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.
The first-year writing seminar that I have taught this Spring semester explores questions of democratic health and the possibilities for political reform in the United States. Course readings emphasize the role of democratic norms and traditions, the challenge of persistent inequalities in American life, the erosion of public trust and faith in institutions, and the prospects for multiracial democracy and civic renewal. Given this thematic focus, along with the advantages of a small class size, deliberation has been employed both as a pedagogical tool and as a democratic practice to be examined for its possible utility for what ails American democracy.
When preparing this course, though, I was concerned about how incorporating deliberative exercises could support my primary learning outcome of improving student writing. This concern immediately proved to be unfounded. Dedicating significant class time to the study of deliberative ideals and the cultivation of deliberative skills did not compete with, nor distract from, the goal of writing development. Rather, an attention to deliberation substantially complemented and directly informed this central curricular objective. While there were clear benefits for students to write about deliberation, even more significant to their growth as writers were the opportunities to deliberate about writing. The commitments that a participant is expected to embody in a deliberative setting – for example, the ability to provide reasoned judgments for one’s position and an openness to consider (and reflect upon) opposing arguments – are clearly transferable to the written work students are asked to produce. By the conclusion of the collaborative peer review and revision processes, students had become, we could say, engaged in the act of writing deliberatively.
Illustrative of this trajectory were our conversations about John Gastil and Katherine Knobloch’s Hope for Democracy (2021), a compelling text about the history, theory, and practice of citizen initiative review (CIR) boards. Situated within the most recent scholarship on democratic deliberation, readers are presented with a structurally intriguing narrative that combines character-driven storytelling with rigorous social science methods, written in a manner accessible to an undergraduate audience. Class discussions focused on matters of form and content, the mechanics of a strong argument, the evidentiary support for posited assertions, the plausibility of advocated reforms, and the authorial choices that should be emulated (or avoided) as students prepared their own prose.
Students especially appreciated the clear introduction to the CIR (and other deliberative approaches to deepening citizenship), the emphasis on individual political agency, the efforts at measuring the effects of the CIR on political knowledge, and the authors’ willingness to address counterarguments such as the possible “democratic illusions” of direct democracy. Class critiques of Hope for Democracy were both stylistic and substantive. Some students responded unfavorably to the novelistic vignettes which frame most of the chapters while many of us (including the professor) were perplexed by the book’s unorthodox citation practices. In terms of content, several students questioned the plausibility (Is this reform scalable?) and the desirability (Are certain issues not amenable to deliberation?) of the proposed reform.
If the scope of the challenges that the nation faces cannot be ameliorated by deliberation, as many students concluded, are there specific political reforms that could significantly strengthen U.S. democracy? This was the organizing prompt of our final in-class deliberation. Utilizing Gastil and Knobloch’s book as our point of departure, we then proceeded to a consideration of each student’s own preferred reform, which they would then expound upon in their final essays. By design, these more formalized deliberations occur at the conclusion of each section of the course, when students are digesting the insights of the primary reading and are beginning to think about how to contribute to a scholarly conversation and, in so doing, further develop their own analytical voice. Encouraged to read passages from their drafts in progress, students were now poised to share their own writing decisions, describe the novelty of their ideas, and receive critical (yet collegial) comments from their colleagues. Having just interrogated the claims of Hope for Democracy, students were now prepared to accept a similar treatment of their own efforts.1
Students recognized that speaking about their writing ultimately improved their writing. In their course evaluations, many students remarked about the positive impact of these deliberative experiences on their writing. Deliberations were generative, and for some students, unexpectedly enjoyable:
“I like how we were able to collect our thoughts through deliberation before writing assignments. The deliberations allowed me to bounce my ideas off of my peers and my professor.”
“I am a big fan of discussing my ideas before having the chance to write about them so I feel like my writing really benefited from all of the speaking we did in class.”
“I was excited for [deliberation] days, when we each came in after forming our own takeaways from the content we were assigned…I always felt like I was getting detailed feedback. It was almost fun to edit afterwards.”
If instructors are inclined to experiment with deliberative pedagogy, it is helpful to schedule multiple deliberations throughout the semester as it takes time for students to become familiarized with the expectations of the format and to develop stronger relationships such that they are willing to be more open with (and receptive to) their peers. As one student observed,
The [deliberations] got to a deep, interesting level that…helped everyone to contribute to conversations more throughout the semester; we all got comfortable around each other and the small class environment really aided in that, for me specifically.
Despite my initial reservations about how deliberative pedagogy might function in a writing intensive course, my experience has been particularly rewarding. The reasons for which I attribute this success, though, are important to reiterate as they may not be applicable to others considering incorporating this approach. With fewer than ten students in each of the two sections I taught, students quickly developed a group rapport that would have been less likely to occur in a larger (more impersonal) class environment. This small class size made it possible for the group to practice informal deliberative talk throughout the semester, and for those less inclined to vocally participate, class deliberations, as a student affirmed, “forced [me] out of my comfort zone in the best way.”
Additionally, a deliberative approach was especially well suited to the thematic focus of the seminar. We were never sacrificing attention to substantive material when our focus turned to deliberation. Indeed, as a proposed remedy to strengthen democratic health, democratic deliberation was certainly relevant to course content.2 These distinctive circumstances notwithstanding, deliberative pedagogy can play a productive role in many different types of classroom settings if the instructor has thought through its potential applications in a purposeful and deliberative manner.
1. An important final step of the assignment is the requirement that students include written reflections to the peer reviews as part of their revised essay submissions.
2. While this post has discussed Gastil and Knobloch’s Hope for Democracy, each of the four assigned books for this course address material which connects to democratic deliberation.