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November 28, 2023

In Part 1, I talked about two major ways of incorporating civic engagement into your courses: covering content that helps students to understand democratic institutions, systems, and ideals; and giving students opportunities to help others. These are potentially transformative learning opportunities for students that will really stick with them after your class is over, but they’re also an opportunity for you to do something rewarding and meaningful.

Here in Part 2, I want to bring up two other dimensions of civic engagement that are less often talked about, that seem to me to be more challenging and more potentially impactful. I don’t claim to have all the answers here, but I’ll point to some resources that I’m aware of, and some areas of professional development that departments could offer.

3. Create community in your classroom

I only taught for a few months during the pandemic. It was one of the hardest challenges I’d faced in teaching—like laying railroad tracks while the train was moving—and I know I wasn’t the only one. Some of my students wrote beautiful but very emotional assignments from their childhood bedrooms. Some never did any coursework after we went remote, despite all efforts to reach out to them.

What was the difference? It could have been a lot of things, but as I spoke to my friends and colleagues about their experiences and now that I’ve had a few years to think about it, I think a feeling of community was crucial.

Community relationships are the heart of accountability: we show up for people who we know are counting on us and care about us. When I think about individual people I showed up for during the pandemic, it was the people who I felt connected to, who I knew would miss me if I flaked, who commiserated with me about struggles in my life.

Once I left academia, I didn’t feel compelled anymore to show up just for the sake of being seen in certain spaces for my professional advancement (that tether was very weak indeed), but I did show up to support people I cared about. When I think about webinars I signed up for and actually attended — even with my camera on sometimes! — it was the events that centered topics I love learning about—but perhaps more so, events that centered knowledge that felt important, that felt like righting a wrong or laying the groundwork for bringing more justice into the world. Maybe Cicero was on to something with that whole vita activa thing.

At no point in my 2½ days of TA training in grad school did we address the subject of building community in a classroom, so I can forgive myself for thinking it wasn’t important, but I would do things differently now. I did learn all my students’ names, but they didn’t learn each other’s. I rarely saw them in office hours — was I clear enough in explaining that those office hours were for them? I spent time writing comments on their papers and even made them submit final drafts afterwards, but I would have spent my time better by meeting with them, even for a few minutes, to tell them what I appreciated about their work and what improvements I thought they could make, or engaging them in conversation about their interests and connection to the topic.

Caring about your students and their development, focusing more on learning and less on teaching, is the first step to creating community with them — which actually helps them learn more of what you’re trying to teach them anyway. Meira Levinson and the team at Harvard’s GSE and JusticeInSchools have great resources on the topic of building community in classrooms, and I think we could all use a lot more professional development in this space — and not just the women in our departments who tend to do most of this labor.

In my Latin classes, at first, I hoped that students would never find Perseus, or online dictionaries or translations. In my translation courses, I hoped that students would buy the translation I required instead of finding a free one online and struggling haplessly through Alexander Pope when I’d assigned Fagles. They read Pope, they found Perseus, they cut corners.

I now realize that I would have gotten better results by engaging with them in conversation about this, and about ChatGPT, for the same reasons. At least then all the students would be on a level playing field, because they’d all know about the resources available to them. In Latin, I’d have them translate one paragraph with only an old-fashioned dictionary, and one using Perseus and online tools, then quiz them to see how well they remembered vocabulary and grammar with each method and discuss language acquisition principles. In seminar, I’d ask them to find a translation online of a specific chunk of a course text, then have them compare what they found with others I’d brought in, and ask them which one they — individually — wanted to use for the class. Instead of trying to trick them or make decisions for their own good, I wish I had tried supporting them in making good decisions for themselves.

I also wish I’d talked to students in any sort of course about the academic publishing process. I might have shown them an article I was working on, or talked through the steps of research and citation and peer review and revising and resubmitting. I might even have shown them a first draft and final proof of an article. I might have shown them my Zotero library and notes.

Students’ experience of essays is often one of meaningless, thoughtless drudgery, jumping through hoops and trying to master a form they don’t understand, so why not show them what they’re (sort of) training to produce? Why not challenge them to ask me clarifying questions, improve on my writing, check my footnotes for accuracy, or pick holes in my reasoning? No expert is infallible, and learning to bring your own logic and evidence to bear in critiquing them is a great exercise in information literacy and critical thinking. Why not give my students a window into my community of scholars to see what it looks like and what intellectual leadership or citizenship means to us? Most people have no clue what goes into an academic article, so why would they appreciate academic expertise? I could have helped them to see for themselves.

