Civic Agency and the University

Course Description: The study of citizenship typically concerns matters of legal membership within a nation-state and associated questions related to allegiances to a particular community. Our understanding of citizenship instead derives from a distinct civic ideal and set of practices associated with the emerging, interdisciplinary field of civic studies. In the intellectual community of civic studies, the emphasis is on multiple ways of thinking about, and enacting, civic agency, with a particular focus on the relationship between ethics, knowledge, and the plurality of political communities. In this seminar, we will focus on the political communities of the university and efforts to promote civic agency and inquiry. Applying concepts from educational philosophy, political science, critical social theory, and digital humanities we will interrogate the historical roots, cultural assumptions and social formations of civic engagement efforts in the university, including: campus activism, volunteer service, applied research, and digital and public scholarship. Seminar discussions of texts will be accompanied with dialogues with university members; workshops with local and national organizations who work with universities; and digital civic labs that allow students the opportunity to experiment with different forms of civic agency. By discussing and debating key concepts and ideas of civic agency within the university and critically examining our own engagements as civic actors, students will develop: 1) a deeper sense of their roles and values as civic scholars and 2) their own argument about civic agency in the university. 

The guiding questions that will inform our inquiry are both descriptive and normative.

  • What is the university? What should the university be?
  • When we say the “university community,” who does that include and exclude? Why?
  • Is learning only the transfer of knowledge or a form of social transformation?
  • Is one’s education a personal pursuit or connected to the general public good?
  • Should political activism be a part of the university’s mission or are institutions like university to function as neutral arbiters? Is it possible for students, scholars, and the university to be neutral?

Syllabus