Integral, Relational, Organic, and Generative: Pedagogy for a Thriving Democracy

March 7, 2018

This is the fourth in a series of posts addressing the emergent Theory of Change being developed by higher education institutions that participate in the annual Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Meeting network, which includes a network of colleges and universities affiliated with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ (AASCU) American Democracy Project, The Democracy Commitment, and NASPA LEAD Initiative. The first post described the CLDE Emergent Theory of Change and the process by which it is being developed; the second post identified key features of the thriving democracy higher education’s CLDE work seeks to support; and the third post proposed a set of learning outcomes to which this work should be directed.

In previous posts on the emergent Theory of Change, we sketched a vision of a thriving democracy in which people would work together to nurture and express values such as courage, honesty, wisdom, and stewardship, not just as voters on Election Day or in episodic service projects, but in every relationship and institution. We asserted that preparing students to create and contribute to that thriving democracy would involve cultivating knowledge, skills, and dispositions not always nurtured by our current approaches to civic learning and democratic engagement. We proposed that such knowledge, skills, and dispositions would include civic literacy and discernment, civic agency, real communication, critical solidarity, civic courage, integrity, and congruence.

Responding to the pedagogy prompt -- How can we best foster the acquisition and development of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for a thriving democracy? Photo credit: David Hoffman.

In this post, we ask: What approaches to teaching and learning can succeed in achieving these profoundly ambitious learning outcomes? In particular, we must grapple with the question of how to educate in ways that do not subtly reproduce the dehumanizing, disempowering aspects of our broader culture. Within the academy, these cultural conventions can take the form of boundaries, hierarchies, and protocols that isolate faculty and staff members and reduce them to content transmitters and service providers. Those same conventions can undermine students’ agency and sense of connection to each other and to their communities.

For inspiration, we can look at spaces in which students have developed approaches to cultivating their own responsible, hopeful, and empowering civic mindsets.

As an example, at the conclusion of each University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Student Government Association (SGA) meeting, the chair initiates a time-honored ritual of reflection called “Passing the Gavel.” It begins with the chair passing the wooden gavel they’ve used during the meeting to the left or right. The person receiving the gavel offers thoughts about the process of the meeting: Did participants have productive discussions, or did they get bogged down in minutia and distracted by petty squabbles? What behaviors were helpful and should be reinforced at future meetings? What changes in facilitation or communication strategies would produce greater inclusion, productivity, and collective wisdom? The gavel travels from person to person around the room, with each participant offering perspectives. When a meeting has been particularly awkward or contentious, these post-adjournment reflections can take up to an hour.

Passing the Gavel encourages participants to take responsibility for the performance and health of the group. It encourages the silent to speak, and the talkative to listen. The ritual also embeds and enacts the UMBC SGA’s values of inclusion and reflection. While there is a danger that, as with any ritual, familiarity and repetition could hollow out its meaning, Passing the Gavel has served as an important vehicle for transmitting ideals from person to person and across generations of leaders, both at UMBC and at other institutions where student governments employ the practice.

Passing the Gavel at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). Photo Credit: David Hoffman

Every pedagogy enacts a philosophy about learning and learners. Passing the Gavel enacts a philosophy of knowledge as constructed by members of a community, and of learners in that community as active agents and co-creators. In contrast, when an educator reads prepared lecture notes to an auditorium full of silent students, or directs students through a heavily scripted activity, the pedagogy prizes expertise and authority, casts knowledge as information and teaching as content transmission, and regards students as objects: empty vessels to be filled, or clay to be sculpted. The philosophy behind a lecture from a prepared text or a heavily scripted activity favors certainty and quality control, and abhors spontaneity and the risk that information will be distorted or changed in transmission.

The practical challenge for civic educators is to strike an appropriate balance: neither waiting passively and wishfully for students to make the imaginative leaps that lead to spontaneous learning, nor so enclosing and dominating their experience that they internalize unintended lessons about their own powerlessness and isolation. The UMBC student government’s Passing the Gavel tradition would not have emerged more than a decade ago without some gentle coaching, over a period of years, by a staff advisor. But had the ritual been imposed as a civic duty or dictated as the one right way to conclude a public meeting, its meaning for students would have been distorted and diminished.

Probably none of us involved with civic learning and democratic engagement in higher education view ourselves as authoritarian content-disseminators or script managers. However, it is well worth asking whether our current practices are striking the right balances, and whether there is more room than we have sometimes recognized to model and enact the values that are central to our emergent, collective vision of a thriving democracy. Specifically, can we achieve our ambitious civic learning outcomes more effectively by planting more seeds and imposing less structure?

