A new minor cultivates civic involvement

SNF Agora's new, interdisciplinary minor in civic life prepares students to become change agents, as they bridge differences and find common ground

Students of all kinds—whether they are simply curious about what it means to live in a democracy, or they're ready to change the world—can acquire the skills they need to become engaged global citizens in a new offering from Johns Hopkins University: a minor in civic life.

Created and run by the university's Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute, the new minor is open to all undergraduate students, regardless of their major. It builds on SNF Agora's scholarship and expertise in using civic engagement and dialogue to bolster democracy around the globe. The minor also supports a universitywide effort to cultivate civic-minded students who "flourish as informed, skilled, and effective members of their society and of the world," a recommendation of JHU's Second Commission on Undergraduate Education.

For Bryce Corrigan and his colleagues who developed the minor, the new offering is timely.

"Polarization is intense right now, and students are worried about how we can protect our democracy and prevent differences from tearing us apart."
Bryce Corrigan
SNF Agora lecturer

"Polarization is intense right now, and students are worried about how we can protect our democracy and prevent differences from tearing us apart," says Corrigan, who serves as the director of undergraduate studies for the minor in civic life and a senior statistician and lecturer at SNF Agora. "They're worried about extremists promulgating violence and setting back our democracy, and they're worried about a world in which authoritarian regimes are rising in power."

Min-Seo Kim, a Krieger School senior majoring in public health studies, agrees. "Right now in the world, democracy is under threat, and authoritarian trends and strongmen movements are increasing," Kim says. "Progress doesn't happen spontaneously in a democracy but instead takes deliberation, work, and staying engaged in the process."

What the minor entails

The minor in civic life is designed to teach students about their role as citizens of pluralistic communities, and to give them tools and skills to exercise their own civic agency in ways that matter to them personally. It consists of 17 credits, starting with a foundational course, Introduction to Civic Life, co-taught this year by Lilliana Mason, an associate professor of political science at SNF Agora and author of, most recently, Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy, and Consuelo Amat, an SNF Agora assistant professor of political science who studies state repression, armed and unarmed resistance, and the development of civil society in authoritarian regimes, particularly in Latin America and Africa.

Created to help students from all areas of study gauge interest in the minor, the foundational course offers an overview of the theory, principles, and history of civic life and democracy from around the world. It also introduces students to the research and events happening at SNF Agora, inspiring them to take advantage of, for instance, panel discussions and forums with faculty, fellows, and guest speakers.

In addition to the introductory course, the minor requires three electives and a seminar, taught this year by Adam Seth Levine, a faculty member at SNF Agora and professor of health policy and management in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, who wrote American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction. In the seminar, students meet weekly with scholars and practitioners from SNF Agora and in and beyond the local community, while engaging with democracy-oriented organizations and participating in civic activities. The minor also requires a capstone seminar involving a presentation and written synthesis of the intellectual content of the coursework, plus critical reflection on what they've learned.

"The point is for students to choose something they care about."
Kara Piccirilli
Senior academic program coordinator

Elective courses for the minor include an intentionally broad-ranging mix of options from which students can choose. The courses come from faculty and fellows at both SNF Agora and a variety of JHU departments, programs, and centers but share a common focus on the "civic sphere" and its sustenance. Among dozens of potential electives are a course on free speech and the law around the world, a study of race and ethnic politics in the U.S., and a community collaboration on social impact design. Other electives explore the challenges of political polarization and the role of scientific expertise in democracy.

Students participating in the minor have the chance to learn from and alongside award-winning authors, scholars, artists, filmmakers, and activists. These include SNF Agora faculty members Dawn Teele, an associate professor of political science with expertise in women and politics, and Andrew Perrin, a professor of sociology whose research and books examine what people need to know and do to be effective, thoughtful democratic citizens. SNF Agora Senior Fellow Yascha Mounk, a political scientist and expert on the rise of populism, who wrote, most recently, The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time, will also teach classes as part of the minor this year. For a full list of faculty and fellows, visit the SNF Agora website.

With the knowledge gained through coursework, students in the minor will apply what they learn to real-world scenarios. Partnerships with other Johns Hopkins organizations, such as the Center for Social Concern and the Life Design Lab, will connect students with community organizations and volunteer opportunities in and beyond Baltimore and with alumni engaged in civic life who can serve as mentors.

"Our student body is wonderfully international and diverse," says Kara Piccirilli, a senior academic program coordinator at the SNF Agora. "The minor takes advantage of this by giving students the freedom to create a course of study that aligns with their unique background. Just as a student from Baltimore might want to focus on an issue in part of the city they grew up in, a student from Hong Kong can explore a local issue there.

"It can be the smallest, least formalized type of civic engagement, such as starting a composting program in your apartment building, or something larger and more formal, like looking at electoral voting in Kinshasa [in the Democratic Republic of the Congo]," Piccirilli adds. "The point is for students to choose something they care about."

A minor for all majors, careers

Corrigan and Piccirilli say they anticipate broad interest in the minor, believing it will build bridges across disciplines and between coursework and career planning.

To that end, the minor gives students leeway to tailor projects to their academic and career goals and even take courses in their own departments. For example, applied math majors could take Mathematics for a Better World, taught by Fadil Santosa, chair of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics, while pre-med and public health students could enroll in Community-Based Learning and Healthcare, taught by Lee Bone, an associate professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Anthropology and history majors could take History Research Lab: Discovering Hard Histories at Hopkins, taught by Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and SNF Agora history professor Martha Jones.

"Experiential [or hands-on] learning is a core part of many of these courses, so students are building specific skills and experience related to their individual fields," says Corrigan, whose own course, Democracy by the Numbers, is ideal for those interested in data-driven social science and what the evidence tells us, for example, about a worrisome global headline, or what to do about a U.S. problem like gerrymandering.

"If we're going to create the changes we want to see, whether in AI, geopolitical issues, or environmental policy, then we're going to need to cooperate with one another across political lines and differences. We're going to need to find a way forward."
Neel Godbole
Krieger School sophomore

Although some courses might appeal more to students in a particular major, embedded in every course is the intent to foster something necessary in all careers: the ability to work together, despite differences.

"Modeling and teaching the habits and skillsets of deliberation and reasoned dialogue and debate is a formal goal of the university," and central to the minor, Corrigan says. "The aim is to find ways to reach common ground, even in the face of disagreement."

For students, mastering the art of deliberation and debate is critical. "As students, we're going to graduate from Hopkins and go on to work in different fields, whether in medicine, law, the humanities—you name it," says Neel Godbole, a Krieger School sophomore majoring in molecular and cellular biology. "But no matter what we end up doing, it's crucial to learn skills that prepare us to contribute to the pluralistic society and liberal democracy in which we live.

"If we're going to create the changes we want to see, whether in AI, geopolitical issues, or environmental policy, then we're going to need to cooperate with one another across political lines and differences," Godbole adds. "We're going to need to find a way forward."

Find out more about the civic life minor here.