The New Civics ECSP Story so far:
Defining ‘New Civics’ and Contributing to the Field
The New Civics agenda guides the Spencer Foundation’s support for our Early Career Scholars’ Program and we hope to contribute significantly to it. This agenda challenges the conventional emphasis on civic action as primarily voting behavior, and also disrupts the assumption that its antecedents are largely in the formal school environment. New Civics work has massively expanded the definition of participation; indeed as one of our Scholars, Jake Fay, puts it: “If civics is no longer simply the political, to what else does it pertain? Is there no action that is not, somehow, civic?” It has widened questions about the origins of active participation (and of alienation): What information is important, beyond civic knowledge? What salient skill and efficacy-building experiences happen beyond the democratic classroom? Our Early Career Scholars’ work in internship teams and dissertation projects has contributed to these valuable developments, as the website demonstrates.
We are seeing a sea-change, a shift of perspective. ‘Expanding’ a field or topic can be just ‘adding on’ – rich, but not necessarily transformative. For a field truly to expand, it is essential to see things differently. One of our Scholars, Bryan McAllister-Grande, says: “The New Civics follows other academic and social movements in crossing multiple temporal, geographic, intellectual, and cultural borderlands. It conceives of actors as multidimensional, meaning-making subjects, rather than strictly political or social beings. [I]t might also be …defined as an age of multiplicity and expressionism, in which actors construct diffuse and fluid identities beyond borders”.
How does immersing ourselves in a field do this? Our ECSP Scholars’ reflections on their experiences are attached. Five themes in their accounts reflect transformations. The five themes are:
- conceptualizing community,
- how identity is central,
- the radical civic and cultural impact of new media,
- the reality and origins of ‘civic skills’,
- what institutional structures and groups should we be targeting?
In each case, our Scholars’ work challenges some prior assumptions in the field.
‘Community’ has seemed a backdrop in much traditional work in civics, mainly locating the citizen demographically with an implicit message that power and status define available resources and opportunities. Or community may be the locality where civic action - often seen as not very ‘politically’ significant - takes place. Robert Putnam however argues that community activities create the social capital that makes for healthy civic life, and so forefronts community as a locus of vibrant interaction rather than ‘background’. In addition, the individual is dynamically embedded in not one, but numerous, communities.
It is often difficult within the Western tradition to escape the myth of the individual as primary agent, influenced and perhaps facilitated by community but still essentially autonomous. In contrast, emerging in research and our Scholars’ experience is the individual in constant dialogue with others, co-constructing meaning, sharing communication actively and passively, and in particular, drawing on cultural narratives which make meaning, highlight values, position others and provide route maps for efficacy. A community is a physical, psychological, emotional and aesthetic space within which the individual is constantly negotiating meaning and agency. Community affects civic engagement iteratively and interactively, not just as a backdrop, and we need to explore just what those dynamic interaction processes are.
Collective narratives are a core feature of a community, the shared stories that explain the origins of the current state of affairs, prioritize specific values and goals, and make normative many behaviors and practices which are seen as symbolic of that community, including what practices are deemed both effective and appropriate for achieving civic (or other) goals. Establishing collective narratives is central to building a community, and also determines the boundaries of the community. Changing a community’s collective narratives is an important part of effecting change. We see this particularly in situations of conflict.
These aspects of community relate to its role in the origins of civic engagement. Another vital dimension of community is subjective experience. There has been a tendency to see ‘community’ as a specific and localized constellation of people, familiar and connected to the individual, and then to see ‘society’ or ‘nation’ as the larger space, beyond the community though accessed through it. Work on digital communication and on identity shows that when people engage in communicating they are in fact defining ‘their’ subjective community and they are building commitment and engagement with it, especially when they are working for improvements. The action of participation is collaborative. It requires engagement with a community of like-minded people using their resources towards the same goals, whether these are local or national; helping people to improve town community organizations or lobbying the distant government for legal change.
When people join together for civic action, they are, first, creating a subjectively meaningful community of actual persons to which they can make a commitment. However, ‘community’ has a twofold meaning; it may be a category of persons for whom one wishes to take some responsibility, or it may be the community of persons who share that sense of responsibility. For example, civic action can be directed to improving a community of which one defines oneself as a member, such as one’s ethnic, gender, value or geographical group. Or civic action can instead be directed to an ‘other’ group for whom, despite being an outsider, one feels a moral commitment.
An example is the work of Vidur Chopra, with refugee youth living in refugee camps, exploring their sense of civic agency. He asks: “what makes young people living in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the developing world engage in their communities or create positive change? ..... Why [do] they choose to engage or delineate themselves from their communities, despite living in such harsh conditions?”
