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UE: POL 110-HA: Democracy in Troubled Times: Course Introduction

Practical Instruction in Civic Discourse

OVERVIEW - About This Course


POL110 HA -- Democracy in Troubled Times

Saint Leo University catalogue course description

This course explores the rise and spread of democracy world-wide.  Democracy as a form of government and social movement will be traced from its ancient origins in Greece and Rome to the American and French Revolutions of the 18th Century, and through its evolution and diffusion during the 19th and 20th Centuries to its position of global dominance at the beginning of the 21st Century.  Democratic values, norms, and behaviors will be examined through the use of historic video footage and core texts. Attention will focus on governmental systems in the U.S.A., Western Europe, BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and our neighbors Canada and Mexico, as well as on emerging democracies in the Middle East and Asia. Acquiring basic academic and critical thinking skills will be emphasized, as students are awakened to the significance of world historical events and the excitement of following current affairs.

Purpose of this course

Simply stated, the purpose of this course is to teach civic discourse.  The topics to be debated revolve around the historical evolution of democratic ideas, the spread of democratic beliefs, and ascendancy of democratic forms of governments around the world. The characteristics of democracy have often come to light during periods of stress and crisis.  It is to these troubled times that we will turn our attention, as indicated by the course title.  Although the future of democracy remains uncertain and its opponents vociferous and often violent, neither will democratic regimes survive nor democratic ideas flourish unless each successive generation is awakened to the values and traditions of democratic life, which include rational discourse and informed questioning on all relevant political, socio-cultural, and economic issues. With this course, each student will learn how open and robust political deliberations -- connecting core values to critical thinking -- must precede all responsible decision-making in todays' democratic governments and grass-roots movements. <See the Saint Leo University QEP.>

Instructional techniques used in this course

  • Flipping the Classroom
  • Online Academic Research and Evaluation of Internet Source Material
  • Critical Viewing of Multi-Media
  • Deep Reading of Core Texts
  • Responsive & Reflective Journaling
  • Composing Position Papers - i.e., Writing Across the Curriculum
  • Enriched Civic Discourse:  Synchronous (Debate) and Asynchronous (Message Boards)

All of these fall into the category of assessable Active Learning Practices.

Copyright © 2013 - Hudson Reynolds, Ph.D

Required Texts

The Course Creator Discusses POL110-HA: Democracy in Troubled Times

Important Information for faculty

This audio clip from the University Explorations Webinar, held in the spring of 2013, lasts a little over 10 minutes.  In it you will find a thorough explanation of the objectives of the course, "Revolution Now! Democracy in Troubled Times", and of the preferred means of instruction.  This clip should prove invaluable to faculty who have been assigned to teach this course for the first time, but it won't hurt an inquiring student to listen in on a faculty member presenting ideas to other faculty. It's too bad that the speaker can't answer any questions that might arise in your mind, as he did for the faculty once his presentation ended.

The report from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, entitled A Crucible Moment, calls on educators and public leaders to advance a 21st century vision of college learning for all students -- a vision with civic learning and democratic engagement an expected part of every student’s college education. The report documents the nation’s anemic civic health and includes recommendations for action that address campus culture, general education, and civic inquiry as part of major and career fields as well as hands-on civic problem solving. This report pushes back against a prevailing national dialogue that limits the mission of higher education primarily to workforce preparation.


We are in no way affiliated with the right-wing website "Revolution Now!  Independence Forever!", the left leaning radio program "Democracy Now!", or any other political movement or organization that has the words "Revolution", "Democracy", or "Now", or any combination thereof in its title. We are strictly non-partisan in viewpoint and allegiance.

We are students of democracy, it is true; but we are also inhabitants of a democracy (or at least most of us).  As reflective inquirers, we are perhaps more like Socrates than Pericles; and, as outside observers, more like Tocqueville than John Steinbeck.  In a way, though, we too are travelers, moving across a vast historical landscape which rises and sinks with human aspirations, achievements, and disappointments.  If we preach anything on this our intellectual pilgrimage, it is the gospel of Civic DiscourseCivic Engagement, and Social Justice to those who will listen, consider, and respond.

Copyright © 2013 - Hudson Reynolds, Ph.D.

