In this paper I discuss concerns that influenced my decision to revise the pedagogical methods I originally employed in teaching an urban social problems course. It had become apparent to me that those methods left students with a sense of apathy concerning problems in their community. I, therefore, restructured the course to include a civic engagement project that reflected several goals: to reduce student’s sense of apathy; to increase awareness of the organizational efforts that had resulted in positive changes in the community; and to enhance the student’s sense of self efficacy. Findings from the pre- and post-survey and the comments offered by students at the end of the term indicate the advantage of engaging students in the community as a tool to achieve these goals.
I teach an urban sociology course at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio, a city which is located in an area of the country referred to as the Rust Belt. Similar to other Rust Belt areas that have experienced the aftermath of deindustrialization in the early seventies, this area is currently engaged in a revitalization process that involves concerted efforts by local and state government, community organizations, and grassroots organizations to address the area’s problems, which include an exodus of the population from the city to the suburbs, a high rate of unemployment and poverty, a failing educational system, and a high crime rate. The city and the surrounding community, therefore, provide an ideal laboratory for teaching an urban social problems course and for creating opportunities for students to apply sociological theories and concepts.
Invariably, during any semester, at least ninety percent of the students in the classroom are too young to have experienced the once vibrant and booming downtown area of the city, and most possess little or no knowledge of the history of their community. Although major improvements have been made in the city, remnants of the loss of manufacturing can be seen in some boarded-up buildings in the downtown area as well as the many dilapidated and abandoned homes that surround downtown. Consequently, many of the students entering the class have a negative image of the city. That image is accompanied by a pervasive sense of apathy. Many also express an overwhelming desire to leave the area after graduation, thus exacerbating the area’s brain drain problem. The urge to leave is reinforced by the pessimism of the older generation whose memories of the city recall an economy primarily supported by the manufacturing of steel, an industry that has been greatly diminished in size. Their pessimism is partially explained by the fact that many of them are not completely aware of the shift to an emerging economy primarily built on technology, education, and health care.
In my attempt to address the students’ negative attitudes and sense of apathy, I originally designed the course to include assignments that would encourage students to remove their ahistoric view of the city. The goal was to provide a framework in which they would trace the history of their community; a history that included the structural and institutional forces involved in the area’s social and economic transformation. Ultimately, I had hoped they would arrive at an understanding of how the community and individual lives have been affected by these changes. Clearly, this is what C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination (1959:23) had in mind when he argued that “neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both. Yet men do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction.”
Teaching the Urban Sociology Course
With Mills as my guide, I originally structured the first part of the semester to include a conventional mode of teaching. The first day of the semester included a discussion of the syllabus along with an introduction to Urban Sociology. On the second day, a brief survey was given to students measuring their knowledge of the history of the metropolitan region and their perceptions of the downtown area. Students also were asked to indicate if they planned to stay in the area after gradution and were instructed to discuss their reasons for either staying or leaving. Data collected from the survey would be used at the end of the semester to measure the effectiveness of the pedagogical methods I planned to use in the class.
The pedagogical methods included classroom lectures that introduced students to the various theoretical perspectives they would be using in analyzing the area’s social problems. Also, through case studies of the community, photographs of the community documenting its history, museum tours, documentaries, guest speakers, and other activities, students uncovered the social, economic, and political forces that shaped and reshaped its landscape. Students also listened and responded to a radio documentary created from interviews with people who worked, shopped, or were entertained in the more vibrant and exciting downtown area of 50 years ago. These interviews were conducted by students in one of my previous urban sociology classes and aired on the local NPR radio station.
During the second part of the course, one class period was allocated to engaging students in a discussion about what they perceived to be the community’s pressing problems. Students then organized into several groups, each charged with conducting research on a specific problem. Project instructions directed students to trace the history of the problem, report how the rates have changed during the last 25 years, and apply sociological theories and their sociological imagination to the analysis of data. Also, via interviews with local officials, students were instructed to gather information about the local and state policies designed to address the problems. The project culminated with group presentations during the final week of the semester.
