For too long, US higher education has lagged in promoting democracy-focused education as core to the purpose and goals of a postsecondary education. That shortfall resulted in low levels of student knowledge of and participation in democracy, as evidenced by alarmingly low voting rates and other civic indicators. The tide seems to be turning. Over the past several years, colleges and universities are establishing coalitions and democratic action plans (ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, 2022) to address not just voting, but a healthier learning environment for engagement. Students have opportunities to play leadership roles not only in voter mobilization work but issue activism. As data from the 2020 election show, faculty frequently served as the most significant communicators of everything from voter registration materials to discussions about critical political issues. Institutional leaders stepped up to support voter engagement initiatives and action plans. These and other strategies are working. As the most recent National Survey of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) report shows us – and for the first time in modern history – students turned out at rates commensurate with those of all voters – 66% (Thomas et al., 2021). These developments may be cause for celebration, but not for pausing. For the upcoming election cycle, we know that faculty will continue to play a significant role, but there is still work to be done.
As faculty members with a commitment to nonpartisan student voter engagement and learning for democracy (Faculty Network for Student Voting Rights 2023), we wish to further shed light on an often underutilized area in the quest for increased student participation: the academic curriculum. Multidisciplinary curricular connections to voting are often an under-utilized and under-funded component of the student involvement landscape. Here are five things we want you to know and consider.
1.) The curriculum is not optional
Activities such as sidewalk voter registration drives, programs, speakers, carnivals, and the like are excellent tools for providing information to students on our campuses – physical and virtual. And yet, students have the choice to pass them by or not attend. Students who live far from campus or who work are much more likely to not engage in optional activities. Infusing nonpartisan voter engagement – including the three pillars of registration, education, and turnout – into the curriculum provides an opportunity to reach all students enrolled in the courses, not just those with the time or agency to seek out opportunities on their own. Curricular-embedded content can provide students nonpartisan, contextually-relevant ways to learn about issues, candidates, platforms, interactions with governmental units, and even the mechanics of voting in a way that is accessible and equal for all.
2.) Voter and democratic engagement are not just for certain disciplines.
Some may assume that these topics belong in political science courses only, but that is not accurate. All disciplines are publicly relevant and influence social, political, and economic issues. As faculty, we constantly see opportunities for democratic education in multiple courses, departments, and disciplines. Students in biology courses can research how the topics they are learning regarding life and the natural environment are addressed in candidates’ platforms. Students in agriculture courses can complete assignments to learn the different roles of elected versus appointed officials in agricultural policies. Students enrolled in statistics courses for education majors can learn to analyze data to support their applications for federal grant funding. Students in history courses can compare and contrast elements of past and current insurrections. Students in language arts can learn the political pros and cons of multilingual communications, teaching, and governing. When faculty are encouraged and supported to provide educational opportunities that meet both disciplinary and civic student learning outcomes, both our students and our society benefit.
3.) Critical thinking and information and media literacy belong everywhere.
Our academic curricula often contain student learning outcomes that are spread across an array of courses or course sections. For instance, all students earning a baccalaureate degree in the United States have a general education component of the curriculum, which often includes student learning outcomes related to critical thinking, communication, and literacy across media platforms and ways of knowing (American Association of Colleges & Universities, 2023). Educational opportunities for students to explore the ethical consumption and creation of information are excellent alignment points for a democracy-supporting education, and an institution’s academic librarians are often key partners for improved curricular outcomes (Hopkins, 2023). Key questions to guide student learning include: How do we know what we know? Who provided it? How do we know we can trust it? Does it cite and is it cited by other reputable sources? Infusing a critical thinking lens into curricula writ large helps students make informed decisions, promoting a well-functioning democracy.
4.) Students need voter education and the classroom is the place for it!
One-time visits to classrooms to register voters can be beneficial, but we should also be considering widening curricular connections as intentional and sustained education integrated with course content. Faculty working to connect course learning outcomes to societal issues advance student learning and growth. The connections may be more apparent in some courses than others, but broad societal impacts of our content and disciplines are ever abundant. Many faculty are asking themselves: “How does a healthy democracy impact us in this discipline?” and then designing learning activities accordingly. Concepts such as polls, voter turnout, redistricting, gerrymandering, policy, technology, UN Sustainable Development Goals, and a myriad of local or state issues all have curricular connections. Faculty are increasingly learning in community with non-profit partners on shared democracy goals infused into curricular spaces (Science Rising, 2023; Project Pericles, 2023; Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER), 2018; Ask Every Student 2022; Scholars Strategy Network, 2023). Likewise, department-supported disciplinary clubs and honor societies are excellent places for faculty involvement, intersecting with student availability and discipline-connected content.
5.) Civil and productive discourse are paramount to good democracy.
Students and the citizenry alike need to have opportunities to debate and understand issues in order to make informed choices. Some faculty feel that they face pressures in understanding what can and cannot be said in the classroom, the role of academic freedom, and the importance of planning ahead to facilitate productive dialogue. We advocate for getting political, not partisan. Faculty incorporate experiences on how to open one’s mind to learning in community with others and understanding those who may have a different point of view. Engaging in a world of ideas – and even with potentially controversial topics – is a common goal of education and professional thinking. Classrooms are good training and practice spaces for those discussions, which benefit not only the students engaging in the learning activities, but also benefit our society as a whole.
As NSLVE reports allow disaggregation of student democratic engagement by discipline, many faculty are surprised by the voting rates of students in their departments (ref). Efforts should not just be focused on increasing voting, but rather, in leveraging the academic environment to ensure equal opportunities for democratic participation, with equitable results. When campuses are very intentional about student well-being, belonging, and strong student-faculty relationships, our democracy thrives.
The article was co-authored by the Curriculum and Scholarship Subcommittee members of the Faculty Network for Student Voting Rights. Bridget Trogden is professor of engineering & science education and association dean in the division of undergraduate studies at Clemson University. Crystal Harris is assistant professor in the interdisciplinary studies program at Governors State University. Connie Jorgensen is assistant professor at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Laura Lovett is professor of history and director of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Soji Akomolafe is professor of international relations and executive director in the Center for African American Public Policy at Norfolk State University. Nancy Thomas is director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education in the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.
ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. “Action Plan Development.” (2022). https://allinchallenge.org/resources/action-plans/
American Association of Colleges & Universities. “Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE).” (2023). https://www.aacu.org/initiatives/value
Ask Every Student. “The Ask Every Student Toolkit.” (2022). https://www.studentvoting.org/toolkit
Faculty Network for Student Voting Rights. “Who Are We.” (2023). https://facultyforvotingrights.org/
Hopkins, Melissa. (2023). “Media Literacy.” Association of College and Research Libraries. 2023. https://acrl.libguides.com/ebss/lrcs/media_literacy
Project Pericles. “Voting Modules.” (2023). https://www.projectpericles.org/voting-modules.html
Scholars Strategy Network. (2023). https://scholars.org/
Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER). “Model Courses.” (2018). https://sencer.net/model-courses/
Science Rising. (2023). https://sciencerising.org/
Thomas, Nancy, Adam Gismondi, Prabhat Gautam, and David Brinker. (2021). “Democracy Counts 2020: Record-Breaking Turnout and Student Resiliency.” Medford, MA: Institute for Democracy & Higher Education. https://idhe.tufts.edu/nslve/2020