Public Life Starts Here

Illustration of two silhouettes and one figure holding a sign that reads "Public Life Starts Here"
Illustration by Aesthetic Apparatus / Michael Byzewski

“The issues of division, disconnection, and polarization are increasingly in need of attention on our campus and in our classrooms.”

That’s how Douglas Hartmann describes the problem at hand. Hartmann is a professor of sociology and faculty director of the Public Life Project (PLP), a new initiative of the College of Liberal Arts. He explains that “the Public Life Project speaks to a public need—the need to better understand and engage difference and polarization—as well as the misunderstanding, misinformation, and disinformation about others and public life that are involved more generally.” PLP is one way CLA is taking bold actions toward addressing the systemic gaps and injustices present in our communities and social structures to build a more productive and inclusive democracy.

PLP evolved out of conversations between Deb Hopp (BA ’75, journalism), Christopher “Kit” Dahl (BA ’65, history), Dean of the College John Coleman, and Hartmann. Hopp and Dahl had a desire for UMN to provide coursework options and a framework for students to develop knowledge and skills related to social divisions and public life. Given the fact that polarization, misinformation, and divisions in American society and culture are more prevalent than ever, it didn’t take long for the idea to take hold as the Civic Readiness Initiative—which has now been minted as the Public Life Project.

Some of the Largest Challenges of our Day

According to Karen Ho, a PLP-affiliated faculty member and associate professor of anthropology, some of the largest challenges of our day include the “intensification of violent polarization and resentment” combined with “rampant misinformation and misrecognition” and the “inability to come together on important social facts in our post-truth era.”

Ho concludes, “It’s very difficult to solve social problems in that reality.”

To address these conflicts, PLP engages with and includes students, faculty, staff, alumni, and other community stakeholders by identifying and supporting a multi-pronged set of programs, courses, research projects, and events that speak to these interests.

“On the student side, this includes new courses and new techniques for classroom outreach and engagement,” Hartmann explains. “On the research side, it means highlighting, promoting, and supporting research and scholarship intended to help us better understand the sources of our problems and programs that can address these challenges. It also involves public events designed to bring the knowledge and understanding that we are generating here in CLA to larger public audiences and attention.”

Student Engagement

Over the past year, rather than sinking into despair over the state of our nation, UMN students have been inspired to take part in constructive conversations as the thought leaders and changemakers of tomorrow. Brayden Roberts (BA ’21), recipient of the Jeffrey C. & Sarah M. Zutz Scholarship in Liberal Arts, was one such student committed to matters of empathy, equity, and justice.

Roberts took his first sociology course with Hartmann, and credits his CLA experience with preparing him to disagree well and to listen thoughtfully—two qualities PLP seeks to instill in all participating students.

“I don’t just tolerate difference; I celebrate difference,” Roberts says. “It’s important to recognize how things can be different—not good or bad, but alternative to how you experience things. I’ve learned that everyone is going to believe something different, and everyone is going to disagree with each other to some extent. At the same time, we are entitled to believe what we’d like. Some opinions can be super far-fetched, but that’s okay, because it’s still valid to the person who believes it, and it doesn’t need to be valid to us necessarily.”

Roberts’ comments reflect a larger theme present among UMN students: They are prepared and ready to develop the knowledge and skills needed to grapple with polarizing divisions and inequalities, engage empathetically with others, and prepare for active, meaningful public lives by taking part in relevant curricular and co-curricular activities.

Curriculum and Research

Thanks to CLA faculty’s innovative and interdisciplinary work, the PLP team has been able to both identify pre-existing coursework and create new curriculum for students that aligns with PLP topics and themes.

Several fall 2021 CLA-wide first-year seminars address PLP priorities including:

  • Social Justice and the Twin Cities, taught by Assistant Professor Madelaine Cahuas, Geography,  Environment & Society
  • Homer’s Odyssey and Politics, taught by Professor S. Douglas Olson, Classical & Near Eastern Religions & Cultures
  • Racism, Antiracism & the American Dream, taught by Associate Professor Karen Ho, Anthropology, and Professor William P. Jones, History
  • Writing Medicine, taught by Assistant Professor Molly Kessler, Writing Studies
  • Place Matters: Seeing the Mississippi, taught by Associate Professor Diane Willow, Art
  • Scratched and Smashed: History of Destroying Images and Iconoclasm, taught by Assistant Professor Sinem Casale, Art History

“One goal of our class is to have students recognize the ongoing importance of understanding the history of exclusion and racism in America, especially in the face of rampant downward mobility for most, and how these structures are ongoingly mobilized,” Ho says. “The main impetus is to unpack the layered context that people need to be able to make sense of the trials, tribulations, and alternative facts of the present moment.”

Beyond supporting PLP-oriented freshman seminars, the PLP team worked with Associate Dean for the Social Sciences Howard Lavine and Arleen C. Carlson Professor of Political Science and Psychology, to develop and introduce a PLP signature course called “Why So Polarized?: Understanding the Other Side.” This course addresses topics of political polarization and psychology, and challenges students to engage with thinking from across political and ideological spectrums.

Community members were also invited to register for a one-credit fall 2021 course, “SOC 3090: Topics in Sociology: Wonderful/Wretched: Reading Minnesota’s Racial Paradoxes.” This course, taught by Hartmann, invites community members to come together with students in a common reading of Sparked: George Floyd, Racism, and the Progressive IllusionSparked is a volume of first-person essays written by scholars of color with ties to the Twin Cities. This course reflects on the significance, complexity, and tragedy of race in the wake of the summer of 2020. This critical yet constructive class centers around the issues of race, racism, and structural inequality in Minnesota that coincide with several CLA core competencies.

Partnerships and Collaboratives

In addition to scheduling a series of courses and public events during the 2021-22 academic year, PLP released a series of vignettes on topics including politics, religion, and media literacy in partnership with Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) in August 2021.

This series was produced to show how UMN faculty and students are committed to engaging in challenging conversations in the face of disagreement and division, which is the best way for us to move forward as a divided nation with hope for a future characterized by mutual understanding.

Looking to the future, Hartmann’s number one hope and goal for the Public Life Project is for “all of the ideas and principles we stand for to get reaffirmed and baked into the regular, day-to-day, year-to-year practices of our research, teaching, and community outreach.”

“It isn’t about building something new—it is about reclaiming and revitalizing the broad, inclusive, and radically uncompromising approach to knowledge and learning that has always been the heart and soul of a liberal arts education,” Hartmann says. “I truly believe that the University of Minnesota—with our state’s history of civic engagement, bipartisan collaboration, and commitment to public good along with our increasing diversity and all of the challenges that have come with that—can provide a model to the nation of a unique, alternative vision of how to engage with and embrace the challenges of division, polarization, and extremism in our midst.” 

by Allison J. Steinke, PhD candidate in the Hubbard School of Journalism & Mass Communication, research assistant for the Public Life Project, and recipient of numerous endowed fellowships including the Hazel Dicken-Garcia Graduate Fellowship, the Hubbard Graduate Fellowship, the Michael H. Anderson Graduate Fellowship, the Vincent Bancroft Shea Fellowship, and the Dan Wackman First-Year Graduate Student Research Award


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