This pedagogical method was predicated on my belief that through this intellectually reflective lens, students would gain a real appreciation for their community, an empathic understanding of the people, an informed awareness of how the city’s past affects its present and future, and a deeper understanding of the process through which the community’s problems evolved. In other words, they would develop what Mills referred to as a sociological imagination when looking at the complex relationship between structural issues and the social problems in their community.
In order to assess the effectiveness of the pedagogical methods, at the end of the semester I repeated the section of the survey that asked students to indicate if they planned to remain in the area and provided space for them to state their reasons for either leaving or staying. Students also were asked to offer their perceptions of the community.
To my chagrin, students’ responses and written comments at the end of the semester revealed a greater sense of apathy and pessimism than was expressed at the beginning of the semester. First, the percentage of students who planned to leave Youngstown increased from 65% to 77%. Second, their views of the city become more negative. Students commented that “crime in this area just seems to get worse,” and “since the steel mills have closed, there doesn’t seem to be any hope for jobs here.” Students’ pessimism and sense of community apathy were revealed in comments such as “I don’t want to live in a place that has so many problems that they can’t solve,” and, from another student, “this has been going on now for 25 years and nothing has changed. People in this comunity don’t seem to care about it.” A profound sense of futility was expressed by a student who stated, “you know, this is a dying city, why don’t we just leave it alone.”
Clearly, students had gained both knowledge and a sociological understanding about the economic decline of their community and the social problems that followed. This knowledge, however, was incomplete. The majority of the students were not aware of the city’s most recent comprehensive plan to revitalize the area and the many successes that already had been achieved. They also were unaware of the grassroots organizations that had emerged to address the issues plaguing the area. This unawareness was a result of the component of the project that specifically instructed students to only investigate the strategies implemented by local and state government and formal organizations to address the city’s problems.
Through my own assessment of the pedagogical methods used in the course, I realized that my approach led students to conclude that problems caused by structural factors require what Scarpitti and Clyke (1995:xiii) refer to as a “top-down strategy whereby political and economic elites or other powerful private-sector members initiate programs designed to resolve a particular social problem.” The limitations of this strategy are addressed by Rundblad (1998) who explains that since most of the attention is devoted to the structural causes of social problems which require top-down solutions, very little or no attention is directed toward discussions of grassroots, community-based organizations engaged in addressing these problems. Scarpitti and Clyke (1995) are concerned that this approach leads students to question their ability to effectively contribute to addressing social problems. Consequently, students develop a feeling of apathy and pessimism regarding problems in the environment (Scarpitti and Clyke (1995). The “doom and gloom” atmosphere that results from this limited approach is addressed by Brett Johnson (2005:44) who asks; “When we teach about social problems, do we empower our students to create social change or do we germinate cynicism, powerlessness, alienation, and civic disengagement?”
The role of civic education in reducing apathy and pessimism
Quite obviously, the structure of my course was not effective in reducing student’s apathy and pessimism. Particularly useful in addressing my problem was Ehrlich’s suggestion that a solution for student apathy and civic disengagement is civic education (2000). Ehrlich (2000:vi) states, “Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processses.” The relevance of civic engagement is discussed by Boruff-Jones (2006) who points out that civic engagement is accepted as an important part of higher education for both faculty and students. Activities that may be identified as civic engagement activities for students include experiential learning, community based research projects, service learning, internships, or community service projects.
The importance of engaging students in the community is highlighted by Corey and Motte (2002) who argue that placing students out in the field under the supervision of professors, along with readings and case studies, has been proven to be a very successful way for students to grasp the dynamics of urban change. They add that another advantage of community engagement and participation for students is improving their sense of efficacy or their belief that by engaging in certain behavior they have the ability to contribute to positive change. This argument is supported by Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker,and Donohue (2003:26) who state that “people who actively participate in a research project that addresses a local problem become more confident that they can make a difference in their own communities.”
The relationship between participation and efficacy is reported in the literature. Wandersman and Florin (2000:265), for example, in their study of citizen participation and community organizations, refer to the many empirical studies of participation that suggest a “strong association between participation and feelings about the self.” Other individual impacts they cite as a result of participation in community activities are changes in attitudes, beliefs, and civic skills.