OVERVIEW - Teaching and Learning Civic Discussion

Step Up to the Microphone.  It's Your Turn to Speak!

Our goal is to promote civic dialogue and to teach the skills necessary for effective civic engagement, which includes learning how to become better informed on public affairs. Active learning techniques for imparting these skills and such knowledge in the classroom and through online education are outlined below.  These techniques can be strategically employed in Flipping the Classroom.

  • Participating in Civic Discourse
  • Annotating Internet Sources
  • Evaluating Online Videos
  • Contributing to Discussion Boards
  • Reflective Journaling
  • Debating
  • Preparing Position Papers

 Copyright © 2013 - Hudson Reynolds, Ph.D

Flipping the Classroom

Flipping the Classroom

The concept of "flipping the classroom" requires that students bring basic information to class, generously share that information with other students, and work collegially in small groups to connect significant facts, define general ideas, and evaluate personal beliefs and opinions in the light of an increasing understanding.  It is therefore expected that each and every student will come prepared for class by researching the assigned topic, viewing relevant video clips, and reading the assigned texts beforehand. 

The task of the instructor is to orchestrate the class to insure (1) that each student is equitably provided with an opportunity to contribute, (2) that discussion concentrates on integrating the material supplied by the students, and (3) that higher level skills of critical thinking are brought into play.  In short, the course instructor acts as "a guide on the side" rather than "the sage on the stage".

Moreover, in a flipped classroom instruction in process takes precedent over delivery of content.  Transparency of purpose is paramount. Considerable time is given to thinking about how information is collected, sorted, evaluated, and usefully applied, so that the students leave the classroom carrying with them the necessary skills for lifelong learning.  Reflective assignments are de rigueur for the course.  Instructor feedback, both verbal and written, is continuous.  And periodic peer evaluations are implemented throughout.

Copyright © 2013 -- Hudson Reynolds, Ph.D.

Participating in Civic Discourse

Participating in Civic Discourse

Civic discourse requires that each participant bring something to the table. Without abundant and reliable information, conversation will be thin, unproductive, and boring!  Civic discourse also requires cultivated talent, especially in listening attentively to others. Attentive listening teaches one to parse an argument -- that is, to separate a line of reasoning into its constituent parts, distinguishing that which constitutes a valid presentation of fact from what is nothing more than a mere assertion of opinion.

Respect is the controlling core value of civic discourse. Each contributor to a discussion must be allotted adequate time to develop an idea and take a position in regard to that idea, without being discouraged by distracting signals or rude interruptions. On the other hand, repetition is not argument; and no one has the right to hold the floor indefinitely through filibuster.

Each participant in a discussion has an obligation to link what they have to say with the conversation that has gone before. This can be done very simply by summarizing the discussion up to that point, or echoing a previous discussant's contribution, or explaining the need to take up another topic, after demonstrating that the current topic has been exhausted. Each participant also has the obligation to invite others to join in the discussion, usually by suggesting where further inquiry needs to be made.

Towards the end of every discussion, someone must summarize the entire conversation, a task frequently committed to an official note-taker or to the discussion leader.

Copyright © 2013 -- Hudson Reynolds, Ph.D


Preparing for Debate

In preparing for a public debate, each side should organize information as follows:

  1. Define and outline the issue that is the subject of debate.  If the parties to a debate are not addressing the same fundamental issue, no debate can occur.  Also, if both sides are in agreement about how that issue should be resolved, there will be no real debate. A conversation, maybe, but no debate.
  2. Identify, list, and arrange in logical order the principal arguments that are to be presented.  Debates are conducted poorly when one side or the other keeps repeating arguments, particularly if they present those arguments as assertions free from supporting facts or data.  Arguments need to be carefully differentiated from one another, so that the audience can see when one argument has been completed and a new argument is being introduced.
  3. Each argument must have attending support in the form of factual information or reliable data.  The same facts or data should not be presented as support for multiple arguments.  Each set of facts and data should be connected to a separate argument.
  4. Each side needs to comment on the other's arguments in a way that weakens the opposing argument, mainly by presenting conflicting facts and contradicting data.  This means that each side needs to predict what the other side may say and prepare a counter-assertion.  It is never sufficient to shout down an opponent or repeatedly deny an opponent's arguments merely by asserting the contrary, without more.
  5. Each side must propose a clear resolution of the issue regarding what must be done, undertaken, or attempted. The audience must not be left in the dark with regard to the speaker's intentions.  A debate is a discussion, but a discussion that proposes a clear line of action.  This should always be the last thing mentioned by each set of speakers.