We can begin answering that broad question by interrogating our current practices and considering some new possibilities:

  • Sharing Responsibility and Control: Is there room within courses and programs to shift some responsibility and control from educators to students?
  • Enabling Spontaneity: To the extent that courses and programs involve scripted content-delivery, directed behaviors, or rote learning, is there room to afford students more flexibility and space for spontaneity?
  • Embracing Vulnerability: Can we approach courses, programs, and everyday campus interactions with more humility and a greater willingness to be vulnerable, so that students are more likely to experience faculty, staff, themselves, and each other as human beings who are fully present and engaged in collective work within a community of learners?
  • Fostering Relationships: Can we do more, both within and beyond courses and programs, to create opportunities for students to build authentic, mutual, and reciprocal relationships with each other, with faculty and staff members, and with community partners?
  • Building Collective Capacities: Can we do more to support students in activities that both enrich individual students and help them build collective civic capacity over time (as in the Passing the Gavel ritual), in forums that can evolve as their collective capacity grows?
  • Choosing Empowering Language: Both within our courses and programs and in our everyday relationships and communications, can we do more to choose inclusive and empowering language? Among other things, this would entail avoiding some very common uses of “institution voice,” as when “we” or “us” (meaning, the institution) shares information with “you” (students, who are symbolically reduced to customers, implicitly excluded from “we” and “us”).
  • Providing Support for Learning from Everyday Interactions: Can we do more to support students in learning from their unstructured experiences of navigating everyday politics, on campus and beyond, so that they become increasingly resilient and sophisticated? Can we do so without disrupting the organic character of those experiences or undermining students’ agency?
  • Transcending Categories and Boundaries: Can we ask ourselves all of the foregoing questions, not just about courses, programs, and other settings with obvious civic dimensions (service-learning, explorations of public policy or public opinion, deliberative dialogues, voter engagement programs) but about every learning context at our institutions: orientation sessions, student organization meetings, faculty office hours, commencement exercises? Can our entire institutions become teeming civic ecosystems in which students experience and develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions useful to a thriving democracy in many settings?

As American Democracy Project founder George Mehaffy has observed about that initiative’s early work, too often higher education’s civic learning and democratic engagement efforts have been marginal, episodic, and celebratory: too shallow to fulfill our purposes. Taking a candid look at our current practices and considering new possibilities, using the questions listed above as a guide, is likely to reveal opportunities to make our civic learning and democratic engagement work more integral, relational, organic, and generative (Hoffman, 2015), and so congruent with our aspirations for a thriving democracy..

What pedagogies do you believe would support the vision and learning outcomes described in previous posts in this series? What questions do you think people in higher education should be asking about our current civic pedagogies?


Hoffman, D. (2015, July 1). “Describing transformative civic learning and democratic engagement practices.” American Democracy Project (blog).


David Hoffman is Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and an architect of UMBC’s BreakingGround initiative. His work is directed at fostering civic agency and democratic engagement through courses, co-curricular experiences and cultural practices on campus. His research explores students’ development as civic agents, highlighting the crucial role of experiences, environments, and relationships students perceive as “real” rather than synthetic or scripted. David is a member of Steering Committee for the American Democracy Project and the National Advisory Board for Imagining America. He is an alum of UCLA (BA), Harvard (JD, MPP) and UMBC (PhD).

Jennifer Domagal-Goldman is the national manager of AASCU’s American Democracy Project (ADP). She earned her doctorate in higher education from the Pennsylvania State University. She received her master’s degree in higher education and student affairs administration from the University of Vermont and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rochester. Jennifer’s dissertation focused on how faculty learn to incorporate civic learning and engagement in their undergraduate teaching within their academic discipline. Jennifer holds an ex-officio position on the eJournal of Public Affairs’ editorial board.

Stephanie King is the Assistant Director for Knowledge Communities and Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) Initiatives at NASPA where she directs the NASPA Lead Initiative.  She has worked in higher education since 2009 in the areas of student activities, orientation, residence life, and civic learning and democratic engagement. Stephanie earned her Master of Arts in Psychology at Chatham University and her B.S. in Biology from Walsh University. She has served as the Coordinator for Commuter, Evening and Weekend Programs at Walsh University, Administrative Assistant to the VP and Dean of Students for the Office of Student Affairs, the Coordinator of Student Affairs, and the Assistant Director of Residence Life and Student Affairs at Chatham University.

Verdis L. Robinson is the National Director of The Democracy Commitment after serving as a tenured Assistant Professor of History and African-American Studies at Monroe Community College (NY). Professionally, Verdis is a fellow of the Aspen Institute’s Faculty Seminar on Citizenship and the American and Global Polity, and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Faculty Seminar on Rethinking Black Freedom Studies: The Jim Crow North and West.  Additionally, Verdis is the founder of the Rochester Neighborhood Oral History Project that with his service-learning students created a walking tour of the community most impacted by the 1964 Race Riots, which has engaged over 400 members of Rochester community in dialogue and learning. He holds a B.M. in Voice Performance from Boston University, a B.S. and an M.A. in History from SUNY College at Brockport, and an M.A. in African-American Studies from SUNY University at Buffalo.

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