Specifically focusing on students, Johnson (2005) proposes that one way to foster civic skills and improve students’ perceptions of their abilities to effectively contribute to society is to expose them to social change organizations within the community. The benefits that accrue from this strategy are identified by Scarpitti and Clyke (l995:xiii) who argue that this would remove attention away from the top-down strategies which leave students with a sense of apathy and redirects their attention to the bottom-up strategy in which “solutions or demands for solutions to social problems emerge from the general population.”
Considerations in redesigning the project
Embarking on the goal of redesigning the project with a focus on the bottom-up strategy directed my attention to the community’s grassroots organizations and ways in which to engage students in these organizations. Although I was very aware of these efficacious organizations, I also knew that students, because of their social disengagement and sense of apathy, possessed no awareness of these organizations or of the success of these groups.
Engaging students in the community’s grassroots organization required that they be informed about the opportunities to do so. The project, therefore, was completely revised to include a civic engagement component directed at several explicit but overlapping goals: 1) raising student’s awareness of the grassroots organizations and creating opportunities for students to become involved in the organizations; 2) creating a sense of self efficacy; and 3) reducing student’s sense of apathy and pessimism.
In order to assess the effectiveness of the project in achieving these goals, I created a pre- and post-test survey that measured student’s sense of apathy and pessimism, efficacy, and also awareness of changes in the community. The pre-test would be administered the second day of the term and the post-test would be given at the end of the semester.
The revised course structure
After the initial introduction to the course, I distributed the pre-test survey in class. This was followed by a discussion of the proposed project, and at that time I informed students that a considerable amount of learning would occur outside of the classroom. I highlighted the components of the project that would engage them in the classroom and the community. This was followed by a series of lectures I had presented in previous Urban Sociology classes. For example, students learned the history of their community and were instructed to apply their sociological imagination toward an understanding of the current social problems in the community. In the previous course structure, however, a great deal of the student’s time was devoted to the collection of data and information concerning the governmental solutions to the problems, and as stated above, the result was an increase in the level of student pessimism and apathy.
The revised project
First of all, students were instructed to familiarize themselves with web sites that described the many grassroots organizations in the community and that provided information concerning the organization’s history, its goals and objectives, and a calendar of events and meetings sponsored by the organization. The organizations identified and chosen were to represent the diverse issues addessed in the community such as arts and entertainment, education, neighborhood revitalization, downtown revitalization, technology, and employment. Students collaborated to compile a list of these organizations.
The organizations chosen all had successful track records and were currently active and growing in membership. The members of a significant number of the organizations were under the age of forty and many were under the age of thirty and alumni of the university. Since many of the organizations focused on issues addressing the needs and interests of young people, it was expected that students would be able to establish a strong connection with the organizations.
Each student had the responsibility of selecting and then contacting at least two of the organizations on the list and interviewing the director of the organization. Students were expected to attend at least one meeting for each organization of their choice and to engage in conversations with members in attendance. Additionally, all students were to volunteer at least three hours at each of their chosen organizations. Other individuals actively involved in moving the city forward visited the class to discuss their involvement. The speakers, including the mayor of the city, were young, ambitious, optimistic, and already had achieved great success in their attempts to affect positive change. Stories of their achievements were shared with the students and more importantly, the speakers enthusiastically discussed detailed plans for future progress.
These activities provided many opportunities for students to be exposed to and to learn about the positive changes in the community initiated by individuals very much like themselves. The significance of this is discussed by Bandura (1994:72) who explains, seeing people similar to oneself succeed by sustained effort raises observers’ beliefs that they too possess the capabilities to master comparable activities required to succeed.” In other words, I had hoped that via this form of engagement, students would become aware of their own potential agency in affecting change.
