Happy Spring Semester … Though Maybe it Should Be Called “Wintry Mix” Semester

Welcome back, guys! I hope you all had nice, relaxing (thought short) breaks. I’m excited for a new semester; my goals this semester will be to

1) hold even more discussions in class about the world around us — sure, how various issues like the fiscal cliff or women’s rights globally or steroids in professional sports or the debate about climate change or gun control/gun rights relate to the course, but just as much, how we are affected by these things;

2) get deeper into the nuts and bolts of writing and speaking with an eye toward some of your majors/fields and the writing/speaking you’ll be doing in your next few years at PSU;

3) think about and talk about your majors and fields–the challenges they present, the joys they present, and how we’re feeling as we take this next step.

In RCL this semester we’ll be focusing on developing stances and persuasive arguments, learning to deliberate effectively, and crafting advocacy appeals with attention to mode of delivery. We’ll also be having a number of discussions on various civic issues: gay rights, race, education, environment, etc. One way we’ll be holding these discussions will be through a new blog. (The following is also posted under the “blog” category on this site.)

Instead of an “RCL blog” this semester, you will keep a Civic Issues blog. Each blog will focus on an issue within one of five main categories (Politics, Gender/Sexuality/Rights, Race, Environment, and Education). The blog will focus on the selected issue for the entire semester.

This page is designed to help you choose an issue. The questions after each category here are meant to be generative—that is, students are welcome to articulate a civic issue within one of these five categories that they do not see reflected in the questions. It’s also the case that some of the questions below might overlap, so you shouldn’t feel too constrained by that. For example, if you choose to blog about civic discourse in the U.S., you may end up blogging frequently about party politics. Some issues (e.g., hate speech) could fit within multiple categories (along with free speech in politics, or under Education as campus hate speech). In that case, you will want to choose the broader category that best captures their emphasis and interests.

As you choose a category and issue, you might think about what sparked your interest last semester. Are you interested in exploring issues related to your TED Talk or Paradigm shift paper? Did something you read in an RCL post or saw in a History of a Public Controversy video spark a conversation that you’d like to continue? You might also consider your own interests. What blogs do you follow? What news stories catch your eye? What issues are you curious to know more about? The issue you choose need not be something you’re an expert on; instead, think of this blog as a time to explore this issue and build understandings and opinions through informal research, conversations with peers, and (something else?)

As indicated on your syllabus, you will be required to post on your civic issues blog every three weeks for a total of four entries. (Casey will help you decide who will post when.) Please use the broad category and the specific issue within that category as tags. (E.g. #environment #water OR #education  #statefunding).


Civic Discourse: Is civic discourse ailing in the U.S.?  How might it be improved?  How has the internet in general and social media in particular affected the possibility and the tenor of civic discourse?  What do recent organized protest movements on both sides of the political spectrum—the various Tea Party groups and the Occupy movement—suggest about the state of civic discourse at present? What role do non-political forces (such as the media) have in promoting or disturbing civic discourse? In what ways does/can education enable civic discourse in and about politics? Under what conditions, if any, is uncivil discourse justified? What examples have you encountered that suggest that civic discourse is alive and healthy?

Party politics:  What has happened to bipartisanship in the U.S. government? How might we quantify the extent to which government is partisan or bipartisan? What are the ideologies underlying bipartisanship as a thing to be valued above other elements of political action and discourse? About what issues does a bipartisan consensus (in either practice or stated belief) already exist? How do the structures of government in the U.S. (e.g., the filibuster, anonymous holds, veto powers) affect the possibilities of bipartisanship? How can government accomplish anything? Is it better on the state level (in any state)? Do “party lines” exert too much control over elected officials? What role should “third parties” play in U.S. politics? For that matter, what role should parties play in representative democracy? To what extent to political parties represent U.S. citizens?  Do other nations have models that would prove useful in the U.S.? Is bi-partisanship possible in the contemporary media climate with 24/7 cable news shows and blogs?

