syllabus of an undergraduate course on civic studies

An Introduction to Civic Studies: Theories for a Better World

Overview: “Civic studies” is a nascent discipline that looks at social problems from the perspective of a citizen and asks tough questions about what we should do, taking into account values (ethics), facts (empirical evidence), and strategies. It originated with a joint statement written by a distinguished group of scholars in 2008. Since then, it has produced a special issue of a journal, an annual conference, a book, and–most importantly–the annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tufts. The Summer Institute has drawn about 100 graduate students, leaders, and professors from Bhutan, Singapore, China, Mexico, South Africa, and numerous other countries and backgrounds. This course will be the first-ever undergraduate version of the Summer Institute. We will contribute to building “civic studies.”

Thursday, 1/16 Oriqentation and Inspirations

Introductions, overview of the syllabus and purpose of the course.

Special homework: do an initial “map” of your own moral worldview (See “assignments” for instructions). Results due via email before class on 1/21.

Tuesday 1/21 Theorist #1: Jürgen Habermas (citizen as deliberator)


Thursday 1/23 application: experiencing a practical deliberation

Special homework: In addition to the reading, watch the very short video from the National Issues Forums.


In-class deliberation using this issue guide

Tuesday, 1/28 application: do Americans deliberate?


Discussion of the students’ moral maps.

Thursday, 1/30 Application: designing practical deliberations


Tuesday, 2/4 Theorist #2: Elinor Ostrom (the citizen as a manager of public goods)

Readings: Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons, pp. 1-102

Play a “Tragedy of the Commons” game in class. Discuss it.

Thursday, 2/6 Theorist #2: Elinor Ostrom (continued)


  • Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize Lecture (text or video–your choice).

Tuesday, 2/11 application: designing and managing large-scale commons


Thursday, 2/13 Theorist #3: Robert Putnam (the citizen as a group member)


(In class, also discuss Sean Safford’s argument, not assigned.)

Tuesday, 2/18 Theorist #3: Robert Putnam (continued)


  • Jean L. Cohen, “American Civil Society Talk,” in Robert K. Fullinwider, ed., Civil Society, Democracy, and Civic Renewal, pp. 55-85

Special homework: do a revised “map” of your own moral worldview. Results due by 2/25

Thursday, 2/20 – No class, Monday schedule

Tuesday, 2/25 Theorist # 4: Saul Alinksy (the citizen as an organizer)


In class: do one-on-ones

Second mapping exercise is due.

Thursday, 2/27 Application: modern community organizing


Tuesday, 3/4 Theorist #5: Harry Boyte (the citizen as a public worker)


Thursday, 3/6 application: democratic professionalism


Tuesday, 3/11 Theorist #6: John Dewey (the citizen as co-learner?)


Thursday, 3/13: midterm in class

Tuesday, 3/18 and Thursday, 3/20 – No class, spring break

Tuesday, 3/25 application: civic education


Thursday, 3/27 application: civic media


  • Knight Foundation, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”

Tuesday, 4/1,Theorist #6: Mohandas K. Gandhi (the citizen as a bearer of soul-force)


Thursday, 4/3 – application: nonviolent social movements


Tuesday, 4/8 – Session on Power


In class, look at the Power Cube

Thursday, 4/10 Theorist #7: James Madison (the citizen as designer or preserver of a republic)


Tuesday, 4/15 application: revising the American republic


During class, in small groups, design constitutional reforms that would serve Madison’s purposes in the modern republic

Homework: paper due

Thursday, 4/17 Theorist #8: Roberto Mangabeira Unger (the citizen as radical experimentalist)


Special homework: revise the moral network map again. Results due by 4/22.

Tuesday, 4/22 application: radical democratic experiments (and some cautionary notes)


Final mapping exercise is due.

Thursday, 4/24 summing up and thinking ahead


discuss the final network maps

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.