The American Trustees Project in the College Classroom: The Types of Civic Participation that Inspire Current Longhorns
Imagine asking a group of University of Texas undergraduate students the following questions: “What does it mean to be a good citizen?” “What should people think, feel, and do to contribute to their communities?” “What has been important in the past?” “What strikes you as imperative today?”
Now, consider how they might respond. What would they say? What matters to them?
Traditionally, educators have looked to high school government and college political science courses to help young people grapple with notions of good citizenship. Increasingly, however, curricula in those fields focus on national level concerns, approach government as detached from people’s lived experiences, and avoid the conflict central to political life. While a motivation behind such shifts has been to offer more sheer knowledge to students, this infocentric approach has not motivated young people to see their roles in our democratic system as earlier generations have (Dalton, 2020; Delli-Carpini, 2000; Jarvis & Han, 2020; Putnam & Romney Garrett, 2020; Zukin et al., 2006).
The American Trustees Project (AT)
The American Trustees Project (AT) at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life was created to help address such concerns. It is a collection of short biographical films of everyday people engaging in extraordinary civic acts. The goal of the project is to produce short videos and standards-aligned lesson plans to help high school students (1) see how citizens can be influential in the civic arena, (2) consider what motivates people to change the world, and (3) discover how even young people can become trustees of their own communities.
Extending AT to the College Classroom
The class discussed in this blog post—Communication and Civic Participation, CMS 342c—is borne out of a desire to bring AT to college students. It builds on AT’s initial goals. It also acknowledges how today’s college students have come of age in a time of partisanship, presidential scandal, and political cynicism, have both a more global and local worldview than their parents and grandparents, and are a good fit for team-based projects that involve media and technology (see Dalton, 2020; Mindich, 2005; Putnam & Romney Garrett, 2020).
Description of Course
Communication and Civic Participation is a fifteen-week class organized into three five-week sections: (1) trends and types of civic participation, (2) best practices of narrative and social marketing, and (3) and group work. At the end of the first part of the class, students join groups based on the type of participation they want to study and the characteristics of the type of person who could be the subject (Trustee) of their AT video. During the third part of the class, students create the short film about their Trustee, write a group self-reflection paper based on the film, and conduct self-and-peer evaluations.
Appraisal—Then and Now
When the class was first taught (2007 - 2014), the most common approaches to civic participation that students chose were knowledgeable citizens (people who knew a lot about their communities, state, or country) and participatory citizens (individuals who voted and encouraged others to do so as well).
In teaching the course in the fall of 2021 and spring of 2022, Longhorns were drawn to different topics.
- Justice-oriented approaches: Student groups were drawn to people working to address inequities in their communities. Notably, multiple groups chose Trustees working to fight food insecurity on campus (a problem affecting over 40% of U.T. students, see Daily Texan).
- Voice-related approaches: Other groups focused on the role of participatory voice. They emphasized how communication on and about complicated topics can serve as an important first step in helping others. One group made their AT film about a volunteer who visits fraternities to speak about the dangers of drug abuse and addiction (a concern that increased in Travis County during the pandemic, see Daily Texan).
- Caring-based approaches: Still other groups called attention to the importance of “showing up” to help others. One group gained access to an active National Football League (NFL) player who was born and raised in a small town in Texas. Their video addressed how he regularly returns home to mentor and inspire young people in that rural community. He shared how this work is natural and easy to do; the film underscored how powerful it is for young people to see a role-model from their area.
For the 2021-2022 classes, we engaged in an end of the semester “peer praise” activity. Students were asked to write one-paragraph of constructive feedback to three other groups. Some of the most commonly used words across all of the paragraphs include community, inspiring, one can, enjoyed, voice, change, important, involved, great, voting, and participation. They were encouraged to be supportive of each other; the words they chose while doing so, however, were completely up to them.
The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life’s mission is to educate, inspire, and connect the next generation of Texas civic leaders. The AT program, and this class extending it to the college classroom, invite young people to experience—more concretely—how they can contribute to their communities.
Sharon E. Jarvis
Professor of Communication Studies
Associate Director for Research, Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life
Dalton, R. (2020). The good citizen: How a younger generation is reshaping American politics (Third Edition). Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press.
Delli Carpini, M. X. (2000). Gen.com: Youth, civic engagement, and the new information environment. Political Communication, 17, 341-349.
Jarvis, S., & Han, S. (2010). Teaching citizenship: Student-led documentary film projects in the communication classroom. Communication Teacher, 24(1), 35-42.
Mindich, D. (2005). Tuned out: Why Americans under 40 don’t follow the news. New York: Oxford University Press.
Putnam, R., & Romney Garrett, S. (2020). The Upswing: How America came together a century ago and how we can do it again. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Zukin, C., Keeter, S., Andolina, A., Jenkins, K., & Delli-Carpini, M. (2006). A new engagement? Political participation, civic life and the changing American citizen. New York: Oxford University Press.