Amy Cheung is working with Asian American young people. She observes youth participating in collective action through community service, protest, issue-based advocacy, community organizing, education, and involvement in youth organizations. She says, “ Asian American teenagers plan and deliver workshops on affordable housing for their peers, lead walking tours of Boston’s Chinatown covering the role of immigrants in the neighborhood’s development, and produce their own radio show with original content deliberating topics such as gentrification and the personal meaning of “Americanization”….. Such activities are pursued by youth because of a commitment to make their voices heard publicly, to join with others in deliberation, action, and education on community issues”. She also notes, “Through the process of participating in collective efforts, young people develop accountability to and care for one another, appreciating that ‘my work’ is part of ‘your work’, which generates a productive civic interdependence”.
Identity is central
Identity is closely linked to community. Self-identity is affirmed by interaction with a like-minded community (and by differentiation from communities who on salient criteria are defined as ‘other’). One’s representations of one’s self are in constant dialogue with how significant others in one’s community confirm or deny those self-representations. The perception and interpretation of both physical and social community space are intertwined with defining self-identity, an active and iterative process.
Jessica Fei, for example, is examining how people participate in places. “Whether it’s a town hall or a subway car, a street corner or the blogosphere, every place we inhabit constitutes a sphere of belonging in which we can practice citizenship ...acts ... [that] can carry social and political implications that reverberate beyond that one sphere”. She is engaged in an international project developing learning communities in which youth explore their own identities and worldviews, and engage meaningfully with people whose experiences and perspectives may be different: in “Story/Space,” young people exchange stories about significant places in their lives.
The collective stories of a community are a core resource for how the individual ‘stories’ his or her self. Civic identity, seeing oneself as effective civic agent (or not), is intimately entwined with one’s sense of self. However it particularly relates to the community and cultural narratives that seem most salient to who one is (one’s nation, ethnicity, partisanship) and why the attributes that are valued in these narratives feel important and personally engaging. Understanding identity therefore requires understanding the cultural narratives that inform who one is, in relation to whom, with what power implications and with what potential scenarios for action. Civic identity also encompasses beliefs about one’s own efficacy, being an effective agent, beliefs that stem in part from cultural narratives about one’s community’s empowerment (or lack of) and also one’s own experience of being efficacious.
Finally, identity is also about positioning; both self and civic identity depend on locating oneself vis à vis others, as insiders or outsiders to the community, and in status and power relations. These may include for example perceptions of deprivation and therefore one’s potential responsibility to take action for social justice. Positioning of self and others derives from community stories, and empowerment often derives from changing positioning. Repositioning is also a core element in managing moves between communities. Kim Stevens’ research is with youth volunteers from non-dominant backgrounds (racial and ethnic minority, low-income, etc.), college students who attend highly selective universities. She explores how they make meaning of their social positions and identity as community service volunteers, and how they can come to operate as active agents, continuously creating and recreating their identities as civic actors.
The radical impact of new media
New media, and new technology in general, have had three major effects on civic participation. First, they have enabled rapid mobilization for direct action or for making one’s voice heard. Second, they have removed the hierarchy of knowledge dissemination; news is no longer filtered through the press oligarchies but is both accessible to, and disseminated by, ordinary citizens, and anyone with Internet links can in principle access every piece of knowledge in the entire history of the world. Third, they have generated hitherto impossible communities, removing social, geographical and (to an extent) linguistic boundaries. As Janet Kwok, our Program’s first graduate, notes, “the internet …implies different boundaries because of the interaction among people who might not ever encounter each other in person for a variety of reasons, and as a result, surprising types of engagement and participation are possible”.
As noted above, this has transformed how ‘community’ is conceptualized and seen as bounded. It has also democratized participation, access to information and potential impact on powerful institutions. (It has also created a world in which everyone who is connected to any technology can potentially be tracked, which could be a threat to democracy in certain political contexts). These developments have considerable implications for empowerment and also routes for civic education. They particularly impact on hitherto powerless and voiceless groups, such as young, or marginalized, people, who are now learning how to manage new accessibility to audiences and to communities, as well as to manage a tsunami of possible information. Civic education practice has yet to catch up with the potential of this.
Appreciating the impact of new media requires stepping inside the perspective of the young people whose world is defined by their access to instant communication. As others have noted, critics of contemporary political life tend to talk about 100 year old practices and 200 year old institutions. The shift is to a world where everyone feels both entitled and enabled to make their voice heard (even if in fact their audience is limited and already persuaded). This is a truly major move away from a model of democracy in which the populace vote for representatives every four or five years, and the processes of legislation and social change operate through the cadre of representatives, who (at least nominally and in order to maintain their seats) do consult their constituents, but largely take responsibility for lawmaking and governance.
The historic role of pressure groups, non-governmental agencies and the media has primarily been to give voice to those members of the public who choose to organize themselves to speak. The implications of a vocal populace with access to huge swathes of communication are yet to be fully realized. The ‘Arab Spring’ and parallel grassroots movements are salutary; new media were hugely important in their emergence, but also it rapidly became evident that in the absence of well-organized civic and political groups who had the resources to take serious leadership roles, the impetus was diffused and (often) the power vacuum was filled by established forces different from those desired by the activists.