The interviews were to be transcribed, a summary and response to the meetings was to be typed and handed in, and the students’ reflections and thoughts on their volunteer experience were to be recorded in a journal and shared with classmates during the end of the semester presentations. The final collective product was a student-produced volume of all the organizations contacted, and it described the organization’s history, growth, goals, membership, and acheivements. The organizations were compiled and arranged according to their particular focus and area of community concern.
Evaluation of the Project and Findings
At the end of the semester, the post-test was administered to the students. Additionally, an evaluation form that included open-ended questions and statements soliciting student’s feedback concerning their experience during the semester was given to students. Specifically, I was interested in evaluating whether the goals of the project had successfully been achieved. The findings reveal the distinct advantage of incorporating a civic engagement project into a social problems course.
Results of the pre- and post-survey
One of the goals of the project was to reduce student’s sense of pessimism. This was addressed in several statements on the survey: (1) “I am convinced we can improve the quality of life in this community,” and (2) “I am confident we can work together to improve the image of this community that we present to outsiders.” Responses ranged from Strongly Agree (5) to Strongly Disagree (1). Paired samples T-tests were used to compare the pre- and post-test mean scores for both statements. The findings reveal a statistically significant difference in the pre- and post-test scores: Statement 1: Pre-test M=1.73 and Post-test M=2.92, p = .001, and for Statement 2: Pre-test M=1.77 and Post-test M=2.80, p = .005. These results indicate that engaging students in a civic engagement project that actively connected them with organizations affecting changes in the community reduced their sense of pessimism concerning issues in their community.
Regarding the issue of apathy and efficacy, students were asked to respond to the following statements: (3) ” I believe if I got involved in this community that I could make a positive difference in the quality of life here,” and (4) ” I would like to learn more about what is being done to improve the quality of life in this community.” Once again, a paired samples T-Test was used to compare the pre-and post-test results. Statistical findings for both statements indicate a greater willingness to become more engaged in the community along with adopting a belief that through their own agency, they could potentially contribute to making a difference: Statement 3: Pre-test M=2.04 and Post-test M=2.88, p = .000, and for Statement 4: Pre-test M=1.88 and Post-test M=3.12, p = .002.
A very important goal of the project was to raise student’s awareness of the grassroots organizations and what they have accomplished. The statement on the survey that addressed this goal was: “Many improvements have already been made in the community.” The statistical finding for the difference in the pre- and post-test mean scores (p = .002) indicates that participation in the civic engagement project increased student’s awareness of the accomplishments.
Finally, a grave concern in the area is the brain drain, the loss of the community’s young knowledge workers. The statement on the survey that addressed this concern was “If I could find a job in this area when I graduate, I will stay here,” and the response options ranged from Strongly Agree (5) to Strongly Disagree (1). Although the paired samples T-test reveals a statistically significant difference (p = .002) between the pre- (2.05) and post-test mean scores (2.46) the mean score for the post- test suggests that at the end of the semester students remained somewhat inclined to leave the area after graduation. Nonetheless, it is important to note that in the previous course, the percentage of students who planned to leave the area increased at the end of the semester whereas in the revised course, the percentage of students who expressed some level of agreement that they will not stay in the area decreased from 72% to 61%.
Qualitative data includes student’s statements and expressions voluntarily offered in the open-ended questions and in the student’s course project. These serve to confirm the statistical findings from the pre-and post-test survey and also support Johnson’s (2005) argument that exposing students to social change organizations is a very effective way to foster civic skills and to create confidence in their abilities to make a difference in society.
For example, a primary goal of the project was to raise student’s awareness of the grassroots organizations in the community. The design of the project provided students with many opportunities to achieve this goal, and this is clearly observed in comments frequently articulated by students such as:
I had no idea how many organizations exist out there. Why don’t we hear more about these groups? It’s nice to know that there are people in the community who feel that as individuals they can do things to change the community. I can’t believe that I knew nothing about these groups.
Similarily, another student stated:
Wow! I was really surprised to find out how many people are involved in working to bring about change in this area. I like the idea that all of the different groups are involved in addressing different problems. Being involved in this project really opened my eyes to what is going on. I was totally clueless about these organizations and how much they have accomplished.
