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Guest Post - Partnering with Your Local PBS Station to Promote Civic Education and Engagement

By: Elizabeth A. Bennion, Professor of Political Science at Indiana University South Bend and Host of WNIT’s Politically Speaking

This is the fifth and final guest post in a series about whether and how youth electoral engagement can have broader goals, including connections to civic life and democracy more generally.

As director of Indiana University South Bend’s American Democracy Project, I work hard to engage students in the political process. This fall, the ADP will host a series of debate watch parties, voter registration drives, and voter education events including public forums, voter information tables, informal student-led conversations, and live candidate debates. For example, our ADP will collaborate with the local League of Women Voters and The South Bend Tribune on a Vote 411 online candidate guide and will go a step further, partnering with the local PBS station to broadcast live candidate interviews and debates. These election year activities are just a small part of the programming American Democracy Project volunteers participate in every semester at IU South Bend. Our desire to reach out beyond our own campus has led to several innovative community outreach initiatives, including an ongoing partnership with the PBS station.

Civic organizations and college campuses should consider partnering with local television stations to expand their civic education and engagement outreach to a broader audience. The partnership between Indiana University South Bend and WNIT Public Media provides an example of how this can work. Students gain valuable hands-on learning experiences by signing up for a small applied research team assembled to produce a live weekly television show. The program, Politically Speaking, which airs on WNIT television to a 22-county, two-state audience reaching 1.2 million viewers, focuses on politics & public affairs in the Michiana region.

Viewers from Northern Indiana and Southern Michigan tune in to hear from mayors, state legislators, law enforcement officials, local political officials, citizen activists, researchers, interest group leaders, and members of Congress about how local, state, and national politics and policies affect the Michiana community. Viewers can call in live or post questions to Facebook. Students encourage online engagement and screen viewer calls. They also produce “citizen videos” highlighting community voices. Students help to set the agenda and conduct the background research for the program, learning about local, state, and regional politics and the policymaking process. Students meet key political leaders and recognize that they really CAN make a difference and contribute to the public discourse in meaningful ways.

Student participation also includes a reflective component, and they also complete a comprehensive survey and anonymous course evaluations at the end of each semester. The data collected over the past five semesters makes it clear that students perceive positive gains in civic attitudes, knowledge, and skills, including an increased desire to remain engaged in politics in the future. Although the number of students who have completed the course is small, current evidence suggests that students “make good” on these promises when it comes to political news consumption and post-graduation political engagement. In fact, two recent Politically Speaking alumni are currently running for public office. Both cite their experiences in the course as a critical factor in their decision to run for office.

The effect on students’ personal confidence is also striking. Several international students report increased confidence in their English language skills and ability to interact with others in a professional setting. They also report an increased willingness to speak up in their classes (regardless of the subject matter), and an increased willingness to talk with others about U.S. and global political issues. U.S. students also report significant gains in personal and political efficacy, citing enhanced research skills and greater confidence in their own ability to follow, and engage in, public affairs.

As I begin working with my producer (a former Politically Speaking seminar student!) to line up guests, map out our Election 2016 coverage, lock in dates for televised candidate debates, and determine how to best involve and engage students for our fall 2016 season, it is helpful to think about the value of the program and the university-community partnership. In the many years that I’ve been teaching and engaging students, what I had neglected to consider before forming the partnership with WNIT was how valuable such collaborations can be for our students. Whether in a class setting or a for-credit internship, political science and mass communications students gain valuable hands-on learning experience and marketable skills as research and production assistants for a weekly public affair program. Students benefit, the campus benefits, the station benefits, and the community benefits from this unique high-visibility partnership. It’s an option worth exploring with YOUR local PBS station.

Contact Elizabeth for more information about documented student learning outcomes of the IUSB-WNIT partnership, or read my chapter on the topic in the book Civic Education in the Twenty-First Century.