Our Program is well placed to consider how young people use media to express their own concerns and engagement, whether in overtly social movements or in broader community activities. Exploring new media issues contributes to our understanding of community processes, and new media are highly salient to civic identity. Because engagement in and through new media is so central to young people’s relationships with the world, it is vital to understand how their civic identity develops within the framework of communication, self-presentation and feedback from others online. This may be a rather alien idea to those members of older generations who, even if they engage in social media, tend to superimpose new skills and ways of interacting on earlier forms of social practice.
This major transition in managing identity requires comprehension, if we are to understand and utilize new forms of civic engagement and identity in education. In addition, the civic skills required to navigate the world of new media are not necessarily the same as those conventionally understood for effective civic life. For example, Emily Weinstein explores “how digital technologies and social media are changing young people’s experiences”. She researched young civic actors’ patterns of civic identity expression on social media and found most civic youth tended toward civic expression online. In a follow-up study two years later. She and her colleagues found many youth changed their online civic expression patterns and tended in the direction of quieting their civic voices online. Emily also works with Common Sense Media’s Education Team and has helped create their Connecting Families program, by developing resources to foster different types of community conversations about youth’s digital lives.
Janet Kwok notes another element of digital experience and its relationship to civic agency: she says, “refusing to acknowledge the new perniciousness of cyber-bullying as somehow “kids’ stuff” is not only dangerous, but also tells children that their conflicts and involvement in these is somehow inauthentic. This has implications for learning about civic engagement—if you feel like your own issues and concerns aren’t legitimate, it will be very difficult to suddenly believe that they matter one day.”
The reality and origins of civic skills
A range of necessary skills enables effective civic participation. However there is a tension, evident in democratic countries as much as in more authoritarian regimes, in writings about the goals of civic education,. Broadly, there are two goals of civic education. One is to generate citizens who support and actively maintain the current social and political system, criticizing its flaws and limitations (if at all) from within. A second goal is to generate citizens who are critically reflective about the purposes and principles behind the system, and who are equipped and willing to actively challenge aspects of the system if they feel it falls short of its ideals and goals. A healthy civil society requires both functions. However even in democracies, the second goal may be regarded with suspicion; not all dissent or questioning is welcome. The different goals are evident in any policy document: indeed in such documents, what is left out is as revealing as what is present.
The range of necessary skills includes those which prepare the young person to make sound political choices, take part in collective decision-making, conflict resolution and negotiation, discuss controversial issues, and monitor government action on behalf of public interests. These skills include the cognitive capacity to analyze and synthesize information and arguments, take multiple perspectives, and defend positions. Also, participatory skills include negotiation, conflict management, and consensus building. In addition to the above are socio-emotional skills which are about healthy relationships with family, peers and colleagues; these contribute to a civil or democratic way of life.
Each of these can further either goal of civic education; the crucial question is the degree to which critical thinking is applied to the principles behind the system, and how they are reflected in policy and practice. James Noonan suggests that “the capacity of citizens to make informed determinations about the role and responsibilities of citizenship is the most essential civic competency.”
How these skills are conceptualized and prioritized informs specific education policies and practices, whether in school or the community, and with what kind of mentoring and facilitation, whether from adults or peers. Two of our Scholars are addressing teachers’ perceptions and roles. James Noonan is working with American teachers, helping design effective professional learning environments; “effective learning environments for teachers and students are also highly deliberative... [where] people present authentic problems and negotiate differences …the capacities citizens need in a pluralistic democracy”.
Siwen Zhang is working on teachers’ perceptions of a good citizen and a good person, and how these are reflected in their narratives of civic protest, using Chinese data. What are teachers’ perceptions of appropriate solutions for addressing social issues? To what extent do they experience conflicts of interest as educators, parents, and citizens in how they communicate civic responsibilities in a system under authoritarian governmental control?
Silvia Diazgranados is exploring the environments that contribute to the development of civic skills. Her mixed-methods research is directed to understanding “the complex, multi-level factors that are associated with the development of citizenship competencies among children and early adolescents who are at risk of victimization, perpetration and civic disengagement.” Using large national and international datasets she is exploring “the ways in which civic power and civic opportunities are distributed among youth of different backgrounds in countries such as Colombia, Chile and Mexico”. She is also developing measures to assess “early adolescents´ performance on citizenship competencies such as perspective taking, ability to analyze evidence, capacity for empathy and sense of agency”.
Bonnie Mackintosh is working with early childhood and the nature and quality of teacher-child interactions: the relationship between social-emotional development such as self-regulation, and academic achievement. “Positive, nurturing teacher-child relationships can also help to promote critical thinking skills and collaborative learning environments, fostering a pattern of lifelong learning and questioning that is an important aspect of being an informed and involved citizen”. In “safe, enriching” climates children learn that their ideas are both valued and make a unique contribution to the classroom and surrounding community. Kathleen Lynch’s research “focuses on helping children to learn critical skills and knowledge that in turn support civic learning and participation,” including “how out-of-school contexts contribute to both their academic and their social-emotional development.” She is also exploring how “children’s experiences in their mathematics and science classrooms play an important role in shaping their future public identities and orientations toward scientific and quantitative problems” an area of increasing interest to researchers.