The passages below can be interpreted to reveal a greater sense of optimism and an awareness of the importance of grassroots organizations and community engagement. Also, as noted in the following testimonial, engaging with the organizations allowed for students to witness the tangible effects of the group’s efforts.
It was very encouraging to see people like myself doing positive things to change things. I really didn’t think that as individuals we had the ability to do anything. It seems that these grassroots groups are doing more than other groups. One of the members of the group actually walked with me downtown to show me what they have achieved. I was very impressed and disappointed that I did not know about these improvements before the project.
Echoing the previous sentiments, another student stated:
I participated in the (an organization that included individuals under 40years of age) and I was really surprised with what they have done asa young group. Some of the members were not much older than me. They really spent a lot of time explaining what they do and what they hope to do in the future. I wouldn’t mind becoming a member of that group.
Although many students expressed a new sense of hope for the community, they also expressed some doubt about remaining in the area after graduation. Their comments reflect the findings from the pre and post test survey and also speak to a reality that the population in general struggles with as a result of a changing economy at both the national and global level. This is highlighted in the following excerpt:
Personally, I didn’t have much hope for the city and had always planned on leaving after graduating. Fortunately I enrolled in this class and discovered many individuals who have high hopes for this area. But I don’t know if I will be able to find a job in my field so I may have to move but I don’t know for sure where I will go. It seems that all areas of the country are hurting.
The following comments not only address the brain drain issue, but also the loss of enthusiastic and passionate people movitated to engage in community activities directed at change:
At the beginning of the semester, my plan was that when I graduated from here I was going to move to Austin, Texas to find a job. Since I have become involved in the community and I have seen all that has changed as a result of people who are like me, I have decided that I would like to stay here and become a part of creating something in this community. Austin is done with its improvements, and I really like being involved. I just hope I could find a good job here. If not, then I will have to leave.
The relevance of an individual’s perceptions of his/her community is discussed by Sherry Linkon and John Russo (2004:4) in their book Steeltown, U.S.A.where they argue that “how individuals and communities see themselves influences their behavior and their sense of what is possible.” The findings from the pre- and post-test and from student’s comments clearly revealed that as a result of the civic engagement project, a change occurred in students’ perceptions toward the community, and consequently their sense of what is possible. The overwhelming issue that remains, however, is providing job opportunities that would keep students in the community and therefore allow them to transform their optimism and sense of efficacy into constructive community-changing behaviors.
In the previous Urban Sociology course, I did not include a pre- and post-survey measuring students’ attitudes and beliefs. Consequently, I do not have statistical findings to compare with the findings from the survey in the revised course. When comparing pre and post comments from the students, however, the advantages of incorporating a civic engagement project into the classroom become clearly evident.
In this paper, I have described the civic engagement project I included as a component of the revised pedagogical methods employed in my Urban Sociology course. The revisions of the course were precipitated by the qualitative and quantitative findings I used to assess and evaluate the methods I used in previously teaching the course. As discussed above, those findings indicated a rise in student apathy and pessimism at the end of the semester.
Incorporating a civic engagement project into the revised course, however, produced very positive findings in my evaluation of that course, and this was evidenced by the students’ favorable comments and from the statistical findings of the pre and post test. I attribute the success of the revised course to the conceptual framework that guided my understanding of the issues that demanded to be addressed in order to successfully achieve the goals of the civic engagement project. Since much has already been written about the many benefits of civic engagement, I now would like to discuss the conceptual framework that directed the design and implementation of the project.
The design of the project in the revised course was structured within the framework of Ehrlich’s (2000:vi) definition of civic engagement: “Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make that difference.” As described above, the format and assignments in the original Urban Sociology class provided an abundance of opportunities for students to acquire disciplinary knowledge about the history and dynamics of the community in which they would be applying their research skills. My mistake in that course, however, was assuming that armed with knowledge and skills, students’ attitudes toward the community would become more positive and, consequently, they would be motivated to become active and responsible citizens. Once again, however, the original project failed to achieve those goals. This is because, as Johnson (2005:46) reminds us, “Since the ultimate goal of civic education is to encourage civic action not just civic attitudes and values, one must understand the factors that motivate human beings to act upon their attitudes and values.” How to motivate students, thus, became my main focus.
