Political Science Now

The Politically Engaged Classroom

Chapter 2: The Politically Engaged Classroom

Nancy ThomasTufts University and Margaret BrowerTufts University

College level teaching for political know ledge and engagement happens in the context of a campus climate, a combination of the norms, behaviors, attitudes, structures, and external influences that shape the student experience. Yet little is known about the attributes of a robust campus climate for political engagement. From 2014 to 2016, researchers at Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education visited nine diverse colleges and universities selected for their high (and low) levels of electoral engagement, geography, institutional type, and students served. Based on interviews and focus groups with nearly 500 students, faculty members, and administrators, the researchers identified certain attributes of politically engaged institutions. Those attributes include structures to support student well-being and social cohesion; a commitment to diversity as an institutional priority and practice; habits of political discussions in and beyond the classroom; a strong commitment to both academic freedom and free expression; students as decision-makers, with shared responsibility for each other and for the institution; respectful responses to student activism, and; a celebratory attitude toward elections and political issues. Unsurprising are the findings regarding the critical role of faculty in cultivating relationships with students and positive conditions for learning, foundational to robust student political learning and engagement.

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About the Authors

Nancy Thomas directs the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, conducting research and providing assistance to colleges and universities to advance student political learning and participation in democracy. The institute’s signature initiative, the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), is a large dataset for research and provides each of the 1000+ participating colleges and universities with their students’ aggregate voting rates. Her work and scholarship center on higher education’s democratic mission, college student political learning and engagement, free speech and academic freedom, and deliberative democracy on campuses and in communities. 

Margaret Brower is a researcher for the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tisch College, Tufts University. She received her BA in political science and education from Colgate University. She then completed her MA in public policy and higher education at the University of Michigan. Currently, she is pursuing a doctorate degree in political science at the University of Chicago. At the University of Chicago, she continues to design and lead qualitative research studies.

Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines / Copyright ©2017 by the American Political Science Association / pp: 20-33