What institutional structures and groups should we be targeting?
The final question raised by the Program’s work concerns the ‘target’ for civic action and within this, the target population for civic education. There is an overarching target implied in New Civics: challenging inequitable institutions and their cultural supports. Such challenging requires deconstruction both of policies and practices, and of the narratives that sustain them. This includes taking a critical perspective on historical developments in education as well on contemporary ideological perspectives on the purposes of civic education.
Bryan McAllister-Grande’s work addresses cultural narratives. He is studying the history of the American university, and its relationship to society, in the 20th century. He is interested in the relationship between debates about higher learning and the crisis of liberal societies in the mid-twentieth century. The literature on this topic has been disconnected; his work seeks to bring together the literature on higher education and that of the liberal crisis. In particular, he is interested in a kind of "lost moment" during the interwar years when academics began to imagine a more worldly, pragmatic, and intercultural form of higher learning. This experimentation and pluralism, he argues, was lost with the oncoming of neoliberal ideas during and after WWII.
Jake Fay’s work explores the tensions that arise from expanding the definition of New Civics and therefore, the discourses that underlie goals of civic education. “Embedded in reshaping the conceptual space of the New Civics are moral and ethical questions… How inclusive/exclusive should schools be of the range of opinions and beliefs students bring to school? How can school policy align with civic principles given expected disagreement about those principles?” He argues that inextricably interwoven into civic education are “moral and ethical issues regarding young people, schools, and society… issues of justice, of the limits of democratic process, of individual rights.”
Matthew Shaw addresses the institutional practices and also by implication the underlying discourses that affect judicial decisions on race-conscious affirmative action and whether they have “visibly opened [or closed]” access to higher education—‘the path to leadership’—for students by race/ethnicity. He argues that “Central to the debate around the propriety of race-conscious affirmative action are competing notions of whether access belongs to individual students, the merits of acknowledging race qua race as a dimension of educational diversity, and the extent to which government should allow institutions to adjust for consequential prior differences in highly race-correlated K-12 educational resource allocation.” To this end he is investigating undergraduate admissions and transfers, around critical points in affirmative action case law development. As he notes, these raise “profoundly civic questions which go to the heart of how government allocates limited premium benefits, to whom, and its consequences for the body civic”.
Much has been written about two kinds of target population for civic education and their implications for empowerment and social justice. One is the ‘normal’ population of adequately resourced young people for whom the presumption is a well-structured program of knowledge and skill acquisition, the contexts in which motivation for engagement may be nurtured, and the opportunity for those experiences that enhance both. The second population is those who are marginalized by lack of educational and community resources, poverty, and powerlessness whether due to institutional deficits or the low social power and capital of their ethnic or demographic group. For this group, civic education is seen to be about fostering empowerment through individual skills, but also, ultimately attacking the structural and institutional barriers that create marginalization. For some researchers and practitioners, empowerment of marginalized youth is seen as best effected through out of school community activism and the opportunities for impacting the local civic environment.
Both these approaches focus on adolescents, implicitly middle school and above, though many programs do include upper elementary schools. Worldwide, however, there are several school-based programs which assume that from kindergarten children can learn conflict resolution, interpersonal relationships, ethical sharing and so forth, and also can learn deliberative reasoning and discussion. As Bonnie Mackintosh and Kathleen Lynch, mentioned earlier, both note there is a strong case for very early development and experience that grounds socio-emotional learning and self-regulation, as a ‘proto- civic’ developmental environment.
A further category of potential civic education clients is marginalized adults, who for whatever reason have dropped out or been excluded from civic efficacy, and may have been deprived of their formal citizenship for example through incarceration, or statelessness as refugees. The young marginalized people mentioned by several of our Scholars may be picked up in programs that replace, parallel, or enhance, school-based civic learning and as adults, actively engage in political action. Such programs merit our attention at least as much as school-based ones. Two of our Scholars are working with a marginalized adult population, incarcerated men.
Abena Mackall is addressing both the civic deprivation of incarcerated men and the need for programs of civic education to enable them to return to full citizenship on release: “the extreme increase in the rate of adult incarceration produces three key considerations for generating active citizenship. ….in many states individuals with felony convictions have restricted voting access. Second, former inmates face substantial social stigma and hostility from community members, often causing them to shy away from active community engagement. Last, ex-prisoners report lower levels of trust in public institutions….social isolation and political non-participation have resulted in a civically marginal class”. Krista Goldstine-Cole is “conducting participatory action research (PAR) with a Washington State minimum security prison. The project includes: 1) an evaluation of family-centered programming; 2) an assessment of staff attitudes on family and family programming conducted by staff; and 3) an offender-driven assessment of how programming impacts them.” She notes that “family programming helps to mitigate stigma and social exclusion for children and may facilitate better social-emotional development”. Participatory action research itself contributes: it may “develop the problem-solving competencies of participants. PAR may empower marginalized individuals.....by giving constitutionally disenfranchised men the opportunity to influence public policies that impact their daily lives”.