The outcomes in my previous Urban Sociology class informed me that the obstacles I had to overcome in order to motivate students were student apathy and pessimism about their ability and the ability of the community to affect positive changes. Consequently, in the revised course, I devoted considerable attention to organizing a civic engagement project that ultimately would provide strategies to surmount these obstacles.
Creating the project required the foundation of a sound conceptual framework. Very simply, if we are to motivate students to engage in civic behaviors, it is imperative that we conceptually understand the process that removes individuals from a state of apathy and pessimism to a state of engagement, empowerment, and efficacy. Each step in that process must be understood and addressed. In the following, I briefly sketch the conceptual framework I employed in organizing the project. Aware that one of the most effective ways to reduce apathy and pessimism is to increase the sense of efficacy, I paid particular attention to the concepts of self efficacy and collective efficacy.
Already familiar with Bandura’s work on self-efficacy, I referred to his argument in which he states that a significant determinant of behavior is whether the individual believes he/she has the ability to successfully perform the actions necessary to achieve the desired consequences (Bandura, 1997). If a person believes he/she is capable of accomplishing a task, then he/she is more likely to pursue the activity. Since, however, civic behaviors generally occur in a group setting, this means that the likelihood that an individual will engage in civic action will increase if he/she also believes the group has the resources and skills to effectively achieve its goals.
My first step, therefore, was to place students in the community’s successful grassroots organizations where they would have the opportunity to learn about and witness for themselves the collective efficacy of the organizations. The relevance of participation for improving one’s sense of efficacy has been discussed by Ohmer and Beck (2006)who examined whether participation in grassroots organizations was related to residents’ perceptions of organizational collective efficacy. One of the important findings in their multiple regression analysis was that the greater the individual’s perceptions of the organization’s collective ability to solve neighborhood problems, the greater the level of the individual’s involvement in the organization.
I also had assumed that witnessing and being a part of the successful collective efforts of the organization would reduce student’s sense of apathy and increase their sense of self-efficacy. This belief was derived from Tasa, et al (2007) who argued that an individual’s beliefs about the team’s ability to attain goals (collective efficacy) may influence the individual’s perceptions of his/her ability to perform teamwork behaviors (self efficacy), and, consequently, he/she may be motivated to engage in those behaviors.
The arguments presented in the conceptual framework guided the rationale for the entire design of the revised project, from activities assigned to the students to increase their sense of efficacy to the pre and post test questions and statements included in the survey. And once again, student’s sense of efficacy improved and apathy and pessimism were reduced. Of course, as educators, it is always gratifying when at the end of the term we have evidence that we succeeded in achieving our course goals. Beyond the classroom, however, we hope that in some way we have contributed to the development of our student’s sense of who they are, of their belief that they have the potential to make a difference, and to their motivation to make that difference in their community and society.
I have no definitive way of gauging the long term effects of the project. Since many of the students have responsibilities that extend beyond those required of a student, I acknowledged that immediate commitment to involvement would be quite difficult. Yet I was impressed with the new found desire of a few of the students to become actively involved. I believe this is expressed in the words of one of the students who stated:
I wish I had more time to continue with the group. I don’t have the time now, but I’m hoping that when I graduate I will be able to volunteer. If I have to move I think I would like become involved in a community organization where I move.
Surely, I would like to believe that as a result of the civic engagement project, students recognize the value of citizen involvement that extends beyond their immediate environment. Lawry et al (2006:14) address this issue and state that what advocates of civic engagement programs can hope for is that “students will develop knowledge and skills, beliefs and attitudes which they will carry with them into the rest of their lives.”
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About the Author:
Rosemary D’Apolito is an associate professor at in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Youngstown State University. My areas of teaching include Urban Sociology, Research Methods, Social Research, and Minority Groups. My teaching is focused on engaging students in projects that allow for opportunities to connect the students with their community via internships, community engagement projects, or service learning.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org