U.S. foreign policy: How is the U.S. doing with diplomacy in different parts of the world? What does war have to do with it all? If the 20th century was famously known as “The American Century,” what will the U.S.’s role be on a global stage in the 21st century? What responsibilities, if any, does the U.S. have to provide foreign aid? What is the status of deliberation about the U.S.’s policy drone warfare, and how might that deliberation or policy be improved? What are some of the commonplaces that American citizens hold about foreign policy? Do you see these commonplaces shifting?

Gender, Sexuality, and Rights (Civil and Human)

Women in the Workplace: Are there a certain set of values located in the idea of “the workplace,” or does the workplace acquire values based on who works in it? How are different workplaces different in terms of the values they prize? What is required for “the workplace” to become a haven for equality? Or, alternatively, why shouldn’t equality be a primary concern in a particular workplace? Looking at historical examples, does a female CEO/President/etc. change the values or standards of a workplace?  Has there been any shift towards or away from thinking of domestic spaces as workplaces in their own right? What obstacles are their for women’s success in the workplace (think especially of careers in your major)? Should children be allowed in the workplace?

Mancession: The term “mancession” was coined during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, at which point men bore a disproportionate rate of job loss. How might one approach the idea of a “mancession”? Does this phenomenon simply reflect job inequality in the first place (e.g., the existence of certain male-dominated professions, higher pay rate), or is there a concern this will be a historical shift from which men will not recover? How might a “mancession” require us to update the values we associate with masculinity?

Women in the military: Should equality be observed in the most extreme of combat situations? In all branches of the military? What might account for the challenges (discrimination, harassment, assault) that women face in the military? What would it take to change these conditions?

DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and state laws regarding same-sex marriage: This spring, the Supreme Court will hear two cases on the question of same-sex marriage. Is marriage a right? Is the same-sex marriage question overshadowing other (more) important rights-based issues for the LBGTQ population? Why do people continue to disagree about same-sex marriage?

Gender/LGBTQ/human rights domestically and internationally:  Do Americans think any differently about questions of human and civil rights where other countries are concerned? How do American opinions on human and civil rights stack up against international opinions on those same questions? Can we learn anything, positive or negative, from other countries’ approaches to these questions? How have the rights of the LBGTQ population changed across time? In what ways is the formation of one group identity—individuals who lesbians, bisexuals, gays, transgender, and questioning—an asset or a liability? What’s the role of the media and popular culture in forming our understanding (or stereotypes) of these identity groups?


Affirmative Action: What are the ideological values that cause people to defend or reject affirmative action policies? What beliefs or values are located in the rhetoric of the phrase “affirmative action”? Are there certain geographical places (i.e., where there is a more homogeneous population) or certain professions where affirmative action policies are particularly necessary or unnecessary? Are affirmative action policies useful in promoting long-term and sustainable structural equality? Perhaps consequently, are there hidden costs to its benefits? Is race the only (or most appropriate) consideration for affirmative action policies?

Diversity: Every college admissions pamphlet in the country touts its campus’s “commitment to diversity.” What does a commitment to diversity entail? What are the effects such a commitment is designed to produce? What have claims that “we’re committed to diversity” overlooked? If one lives or works somewhere without diversity, what are the consequences? How can diversity be fostered where it doesn’t naturally exist?  What versions of diversity do Americans often take issue with, and why?

Multiculturalism: A rhetorical commonplace in the U.S. is to utilize the metaphor of a “melting pot” to describe its confluence of cultures. Is this still a useful metaphor? What does it imply about assimilation, acculturation, and what happens to the cultural identities of people of other nationalities when they emigrate to the U.S.? What other metaphors might pertain? To what extent are immigrants expected to assimilate (culturally, linguistically, socially)? To what extent should they be expected to? How have questions of immigration and American identity played out in the past? Is there anything such as an “authentic” American culture? If so, what makes a culture authentic? How does membership get constituted in a “subculture”? What does it mean when subcultures move into the “mainstream,” and how should we evaluate these shifts?

Post-racial America?: Another more recent rhetorical commonplace in the U.S., coinciding with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, is that the country has become “post-race.” What does it mean to be “post-race,” either as an individual, a community, a culture, or a country?  How does this notion of being “post-race” relate to the similar notion of colorblindness? What effects does this have at the level of identity, in the workforce, or legislatively? Even if becoming “post-race” is an impossibility, does it represent an ethical framework we should promote? Or are there hidden consequences to thinking “post-racially” we should be wary of?