Our policy of breadth as well as depth in the research topics we have included in the Early Career Scholars’ Program reflects our vision that to truly explore the redefinitions of ‘New Civics’ we must investigate a wide range of activities, populations, social issues and educational processes. We are pleased that from this variety, not only has a rich community of vibrant Scholars evolved, but also the five themes described above appear to be emerging as useful lenses for viewing this burgeoning field. The contributions of the Scholars will become even more evident as they move forward with their dissertations and especially with publication and other forms of dissemination, including influencing practice, worldwide, in their future professional lives. Indeed, several are already actively involved in national and international organizations working in civic education.
This report has included the seventeen Scholars who form the first two cohorts of ECSP; we have seven more in the third cohort, whose work is in the process of development; Chen Chen, Jason Haas, Jonathan Hampton, Ashley Lee, Brent Maher, Maung Nyeu and Nell O’Donnell. Some of their activities are beginning to appear on the website and they are already contributing to the broad community’s picture.
And, of course, the Program depends on the intellectual inspiration, intensive support and input from the three other members of the ECSP management Committee, Robert Selman, Meira Levinson, and Howard Gardner, and the many colleagues, in Harvard and elsewhere, who are affiliated to the community and/or who provide valuable internships for the Scholars.
Appendix: The Scholars’ Summaries
A traditional conception of the subject of “civics” privileges and prioritizes knowledge on the formal institutions of government, and is particularly focused on the workings and assumptions of a democratic government. Accordingly, with the focus of civics on government institutions, prototypical civic action usually refers to voting, or involvement in mainstream partisan politics through membership or campaigns.
The foregrounding of voting and partisan politics in a traditional notion of civics both ignores, and has the capacity to marginalize, the contributions that youth make to the public good that are unrelated to traditional political engagement. Youth are often critiqued as being politically apathetic-- as evidence of this, researchers point to low voting turnout, and expressed political disinterest. Yet, what these indicators ignore is how youth do participate in collective action for the common good, through community service, protest, issue-based advocacy, community organizing, education, and involvement in youth organizations. For example, in my own professional work, I have seen Asian American teenagers plan and deliver workshops on affordable housing for their peers, lead walking tours of Boston’s Chinatown covering the role of immigrants in the neighborhood’s development, and produce their own radio show with original content deliberating topics such as gentrification and the personal meaning of “Americanization”. Taken together, what is common to these activities is the underlying civic intention—such activities are pursued by youth because of a commitment to make their voices heard publicly, to join with others in deliberation, action, and education on community issues. Further, through the process of participating in collective efforts, young people develop accountability to and care for one another, appreciating that “my work” is part of “your work”, which generates a productive civic interdependence.
The “new civics” is not new, but merely recognizes, and incorporates into the fold of civics, what young people have already been doing, when it comes to participating in their communities. The “new civics” is not solely the domain of youth, but I believe that examining youth civic engagement, which has been dismissed in traditional civics, is a key way in to understanding the possibilities and implications of civics for the 21st century and beyond.
I currently understand civic engagement as individual or collective action towards positive change within individual’s communities. I deliberately allow this ‘sense of community’ and ‘belonging’ to be somewhat vague because it can extend beyond geographic and nation-state boundaries to include transnational issues. In general, I consider my work to be civic since it asks the fundamental question of what makes young people living in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the developing world engage in their communities or create positive change? In particular, my current work deals with refugee youth living in refugee camps and in exploring their sense of civic agency. I am interested in knowing why they choose to engage or delineate themselves from their communities, despite living in such harsh conditions. And if indeed, they choose to delineate themselves from their communities, not out of ignorance, but as a conscious decision, then what might it tell us about young people in such circumstances?
Moving forward, I am interested in exploring youth links with extremism and radicalization. I’m not sure this is civic because we mostly consider civic to be associated with positive change. Youth with extremist tendencies might argue that their fanatical and radical actions are attempted at creating positive change for their own (minority) communities, but yet, this often falls outside the bounds of civic. I am keen to explore this more and thereby understand the bounds of our somewhat traditional understandings of civic in comparison with that of those who would argue that their civic and moral beliefs take precedence.
All of my research is linked to the New Civics´ concern with supporting young people in the process of developing the knowledge, relationships and opportunities they need to get along with others, value diversity and participate actively and constructively in their communities and society. My work is also linked to the New Civics in its effort to inform policy-makers and practitioners in how to create more peaceful, just and diverse societies. My program has three strands. First, I use mixed-methods research to understand the complex, multi-level factors that are associated with the development of citizenship competencies among children and early adolescents who are at risk of victimization, perpetration and civic disengagement. Taking advantage of large national and international datasets, I also explore the ways in which civic power and civic opportunities are distributed among youth of different backgrounds in countries such as Colombia, Chile and Mexico. Second, I develop and validate new instruments to assess the qualities and level of sophistication of early adolescents´ performance on citizenship competencies such as perspective taking, ability to analyze evidence, capacity for empathy and sense of agency. Finally, I work with non-profit organizations in Colombia and Bangladesh to evaluate the causal effect of education programs on the citizenship competencies of young children, as well as on their academic and health outcomes.
