Deliberative What? Bridging Deliberation and Engagement in Higher Education

Timothy Shaffer is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. He is coeditor, with Nicholas Longo, Idit Manosevitch, and Maxine Thomas, of the new book Deliberative Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for Democratic Engagement (Michigan State University Press, 2017), which came out of Kettering’s ongoing deliberative pedagogy research.

In a recent interview with the local radio station in Manhattan, Kansas, I spoke about the publication of the new book Deliberative Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for Democratic Engagement and what it is about. As I sat in the studio of KMAN, I made a comment that while the title sounds “academic,” it is actually about ideas and concepts that could be interesting and useful to a wider audience—both within higher education and beyond. I’m not sure the commuters catching In Focus with Cathy Dawes went online to get a copy of Deliberative Pedagogy, but I imagine the key elements of the book would resonate with people or at least be provocative enough that they would be curious as to what we have written about. At its most basic, our argument is that we can’t simply study democracy as something “out there.” We need to bring it into our classrooms and communities in order to figure out, together, how we make sense of complex issues and what to do about our shared concerns in deliberative and democratic ways. If we think of ourselves as cocreators of our learning in educational spaces, it changes how we relate to and interact with one another. We change the environment, often literally, so that we’re on the same level and not reinforcing a model of education that puts instructors in the fronts of rooms and students in rows of desks. I regularly teach in a classroom with desks lined up in rows that we have to move around just about every time we meet for class. While it can be annoying, it’s a simple reminder that sometimes we have to be intentional about the spaces we occupy and how deviating from the norm takes a little work from all of us. My hope is that, after students walk out of my classes, they are thinking about all of the other settings they find themselves in and how they can make those spaces more democratic as well.

Deliberative Pedagogy offers a language for speaking about the intersection of deliberative democracy and engaged pedagogies. I am someone who came to deliberation from the world of university-community partnerships and, prior to that, social justice work rooted in Catholic social teaching. What was striking then—and now—is the familiar framing of universities providing answers or solutions to wicked problems. Even the well intentioned “service” paradigm, for example, is limited when it comes to the question, how we do engage with one another around a shared problem? Deliberative approaches offer more relational avenues, putting both faculty members and students—as well as community members—in a new space that is to be cocreated and articulated rather than predetermined. My coeditors and I note the influence of people like Paulo Freire, John Dewey, bell hooks, and Myles Horton as we articulate our own view of what it means to view students as sources of knowledge and not simply as receptacles for it. I’m struck by the happy coincidence that space on my bookshelf for Deliberative Pedagogy was between Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Peter Levine and John Gastil’s The Deliberative Democracy Handbook. We see our book as a collection of useful demonstrations and explanations about how universities and faculty members, in particular, are seeing themselves as civic actors with a responsibility to help introduce the next generation to democratic principles and practices.

This book came out of a multi-year research exchange at the Kettering Foundation, in which faculty members from across the United States and beyond came together to share their experience of integrating deliberation into their teaching. In one particular exchange, we asked people to define “deliberative pedagogy” and asked if this was the most appropriate term for what we were describing. What emerged from that conversation, and many others, was a sense that we had companions as we engaged in this work of democratizing classrooms and other spaces on and off campus. In her preface to the book, Kettering vice president, secretary, and general counsel Maxine Thomas refers to us as a “small but tenacious group” and as “coconspirators.” Over more than a decade, various iterations of this group of scholars met regularly to share experiences, ideas, and frustrations with trying to give language that captured the theory and practice of what we referred to as deliberative pedagogy.

Many of us noted that it would be helpful to have a literature to point to as we try to get administrators on board with this approach to teaching and learning. Eventually we realized we needed to share these ideas much more widely, and it was a privilege to work with Nicholas Longo, Idit Manosevitch, and Maxine Thomas to compile and edit the amazing work of Martín Carcasson, Sara Drury and many others, for publication with Michigan State University Press in its series “Transformations in Higher Education: The Scholarship of Engagement.”

I have more to say about the value of some of the individual pieces, but I’ll save that for another post. In the meantime, I think it would be appropriate to close with Kettering’s ethos about publishing: we don’t want publication to be the final word. We want it to be the beginning of a conversation. So please, if you have thoughts, please share them in the comments below!