Conducting a Debate

An informative debate might be held as follows:

The PRO side:

[1] defines the issue,
[2] identifies their chief arguments and
[3] presents supporting facts and data for each argument. Then the PRO side
[4] speculates with regard to the chief argument the CON side might bring forward against them and dismisses it with counter facts and data.  Next, the PRO side
[5] clearly states their position with respect to the issue and calls for some immediate action.

Next, the CON side (being given a little more time):

[1] defines the issue,
[2] identifies their chief arguments and
[3] presents supporting facts and data for each. Then the CON side
[4] seizes upon one of the arguments made by the PRO side and refutes it using relevant facts and data.  Finally, the CON side
[5] proposes an alternative course of action.

The PRO side may then briefly (using the difference in time between the two statements):

[6] refute the facts and data used by the CON side to undermine the PRO sides argument.  Previous arguments that went unchallenged by the CON side are not restated but left to stand unanswered.

The debate ends and a vote is taken.

Copyright © 2013 -- Hudson Reynolds, Ph.D

Annotating Internet Sources

Annotating Internet Sources

The purpose of making an annotated bibliography is two-fold:

1.  Taking a minute or two to compose an annotation causes you to reflect on the textual material that you have read with regard to whether the information may prove useful to your research in the future. 

2.  A well-composed annotation looked at several weeks later may loosen a mental log-jam and send you off in an entirely new research direction. 

A good annotation is pithy, consisting of only a few thoughtfully composed sentences. 

  • Topics & Evidence
    The first sentence outlines the contents, primarily the topics covered and the kinds of evidence presented. 
  • Message & Point of View
    The second sentence summarizes the author’s thesis, intention, and/or point of view. 
  • Relevance
    The third sentence expresses the possible importance of this material to you or your research.

An example of a properly annotated online article:

[Title, URL, Date]

This article compares modern democracy with ancient democracy.. The author believes that there are important differences between the government of the United States and that of ancient Athens: the most important being civic participation.  This article provides a wealth of information with regard to how the Athenian assembly actually functioned, quite useful for understanding the day to day performance of ancient democracy. .

Copyright © 2013 -- Hudson Reynolds, Ph.D

Evaluating Online Videos

Evaluating Online Video [such as video clips from YouTube]

Evaluating Internet video clips in terms of purpose, content, authority, currency, and accuracy can be a daunting task. To simplify this process, do the following:

  • Source       - Identify the source of the video.
    • Who created the video, and who posted it to the site? 
    • Is the author/creator an established expert in the field or merely a student doing a report for class?
  • Message     - Summarize the thesis or message in a single sentence or two.
  • Reliability   - Assess the Quality, Currency, and Accuracy of the information.
    • This is best discovered by comparing the information in the video with other sources, including standard online encyclopedias <like Wikipedia or> that provide similar information.
  • POV             - Give thought to the point-of-view or bias of the author.
    • Is the presentation blatantly one-sided?
    • Have important, well-known facts been ignored or suppressed?
    • Is the appeal primarily emotional or logical?
    • Is this part of an online sales pitch?

In time, as the process of evaluating video clips becomes habitual, the mental activity will become less time-consuming and far more rewarding.

TEXT: Consult the Berkeley Librarians' Guide to Evaluating Internet Sources

POWERPOINT: Take an Online Tutorial in Evaluating Internet Sources

An example of a properly annotated video source:

This is an audio accompanied slide presentation on evaluating Internet sources composed by the staff of the Western Oregon University library. It is aimed at instructing undergraduate students to be skeptical about information obtained over the Internet when doing academic research or making a personal decision. The information is not especially detailed; the audio accompaniment is annoyingly disjointed; but some of the tips on ascertaining reliability are useful.

Copyright © 2013 -- Hudson Reynolds, Ph.D