New Civics is an expansive concept, extending the reach of the civic beyond its traditional confines of political action to the whole of the public sphere. The inclusivity of the conceptually broader New Civics prompts questions of boundaries as well as questions of substance. If civics is no longer simply the political, to what else does it pertain? Is there no action that is not, somehow, civic?
Given these amorphous and dynamic boundaries, how a society prepares its young people to act civically becomes more fraught than we would expect. Embedded in reshaping the conceptual space of the New Civics are moral and ethical questions that require our attention. To what extent should formal schooling figure in the civic development of young people? How inclusive/exclusive should schools be of the range of opinions and beliefs students bring to school? How can school policy align with civic principles given expected disagreement about those principles?
I see my work fitting under the auspices of the New Civics because we cannot proceed to answer questions about, for example, how to engage students in civic life or the forms of student civic activism without concomitantly addressing moral and ethical issues regarding young people, schools, and society. There are issues of justice, of the limits of democratic process, of individual rights, among others, inextricably interwoven into the work of civic education. It is my hope to shed some small light on them.
For me, the study of civics involves examining the many ways in which people participate in places. Whether it’s a town hall or a subway car, a street corner or the blogosphere, every place we inhabit constitutes a sphere of belonging in which we can practice citizenship. Further, every one of these acts of citizenship can carry social and political implications that reverberate beyond that one sphere. For these reasons, I see my work in ECSP as an effort to understand: a) the interconnectedness of places; b) the complex and shifting ways in which individuals identify with others; c) the range of concerns affecting people across lines of difference; and d) the everyday, often unrecognized, acts of citizenship that create possibility for change.
To build knowledge in these areas, I engage in educational research that amplifies youth voices and gathers people in dialogue on issues that matter to them. In collaboration with Project Zero, I am developing learning communities in which youth explore their identities and worldviews, and interact with diverse groups of peers. One focus of my research is the stories that adolescents tell about their local places; my qualifying paper centers on the neighborhood narratives of elite students in Mumbai, India. Through my ECSP internship, I am piloting an online curriculum called Story/Space, in which young people use the arts and mapping to share stories about their communities, and reflect on how they—as individuals and as collectives—can act towards the futures they desire.
I am currently conducting participatory action research (PAR) with a Washington State minimum security prison. The project includes:
1) an evaluation of family-centered programming;
2) an assessment of staff attitudes on family and family programming conducted by staff; and
3) an offender-driven assessment of how programming impacts them. The over-arching purpose is to provide the department of corrections and the individual prison with the information and tools needed to maximize program effectiveness.
Research suggests that reducing the stress of parenting from prison prevents rule breaking and increases participation in prison activities thus generating, improved community or civic order within the prison. The PAR’s chief collaborator and superintendent of the prison research site says, “Programming success impacts safety through daily behavior. It is daily behavior that makes the community.” Additionally, family programming helps to mitigate stigma and social exclusion for children and may facilitate better social-emotional development.
Using PAR is an important civic dimension of the project. As a partnership, PAR addresses the practical concerns of the organization, contributes to social science and develop the problem-solving competencies of participants. PAR may empower marginalized individuals, as it does here, by giving constitutionally disenfranchised men the opportunity to influence public policies that impact their daily lives.
My ECSP project was concerned with the question of what social media could tell us about public reactions to political events beyond the phone survey. I chose to collect data on four Supreme Court cases of great public interest in 2013: marriage equality (2 cases), Voting Rights Act, and Affirmative Action. Participating in these discussions requires users to be at least somewhat informed about the significance of the case being decided, and thus might yield discussions or reactions that reflect more informed engagement.
I decided to focus on Twitter because it limits discussions to 140 characters (which may include photo links, links to external sources), and thus the barriers to data collection are lower than one might find with Facebook, for instance, which organizes data in a more complex structure. I also wanted to use a service that would have fewer constraints on privacy (in other words, more accessible data), so the natural choice was twitter. ECSP funding and workshops provided me with the time to learn how to program in order to collect and analyze the data, as well as a space to discuss the parameters of the project.
In the announcement of the New Civics initiative, the Spencer Foundation poses the following questions: “If the goal is to prepare young people to act in informed and mature ways, what civic knowledge, skills, dispositions, and attitudes do they need to learn or develop? How do young people learn these building blocks for civic participation? Broadly speaking, how can education, in whatever form it takes and wherever it occurs, contribute to more effective programs and practices to achieve this goal?” In the Spencer Early Career Scholars Program, doctoral students and researchers from diverse backgrounds share research that addresses these questions from a range of disciplinary perspectives.
