The Deliberative Pedagogy (DeeP) Faculty Collaborative consists of 15 faculty from Davidson College and five other Associated Colleges of the South institutions who are committed to learning and implementing new ways to improve and deepen the quality of their class discussions. Throughout the 2021-22 academic year, these faculty, who come from a wide array of disciplines, studied and discussed different deliberative pedagogy methods, shared their ideas and questions with one another, and worked to embed deliberation in their classrooms. In this special blog series, members of the Collaborative describe and reflect on their experiences developing and teaching their deliberation-involved courses.
For a couple years, I gave a “First Lecture” during Southwestern University’s welcome week—the period in August where only new freshmen are living on campus—about “Talking Politics in Polarized Times.” The students who attend are asked “what worries or concerns do you have about talking politics on campus or in college?” They jot their responses down on post-it notes that they place on the wall for everyone to see. It might not surprise you to know that their biggest concerns are social: will their peers judge them for their opinions, for not knowing enough, for being too vocal? Will the discovery that they believe something different from their friends lead to ostracization from the group that they’ve only recently come to belong in?
The conversations I’ve had with incoming students about their anxiety around political discussion has led me to think more broadly about how to incorporate political discussion into my classroom. Thus, when I had the opportunity to participate in the Associated Colleges of the South’s Deliberative Pedagogy Collaborative (DeeP) and to collaborate with DCI, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to build a class in which discussion took a primary role. This spring, I taught a course on Political Psychology and we grounded our investigation of psychological concepts in deliberative political theory and its application in real-world political contexts. In short, the course asked “Can deliberation be an effective component of governance and citizen engagement, given what we know about human psychology?”
In developing the course, I knew I wanted students to engage with deliberation both academically—through readings and in-class discussion—and experientially—through their own deliberation on an issue facing contemporary American politics. The biggest hurdle then became structuring the in-class deliberations. The course had 22 enrolled students, which made a full-class deliberation unwieldy, but simultaneous small group deliberations required students to moderate (something I’d have to train them to do) and made it difficult for me to grade through simple observation of the discussion.
Ultimately, I decided that we’d hold two in-class deliberations throughout the semester and that students would take on one of two roles—participant or observer—in each. Participants were expected to read the deliberation materials in advance, write a brief (1-2 paragraph) statement of where they fall on the issue in advance, and engage in the conversation for the full 75-minute course, adhering to the guidelines for deliberation we’d developed from our readings and own class norms. Observers were expected to pose a research question related to deliberation and describe how they’d measure it, then attempt to execute that data collection strategy during the class time. We also recorded the discussion, in part so observers could go back and look things up they might have missed, and in part to make it possible for students who had to miss class for athletics or COVID-19 related reasons to make up the assignment.
Overall, I found the deliberative discussions and affiliated assignments achieved my course goals and were interesting and engaging for both me and the students. In their reflections on deliberation, several participants commented that in spite of their initial anxiety about talking politics with their peers, they had found the discussions to be a positive experience.
All of the students seemed to take their roles seriously and everyone made at least one comment during their assigned day to deliberate. It was clear from their reflective essays that students understood what the components of deliberation were, relative to a general discussion or conversation, and could apply the political psychology research we’d read about knowledge acquisition, information processing, partisan identity, and cognitive biases to their own experience either deliberating or observing their peers’ deliberation.
While many enjoyed the experience, they also emphasized the deliberations’ weaknesses, calling attention to the ways our practice failed to live up to normative ideals. Of particular interest was the expectation that all participants have equal opportunity to speak. Several observers counted how many times political science majors spoke relative to non-majors, finding the political science majors more engaged. Another argued for the importance of a more active moderator, drawing on observational data demonstrating that the three participants that spoke the most during one deliberative discussion were also responsible for interrupting or talking over those who spoke the least.
Each of these findings, as well as the overall experience participating in the deliberations, became an opportunity for classroom discussion about deliberative theory, practice, and the psychological biases and limitations on information processing that widen the gap between the two. They also serve as an important set of takeaways for me as a teacher, leading me to reflect on how to bring different voices into the conversation and on the extent to which I should be a more active moderator.
I look forward to incorporating more deliberative discussion into other classes I teach as part of my goal to reduce students’ anxiety around talking politics. Even if our classroom conversations fell short of the deliberative ideal, they succeeded by helping the students form and express their own political opinions in the face of social pressure—reducing their worries from their first days as freshmen.