frameworks of market justice and social justice.”

Through an open access Debate for Civic Learning Resource Guide, the faculty group hopes to share their curricula to help faculty members across the country deepen their students’ civic learning and engagement within the context of academic disciplines. The guide includes overviews of debate assignments, including assessment strategies and faculty reflections.

On Sept. 20 and 21, the group will host The Debate for Civic Learning Institute along with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. The two-day institute at JMU will focus on integrating debate pedagogy into course curriculum design and institutional programming for civic learning. Faculty from approximately 20 higher education institutions around the region will participate in panels, discussions and workshops on how to integrate debate-based activities into their courses to improve civic learning.

Mabrey said the JMU-VCU group is collecting and analyzing assessment data from the VCU pilot courses and plans to expand partnerships and reach in the future, particularly in disciplines where civic learning may not have traditionally been a priority.

“Preliminary analyses show a positive effect on student civic skills like critical thinking, collaborative learning, empathy, evidence-based reasoning and having civic disagreements,” Mabrey said. “Higher education plays a vital role in helping to prepare students, faculty and staff to be engaged community members.”

For more information, contact Pelco at lepelco@vcu.edu.

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