Energy:  Should people be worried about fracking? How have alternative energies been taken up in our culture in the last year, five years, ten years, or fifty years? How is rhetoric used to persuade people to change energy sources? Why do people resist alternative sources of energy? Should government and/or local communities play a bigger role in promoting alternative energies? How does the phrase “big oil” function in our culture and is that representation fair?

Water: What are the water demands of the next five or ten years? Is water an equal concern for people in different parts of the U.S.? The world? Should it be?

Climate Change: What has the increased visibility of climate change and of environmental issues more broadly in the last decade produced, in culture or in policy?  Has the “green movement” been a success?  How effective have forms of consumer-oriented environmental action—Priuses, compact fluorescent light bulbs, reusable grocery bags—been?  What is the relationship between the goals of awareness and action when it comes to climate change?  To what extent has the climate “debate” been resolved in the public eye?  What role has the U.S. played thus far, and what role might it play in the near future?  Given the centrality of scientific expertise to any discussion of climate change, how have universities played a role in public discourse on climate change?


College sports on campus: Almost no other country integrates athletics into higher education as the U.S. does. What are the potential benefits or consequences to higher education when most people casually associate a university with its athletics program? What would happen if universities did not offer intercollegiate sports, or if no scholarships were awarded for college sports? Are there problems with the dynamic between ‘major sports’ and ‘minor sports’ on campus? Should athletic departments be completely independent, funding-wise, from the rest of the university? What does the rhetoric of “student-athlete” attempt to accomplish? Should student-athletes receive a financial stipend in addition to scholarships? How has the culture around college athletics influenced high school—even middle or elementary school—athletics? To what extent do college sports reflect a broader cultural attitude toward sports in the U.S.?

Role of public education: What is causing the increasingly high cost of public education in the U.S., and are there any solutions that all stakeholders might find viable? What would be the consequences of offering any type of debt cancellation? What are the goals of “public education,” and does public education lead to a different notion of citizenship than parochial or private schooling? What is there to make of the fact that nominally public universities are receiving less and less funding from the state?  Is this a problem, or is public higher education an outdated notion? Should arguments about public education continue to focus on jobs and America’s competition with other nations? Aside from jobs, what other rationales are there for public education—either now or historically—and are these viable?

Liberal arts: In a broad sense, what are the “values” of general elective courses in the “liberal arts,” or of the liberal arts as a general organizing principle for an education?  These could be moral, ethical, civic, or financial. In 1953, C. P. Snow famously wrote about the irreconcilable “two cultures” of the humanities and the sciences. Are there still two completely different cultures on campus, have these two cultures fractured into even more divisions, or are there broader similarities of purpose between the humanities and the sciences that debates about the subject are missing? Do the ideals of the liberal arts conflict with the desire to teach and take classes that will lead one immediately to a job?  Do the ideal of the liberal arts conflict with specialization, i.e., with being expected to know early in your educational career what you want to do, declaring your major, and avoiding other disciplines to whatever extent possible? If these things are in conflict, which should we prioritize?

Diversity: Do questions of diversity play out any differently on college campuses from how we might think of them in other contexts? Are the student populations of college campuses sufficiently diverse? Are there problems produced by diversity or by the lack thereof on college campuses? Do different kinds of conflicts emerge at schools with relatively diverse populations than at schools with less diverse populations?

Funding: Given the skyrocketing cost of tuition and the record levels of student debt, what is to be done about the funding of higher education? Likewise, given budget crunches in states and municipalities, how might we more effectively fund K-12 education? Where should this funding come from?

Affirmative action: Does/Should affirmative action play a different role in higher education than in the workplace? To what extent is the value educational institutions place on diversity linked to affirmative action? (For more questions, see Race.)

Colleges and college towns: How should institutions of higher education relate to the towns in which they are situated—towns that often predate those institutions? How should students relate to non-student residents of college towns? How do students relate to non-student residents? Are there tensions between these populations? If so, what might we think about doing to resolve those tensions?

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