With a focus on equity and learning, my research focuses on helping children to learn critical skills and knowledge that in turn support civic learning and participation. The growing achievement gap between high- and low-SES children in the United States has implications for children’s future civic competencies. In one area of research, I examine how children’s out-of-school contexts contribute to both their academic and their social-emotional development. Civic participation is linked to educational attainment, and early gaps in children’s academic and social-emotional competencies may contribute to later civic participation gaps.
In addition, I am interested in education policy and strategies to improve educational equity, particularly in mathematics. Researchers have linked children’s mathematics and science instruction to their future civic participation, arguing that children’s experiences in their mathematics and science classrooms play an important role in shaping their future public identities and orientations toward scientific and quantitative problems. One of my interests is in this link between STEM learning and civic identities.
Beyond Borders: The New Civics follows other academic and social movements in crossing multiple temporal, geographic, intellectual, and cultural borders. It conceives of actors as multidimensional, meaning-making subjects, rather than strictly political or social beings. The historian Daniel Rodgers has called this era “the Age of Fracture,” but it might also be more positively defined as an age of multiplicity and expressionism, in which actors construct diffuse and fluid identities beyond borders.
My work is focused on the history of the American university, and its relationship to society, in the 20th century. I am interested in the relationship between debates about higher learning and the crisis of liberal societies in the mid-twentieth century. The literature on this topic has been disconnected; my work seeks to bring together the literature on higher education and that of the liberal crisis. In particular, I am interested in a kind of "lost moment" during the interwar years when academics began to imagine a more worldly, pragmatic, and intercultural form of higher learning. This experimentation and pluralism, I argue, was lost with the oncoming of neoliberal ideas during and after WWII.
Over the past four decades the national rate of incarceration has increased five-fold. Though the rate of incarceration has shown modest declines over the past four year, still 2.23 million people—nearly 1 percent of all adult residents in the United States—were incarcerated in 2012. Most of whom are released within four years, meaning that the increased rate of incarceration corresponds to an ever increasing proportion of former prisoners in the general population. I would like to conduct research that integrates the context of mass incarceration into the study of civic education. I subscribe to a notion of civic education that prioritizes equipping individuals with the requisite knowledge, skills, attitudes, and experience necessary to actively participate in democratic life. However, the extreme increase in the rate of adult incarceration creates a complex context for democratic life. In many states individuals with felony convictions have restricted voting access. Formerly incarcerated people face substantial social stigma and hostility from community members, which research has indicated is associated with withdrawing from active community engagement. Additionally, individuals who have been in prison report lower levels of trust in public institutions than the general population. The trends in social isolation and political non-participation, which I argue, have resulted in a civically marginal class, have important implications for the study of civic education in K-12 schools and prison-based education programs.
New Civics seeks to expand the definition of traditional civics in an effort to minimize exclusion by providing opportunities for meaningful engagement through intentional actions. An important role of New Civics should be to give voice to traditionally underrepresented communities and participants while empowering all participants to critically analyze and problem-solve the various issues facing the community at local, state and national levels.
My work aims to better understand the relationship between social-emotional development (e.g., perspective-taking, nature, quality of teacher-child interactions, developmentally appropriate instructional practices) and academic achievement, particularly in publicly funded early childhood programs (birth-third grade). The emotional climate of the classroom is critical to establishing a safe, enriching teaching and learning environment in which children learn that their ideas are both valued and make a unique contribution to the classroom and surrounding community. Such positive, nurturing teacher-child relationships can also help to promote critical thinking skills when embedded in collaborative learning environments, fostering a pattern of life-long learning and questioning that is an important aspect of being an informed and involved citizen. Perhaps more importantly, such supportive, reciprocal contexts enable children to engage in problem-solving that promotes flexible thinking in content areas (e.g., math) as well as in broader concept mastery.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “civics” debuted in 1885 and referred to the study of government, with an emphasis “on the rights and duties of the citizen.” Its essential definition has changed very little since then, but the emergence of “new civics” as a domain of study suggests that how we conceptualize the rights and duties of citizens continues to evolve. For example, participation in the political process now includes a dizzying array of social media outlets with which citizens can tweet or tumble their way through issues or candidates. Similarly, the competencies necessary for civic life are dizzying and paradoxical. Depending on whom you talk to, these capacities include obedience and critical thinking, diplomacy and forcefulness, inclusiveness and jingoism, and a host of other seeming contradictions.
Perhaps, then, the capacity of citizens to make informed determinations about the role and responsibilities of citizenship is the most essential civic competency that relates to the dynamic world of “new civics.”
In my work, I am interested in helping teachers design effective professional learning environments. Given teachers’ historic role as guides in young people’s civic identity development – a role that cannot be entirely supplanted by social media, in my opinion – it is important to be mindful how teachers learn their craft. Moreover, decades of research on cognition accompanied by well-established democratic theory, suggests that effective learning environments for teachers and students are also highly deliberative. Specifically, environments in which people present authentic problems and negotiate differences are deeply civic in that they are practicing the capacities citizens need in a pluralistic democracy. It is my hope that my work can contribute to more humane and more civically empowering learning environments for teachers and by extension their students.
