By Emily Sydnor (DeeP Collaborative Member)
The Deliberative Pedagogy (DeeP) Faculty Collaborative consists of 20+ 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. These faculty come from a wide array of disciplines and backgrounds. They come together to study and discuss different deliberative pedagogy methods, share their ideas and questions with one another, and work 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.
Every other spring, the political science department at Southwestern University offers a Texas Legislative Internships course that pairs classroom education on state policy and politics with real-world experience in a state legislative office. While it’s one of the oldest legislative internship programs in Texas, this spring was my first year teaching the class. As I started to think about how to approach a class with such a large integrative learning component, the deliberative pedagogy toolkit that I’ve developed as part of the Associated Colleges of the South’s Deliberative Pedagogy Collaborative (DeeP) and collaboration with DCI stood out as a potentially effective strategy.
I wrote the first version of this post at what always feels like the most hopeful part of course-building to me—the ideas are integrated into the syllabus and I can imagine how they will translate into class discussions, course projects, and lasting takeaways for students. In the case of this class, we started with an overview of the Texas legislature, theories of political representation and fundamentals of institutional design before moving into our exploration of deliberation. My last course that integrated deliberative pedagogy, which you can read more about here, emphasized the importance of deliberation for citizen engagement with and knowledge of the political world.
In this case, we are more interested in how deliberation can work for legislatures and other supposedly-deliberative bodies. How do elected officials deliberate on major policy questions? How do they encourage and respond to deliberation by their constituencies? Where do the students, as they are working in their respective legislative offices, encounter deliberation? My hope was that we would engage with each of these questions, paying particular attention to the institutional structures and design choices that facilitate deliberation. For the second half of the class, my plan was for us to engage in deliberation as a class about the same issues that, ideally, the Texas legislature would be discussing as part of their session.
The class was expected to be small—about 9 people—and so for each of our three deliberative discussions, I set the class up so that three of them served as facilitators. They would decide what material the rest of the class would engage with to learn more about the issue being deliberated, constructing an “issue guide” similar to those created by the DCI and the National Issues Forum. They would also direct the discussion itself, posing questions, prompting quiet students to engage, and reminding everyone of the norms of civility and mutual respect that undergird deliberative dialogue.
As with any class, the vision I had during the planning of the course and drafting of this blog post morphed during the semester. The deliberative component of the class was still present throughout, but became watered down for several reasons. First, the class ended up only enrolling four students, about half the number I had initially expected, who were placed in three different legislative offices. We found a wide range of differences in how each office assigned interns work and structured their responsibilities. And unique features of the Texas legislative calendar meant that exposure to certain deliberative elements of policymaking did not occur until very late in the semester.
With only four students, the original approach to deliberation facilitation put a lot of onus on a single student each week, more than I expected given the amount of out-of-class work they were already completing. Instead of making each student develop a thorough issue guide and lead class, we collectively selected a topic for the next class—everything from cybersecurity to immigration and school choice–and each student was required to find resources to help us learn more about that issue and form opinions. I then acted as the facilitator for each deliberation, sometimes asking students to arrive at a position on specific legislative and sometimes simply allowing them to explore the different dimensions of the issues. Even if the students did not have quite as much responsibility in developing the deliberative discussions, we nonetheless had robust and engaging discussions about each issue and I learned a great deal from them.
Our discussion of the extent to which the legislature itself works as a deliberative body was stymied by the organization of the state’s legislative calendar. For the first 60 days, legislators are really only writing and filing bills; committees are not constituted until mid-February and do not start holding hearings until after the filing deadline. I had our discussion of deliberation in legislative bodies scheduled for right before spring break, which coincided with the filing deadline. Thus, the students did not yet have much “real world” experience with deliberation, either through their representative’s committee or overall House or Senate debate. While I liked having this discussion before our own deliberations on issues, it may be worth moving it so that we can better evaluate the extent to which the legislature is deliberative.
My goal was to have us reflect as a group on what we thought went well or didn’t go well and how our discussion might translate into the kinds of conversation being had at the capitol. Are our legislators able to have the same sorts of conversations on the state House or Senate floor? Why or why not? How have the students’ experiences within the legislature shaped their opinions on the issues that we discuss?
Ultimately, the goal of the in-class deliberation was three-fold. First, I wanted students to practice sharing their political opinions and doing so in an evidence-based and civil way. They should have gained exposure to disagreement and reflected on how and why their own in-class conversations might not go the same way as the legislative deliberations they hopefully witnessed through their internships. I feel like I succeeded in this endeavor. Second, it let us do a deep dive into some of the controversial policy proposals that came up during this legislative session. Again, I think this component was successful, although I hope to provide even more depth to our topical case studies in the future. In a typical American Politics course, I spend little time on policy, but I think it is particularly relevant and valuable in the context of this course.
Finally, deliberation, and especially facilitation of deliberation, should help students develop listening skills, empathy, and civil ways to diffuse conflict and confrontation when it arises. When I talk to students about what makes them nervous when talking about politics, the sense that they don’t have a good way to handle disagreement is frequently raised. By getting practice talking about politics in a deliberative fashion and moderating that conversation among other people, they may be able to reduce their anxiety about talking politics. This piece was the hardest to assess, as the four students who chose to take the class were already pretty comfortable articulating their positions. However, we did manage to navigate difficult political discussions with empathy and listening—in direct contrast to some of the same debates within the legislature!
The reality of a course is never quite as perfect as my visions during the planning stage, but I nonetheless believe incorporating deliberation into this Texas Legislative Internships class turned out really well. It gave the students a chance to talk about and reflect on important policy decisions being made in our state as they worked in the very offices making those decisions.