The Town Hall Meeting is an innovative first-year program that combines civic learning and public deliberation with skill-building in research and writing. Launched as a pilot in 2006 and supported by grants from Bringing Theory to Practice in 2007 and 2010, the program prepares incoming CSU Chico students to research, present, and deliberate on public issues of significance to them and the larger community. The range of issues—usually between 12 and 20 each semester—is selected collaboratively by students and instructors, and students are free to decide on their individual area of focus. Through a set of assignments linked across sections of CSU Chico’s Introduction to U.S. Government, students deepen their mastery of issue content and their skills of research, writing, argumentation, and public presentation. The culmination is a daylong Town Hall Meeting, featuring a student keynote, issue-based discussion groups, and small planning circles for students who want to turn their learning into action. Local experts and community activists are invited to respond to student presentations and discussions.
Assessment of the Town Hall Program has shown positive effects on student engagement and retention. Students who go through the Program persist 6-8% more frequently than those who don’t; the benefits for first-generation undergraduates and students of color are even higher. Faculty also value taking part: “It is pretty siloized in higher education,” one instructor commented. “This is a collaborative experience with fellow faculty members that I didn’t have before, and I’ve had a chance to interact with my students in a different way…. It has helped to shape my other teaching.”
The success and popularity of the Town Hall catalyzed further innovation in Chico’s first-year programming. In 2009, in response to city officials’ concerns about the erosion of civility in local political discussion, the First-Year Experience office launched the Great Debate program. Each term, in consultation with local leaders, students and faculty select a single issue around which first-year oral communications classes are organized. The program culminates with an all-day session of debates and research presentations in the Chico civic center.
Together the Town Hall Meeting and the Great Debate frame the first-year experience around what Chico educators call “Public Sphere Pedagogy.” They model the integration of civic engagement with academic skill-building—and also the way such innovation can build on itself.