One of the classic definitions of “civic” is of or belonging to the citizenry. My research engages this definition in a more palpable way than many traditional civic scholars might suspect. Taking my cue from the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), I explore the extent to which judicial decisions on race-conscious affirmative action have “visibly opened [or closed]” access to higher education—“the path to leadership”—for students by race/ethnicity. Toward evaluating these decisions, I am currently investigating trends in undergraduate admissions and transfers in selective colleges and universities around critical points in affirmative action case law development. Central to the debate around the propriety of race-conscious affirmative action are competing notions of whether access belongs to individual students, the merits of acknowledging race qua race as a dimension of educational diversity, and the extent to which government should allow institutions to adjust for consequential prior differences in highly race-correlated K-12 educational resource allocation. Often framed merely as civil rights questions of due process and equal protection, these issues raise profoundly civic questions which go to the heart of how government allocates limited premium benefits, to whom, and its consequences for the body civic.
“[U]nderstanding the pathways to civic action for young people from diverse political, social, and economic backgrounds” is cited as a central goal in the Spencer Foundation’s New Civics Request for Proposals. What sort of research might we, as scholars of New Civics, undertake in order to better understand the civic pathways of diverse youth? First, it is essential for New Civics researchers to collect nuanced, contextualized data regarding how young people make meaning of their civic identities as they navigate through the various contexts in which they are imbedded. Such an investigation should include a particular focus on how the economic, political, and social structures embedded within neighborhoods might constrain or promote the civic engagement of youth in local community contexts. Further, an exploration of pathways for civic involvement would recognize how the communities with which young people affiliate are varied and shift over time. Finally, this research would attend to how youth operate as active agents, continuously creating and recreating their identities as civic actors.
My own qualitative research builds on this research agenda by exploring how youth volunteers from non-dominant backgrounds (i.e., racial and ethnic minority students, low-income students, etc.) experience community service. My current research focuses on how non-dominant college students who attend highly selective universities make meaning of their social positions and identity as community service volunteers.
My interests are especially focused on the “new” component of new civics: the projects I work on explore how digital technologies and social media are changing young people’s experiences. My qualifying paper explored how young civic actors approached civic expression on social media. I think of that project as both “new” and “civic,” since it dealt particularly with civic identity and expression in the relatively new contexts of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The analysis indicated that a majority of young civic actors indeed expressed their civic views on social media. I subsequently worked on a follow-up study, in which my colleagues and I re-contacted the original participants two years later to see whether and how their expression patterns changed. We found many youth did change their civic expression patterns, and youth tended in the direction of quieting or restraining their civic voices online. I hope these studies will facilitate our consideration of education-oriented questions, including: How does the digital context factor into contemporary civic engagement and participation? What are the opportunities and drawbacks to expressing civic views online, and how can we prepare youth for rewarding exchanges?
Another strand of my work is a collection of studies that explore adolescents’ personal accounts posted on MTV’s A Thin Line platform. The platform specifically prompts for difficult digital experiences, including digital abuse, cyberbullying and sexting. I am working with colleagues to map the landscape of “digital stress” and to explore how digital media influence youth’s social and relational experiences. Over the last year, I also partnered with Common Sense Media’s Education team to create the Connecting Families program. Connecting Families is aimed at bringing adults into community conversations about youths’ digital lives and raising digital citizens who think critically, behave safely, and participate responsibly.
Being from China, the word “civic” was a new addition to my vocabulary. My understanding of being “civic” was blurred while what the notion of acting within the boundaries of politics and action was saturated in our daily lives. I thought being civic was being patriotic, and that meant following my Party’s lead. After my transition to the U.S. and thereafter my Ed. D program at HGSE, especially through the ECSP program, I began to think about what civic, or new civic, means individually and collectively, its boundaries and its limitations in international contexts. As such, I define “new civics” as knowledge and actions that contribute to individuals’ awareness and participation in promoting sustainable public services; the awareness and contribution in utilizing rights and actions as individual citizens in order to operate for the betterment of one’s country; the duties of people – regardless of citizenship – to each other as active participants and voices in society that serve the common good of districts, cities, states, countries, and a global humanitarian community.
My project explores more holistically at teachers’ perceptions on qualities that make a good citizen and a good person, and how such views are reflected in their perceptions on student roles in civic protests. Embedded within it is also my inquiry on teachers’ perceptions of “appropriate solutions” in addressing social issues, and explore to what extent they experience “conflicts of interest” as educators, parents, and citizens in how they communicate civic responsibilities. I believe that it fits my definition of civics as teachers – in their role as model citizens and influencing educators, or concerned parents – awakening to respond to, and react to the traditional models of “being civically Chinese” under authoritarian governmental control. In doing so, teachers influence and empower generations of young students in securing their civic rights, and expressing civic responsibilities.