4. Be a good citizen

When I wrote about teaching about democratic institutions back in Part 1, did you break out in hives and worry about getting fired? The danger here, of course — and for some of us more than others, depending on where our job market days landed us — is the specter of partisanship.

Personally, in that discussion I mentioned earlier, I didn’t bother to pretend I thought Mitch McConnell was making valid points while flouting law as well as precedent, because I thought what he was doing was a destructive undermining of the rule of law. I also didn’t pretend in 2016 that I was neutral on the topic of misogynistic “locker-room talk” or slurs about disabled folks, for example. If I’d endorsed those examples of bigotry, I would have been communicating to students in the room with me that I did not value their humanity and dignity, which is much worse than seeming partisan. Now, as I reflect on the challenges of teaching about politics from my metaphorical armchair, I stand by that. We professors have opinions and values and perspectives too, and it’s more intellectually honest to acknowledge them and welcome discussion or critiques of them than to feign some kind of mythical objectivity.

I’ve also been reflecting on a student in my class in 2016, who said that some of his best friends had voted for Trump, but were afraid to say so in front of anyone on campus for fear of getting yelled at. Free expression in the classroom is often invoked as a sort of straw man. In reality, no one says what they’re thinking all the time, every time, in class or in the real world. Sometimes you don’t feel like it, sometimes you don’t think it’s relevant, sometimes you need to think about it some more. Sometimes you think it might alienate people in the room — and we all make judgment calls constantly about social dynamics and navigating them, so that’s only natural.

As an expert on Cicero and political rhetoric, I can confirm that politicians (almost) never simply blurt out what they’re thinking without any self-awareness or judgment of consequences and context, and that’s not self-censorship – it's just emotional intelligence and political strategy. But some students, particularly those who are further to the right on the political spectrum, fear a backlash for expressing their political opinions. Many are convinced (or have been told) that if they express the “wrong” political opinion in class, the professor will trash their grade as revenge. I would hate for anyone in my class to feel that way. Truly.

I wish I’d been more explicit with my students from day 1: I will never take your opinions into account in grading. I evaluate your use of evidence and reasoning and your command of the content we’ve covered. In discussions or your writing, I want you to explain how you see things from your perspective, and to take evidence into account in forming or re-forming your opinions. I want you to listen to other people’s opinions openly and accept their perspectives, too. I welcome any questions or reservations you want to share in reaction to the opinions I express, because I’m a person, too. The ground rule is that this classroom is not a space where we yell at or belittle each other, or attack any people (present or not) on the basis of their identity. When we hurt someone by accident — and this goes for me too — we apologize and try to do better.

We really need more professional development in moderating conversations among students with different perspectives, de-escalating conflict, helping students to talk to each other about our course content even when it’s socially risky for them, and setting boundaries so that students are not saying harmful things to each other in our classrooms.

We have a platform to support others in developing the knowledge and skills to help you live in a better world. I think it’s really important to use that platform with humility and a sense of responsibility. It’s also possible to use that platform to make people feel small or unimportant or intimidated or stupid, and I think you have to choose consciously whether that’s what you want to do or not. As fellow citizens, we can model respectful dialogue. We should feel able to say things like “I don’t know,” “I need to think more about that,” “I wonder if we could find an expert analysis of that,” or “My personal experience makes me focus particularly on this value or this perspective as we’re discussing this topic.”

At the end of the day, you’re citizens too, dear colleagues. You live in a teetering democracy. Your labor conditions depend on the decisions made by your institution, and by your state and federal representatives. Your local officials make decisions and spend your taxes in ways that affect your life and the lives of people around you. In other words, we have a vested interest in civically engaged teaching.

I’ve outlined four dimensions or aspects of civic engagement here that you can build into your courses; in doing so, I’ve created a lot of additional work and prep for you to do and identified new skills to learn. But it’s work that you don’t have to do alone (actually, you probably shouldn’t), and it’s work that can be so rewarding that you reap the dividends in energy and a sense of greater purpose. Many former academics follow the same path I did into nonprofit work, because education is a social good and they want to continue doing work with that sense of purpose. But you don’t have to leave academia for a civic education nonprofit — you can use these ideas as a starting point to make your classrooms more civically engaged from where you are now, and you can keep thinking and learning how to take it further.

Header image: The Pnyx with the speaker's platform. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Joanna Kenty earned her PhD in Classical Studies from Penn in 2014 and taught in higher ed programs around the world until 2020, when she shifted gears to work in civic education and curriculum design for The Citizens Campaign. Her book Cicero's Political Personae was published by Cambridge University Press in 2020, and she wrote essays for Eidolon and Medium on topics related to inclusive teaching, connecting ancient and modern ideas, and political rhetoric.