Student Protesters AvatarEngagement: It's Trending

Despite the message of the mainstream media, a message of disengagement that is also argued in Robert Putnam’s (2000) oft-referenced book Bowling Alone, and a body of pre-2008 research that shows civic engagement in young adults declining, more recent research shows a different message: Civic engagement among young people is actually on the rise.

The website, which touts itself as “one of the largest orgs for young people and social change” has 3+ million members working to “make the world suck less.” It specifically targets U.S. and Canadian citizens under the age of 26 (affectionately calling the 26+ crowd “old people”) and provides opportunities for users to serve on issues they care about, on their schedule, to whatever degree they want. It’s basically action tailored to activists’ lives. In fact, in a 2012 study, found that a whopping 93% of young people want to volunteer. The study also showed that the more social a young person is, the more likely s/he is to engage in social action. And the primary factor in whether or not a college student engages civically? Friends (“The Index,” 2012).

The findings of the study tell us that the key to getting more young people engaged in social and political action is to make it, well, more social. This is where social media comes in, and this is where teachers of rhetoric and composition have an opportunity to shape engagement and citizenship through the kinds of new media lessons we teach.

Beyond the numerical data, a host of qualitative data from focus groups with young adults exposes some common trends in propensity toward civic and community engagement. The information gained in these studies can help us identify opportunities to impact engagement in a variety of ways we might not have previously considered. In those areas where young adults are disengaged, great opportunity exists.

Italian scholar Giovanna Mascheroni (2012) studied young people’s attitudes towards civic and political engagement through peer group conversations. She wanted to understand how young people used social networking services (SNSs) as a means to engage. For the most part, her empirical evidence showed that young people who were already engaged in some way—or whose parents had made political conversation part of the family culture—were part of a “civic culture” and therefore politically interested or engaged, despite sometimes feeling jaded about how much influence they would actually have on problems facing their community (Mascheroni, 2012, pp. 211-12). However, young people who came from lower-income families and/or those families that did not discuss politics and social issues were part of an “uncivic culture” (Mascheroni, 2012, pp. 211) and were predictably disengaged or disaffected with politics.

This probably seems like common sense: If parents discuss political, social, and cultural issues at the dinner table, for example, children will grow to be more civically literate, thus, engaged (Mascheroni, 2012). However, because not all young people come to college with these requisite skills and experiences, the responsibility rests on educators to teach them.

Recent work out of The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University shows that young people who are asked to engage (say, by a community leader, in a college class, or by a friend) tend to stay engaged civically (“That’s Not Democracy,” 2012). This engagement can be as simple as joining an ongoing conversation about community problems, much like the work Linda Flower (2008) has done in the Community Literacy Center, or it can be more active and action-oriented (like serving at a shore sweep or on a Habitat for Humanity project, maybe working on a political campaign).

The goal should always be to have an element of reciprocity in the work being done. That is, the civic activities should be fulfilling to the individual engaging in them as well as the perceived beneficiary of the engagement. Without this element of reciprocity, there is little chance that the engagement experience will have a lasting impact and the desired element of longevity. As many civic pedagogues warn, an imbalance of benefits of service can result in less engagement and deeper strain on existing community relationships than had the service never occurred (Deans, Roswell, & Wurr, 2010).

As educators, we can help students develop their civic mindedness through both asking them to engage in the public sphere and also teaching them how. For example, Mascheroni (2012) noted that young people who “develop complex patterns of news consumption online” and are free to choose “lifestyle-related forms of engagement” (pp. 216-17) will engage more in what Bennett called “social movement citizenship” (as cited in Mascheroni, 2012, p. 217). As compositionists, we can provide both instruction and opportunity to develop meaningful, informed, and effective civic participation. Finally, introducing social media into our classes—and linking that tool to social or political action—can be just the right formula for prompting many more of those 93% who want to engage to actually take the steps to do something.

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