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Exercising the Civic Muscle

Colleague Jeff Prudhomme and I spent this last weekend in Cincinnati, Ohio at the Central States Communication Association Conference at the invitation of 2009 Summer Institute participant Professor Laura Black. We were there to participate in a “beyond the town hall” discussion, with a focus on “best practices” in civic engagement. We gave them a little taste of IF process and engaged in some great conversation with many communications scholars.

Some of their concerns mirrored my own: how do we institutionalize civic engagement (embedding discussion), how do we get the public and officials to recognize its value, and how do we best cultivate improved discussion habits? I hope I was able to add to the conversation on the first two questions, but looking back I can see how other attendees helped me think more about the last question.

Not surprisingly, many of the scholars I spoke to looked at improved discussion habits as a “learning” issue and they knocked around many good ideas about improved facilitation technique, clearer materials, and certification in discussion practice. But as one person put it to me, “people just need to do it and do it again and again”. This of course implicates many issues of convincing participants that recurrent participation is worthwhile, having suitable material to discuss, and maintaining an inviting setting.

Another attendee asked me, “Do we know for sure that people ‘get better’ at discussion through repetition?”. The question was clearly colored by last summer’s evidence that repeated shouting matches at town hall meetings did not improve discourse.

My answer was that IF public discussion results seem to suggest that they do. I have seen that borne out in my own experience and that of my colleagues and summer institute faculty where “repeat” participants have been part of more than one discussion series of an IF report. But I believe that the most impressive evidence of the positive benefits of repeat participation have arisen in the public discussion series in the Wisconsin discussion project in series facilitated by James Schneider, Melissa Simonson, and Karen Stollenwerk.

As I review their discussion summaries and “de-brief” with them on what they are finding in discussions that have repeat participants, I am seeing some very common sense patterns:

  • People who return for additional discussion gain comfort with the process stressing civility and “ground rules”, the open and exploratory nature of a “non-debate” format, and the imaginative exercise of “trying on contrasting concepts for size”.
  • “Returnees” notice a “productivity gain” and feel good that less time is spent on figuring out what can be expected from discussion and how to interact with other participants.
  • In multiple discussion series relying on the same participants a “club” identity starts to grow that builds community.
  • In discussion series where a core of “returnees” is mixed with newcomers, those with experience tend to “model” discussion practice for newcomers and coach them in very helpful ways.

The above points suggest that repetitive discussion practice is not only good for the quality of discussion, but that it also provides partial answers for some of the other nagging civic engagement questions. It serves as a magnet for new recruits as participants talk about it and what they are getting out of it. James Schneider reports that it can turn into “the place to be” in a community and thus attract the attention of movers and shakers.

One of my own repeat participants pointed to her sense of accomplishment after participating in three discussion series. “It was like when I first started working out at the gym—I was a little awkward and sore—but I built up my muscle and now I’m pretty good at it,” she said.