How do you move the needle on your campus and local community through current topics? This question was posed to us – and our answer was to create a program called the Engaged Learning Series (ELS). The ELS is an organized university-wide series of programs and events designed to engage students, faculty, staff, and community members in discussion, debate, dialogue, learning, and action around an issue of public concern. Housed in the Center for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL), the series was created in 2012 after observing a need to raise awareness, impact personal behavior, and increase public engagement around specific issues that affect everyone.
This year’s theme, civility, was especially important and timely due to the current social climates. After accepting this challenge, the next task was to implement the topic throughout the campus and community in a positive and inviting way. But as many campuses know, a huge challenge can be finding ways to engage a large and diverse group. ELS committee members took a creative approach to the series by organizing prisms to through which to explore the topic. These prisms include: culture, economics education, environment, health, and politics. For example:
- September, the culture committee brought in Marcus Roberts and his trio to look at civility through music and healthy social interactions. Roberts and his trio discussed civic engagement and showcased what happens when people don’t work together through a musical piece.
- October, the politics and public service office brought two Utah political figures together – one Republican and one Democrat – to discuss the importance of civil discourse in politics. Participants learned how to dialogue with others from different political parties regardless of their views on certain issues.
- November, the environmental committee organized a stand-up economist who delved into corporate social responsibility, carbon taxes and economics through comedy. He made the audience think differently about these topics through a unique lens and made the conversations engaging and fun. This unique platform was a huge hit.
- In the upcoming months, a deliberative dialogue event focused on climate change will take place with student leaders. An annual storytelling festival with elementary and middle school-aged students will also occur, as will events discussing strategies to reduce incivility in healthcare. In addition, art exhibits on civility from education and communication classes will be organized in the later spring. Weber State University (WSU) is also challenging students, staff, faculty, and community to model civil behavior through suggestions from the “Choosing Civility: Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct” book by P.M. Forni. Lawn signs representing the rules are scattered across the campus and in the local community.
These events are a deliberate effort to engage as many campus and community stakeholders as possible. WSU needed to find ways not only to have representation from multiple areas but to also allow for creative and open interpretation for those who choose to integrate the theme. After five years of creating themes, organizing programs and encouraging communities to intentionally incorporate the series, it is evident that we are seeing an increase in public engagement/participation with this series – 2015: 394 participants; 2016: 1078 participants; 2017 thus far: 1219 participants. Additionally, from our initial fall 2017 data, nearly 90% of participants agree after attending one of the ELS events it has increased their understanding of civility and over 80% are interested in being a part of ELS programs in the future.
As an institution of higher education, it is our responsibility to provide civil awareness for dialogue and debate. The campus climate (politically, socially, economically, etc.) is constantly changing and WSU is continuously trying to find ways to adapt, engage and educate. Although this series isn’t a fit for all campuses, our campus hopes some will find this model innovative. Let’s continue looking tough topics in the face and striking up civil conversations that challenge their students, faculty, staff, and community to understand, learn and grow with each other.