It is Friday evening at 5:00 in late November, and more than 500 college freshmen are gathered in a single auditorium at California State University, Chico (Chico). What’s wrong with this picture? It’s been five hours since the weekend began for most of these students. Shouldn’t they be out celebrating? But these students weren’t ready for the weekend yet. They were preparing to participate in the final academic event of their semester, Chico’s Town Hall Meeting.
This meeting, known simply as the Town Hall, is the culminating experience for first-year students enrolled in English 130, a course entitled Writing for the Public Sphere. English 130 is part of the Academic Writing Program (AWP) at Chico that serves 2,500 students each year, and partnering with the First-Year Experience Program, the Town Hall has grown to approximately 600 participants, including students, faculty, administrators, community members, and partners, and experts in the fields of research on which the students choose to focus. The Town Hall is open to all members of the Chico community and to the public.
Jill Swiencicki, the AWP Coordinator, explains the motivation behind the Town Hall. “The idea [for the Town Hall] came from teaching students and seeing over and over again that we asked them to do research and they had this preconceived, prepackaged notion of what a research essay was…it seemed so disconnected from their lives and it seemed so disconnected from the world they live in. So the idea came from trying to give them a real audience and a real purpose for the work that they do.”
Students fill multiple roles as participants of the Town Hall, using their research and writing experiences in different ways. Some present to other students in small break-out sessions across campus before coming back to lead roundtable discussions in the Town Hall auditorium. Others speak to the Chico community in an outdoor exhibit—coined “the free speech area”—open to Chico’s campus the day of the Town Hall. Others act as indirect participants, serving as informed and productive members of the conversations that unfold at the Town Hall reception with community members and experts.
The Town Hall participants and organizers are thankful for the vision and encouragement of Chico President Dr. Paul Zingg, who has made civic engagement a serious focus on Chico’s campus and in its curriculum. He attends each of the Town Halls to engage with the students in the discussion of their research. With the attention of the president, and the participation of policy makers, experts, and other community members, students can contextualize their research and explore its implications for future action on the issues they are so impassioned about. At this meeting, students help create an experience that validates their academic efforts in a way that is connected to real-world challenges, and exposes them to the impact of their own civic engagement.
The Town Hall is one of the activities supported by Chico’s Demonstration Site grant award from the BTtoP Project for 2007–2009. For more information and to view the video created about the Town Hall Meeting, see www.csuchico.edu/engl/awp/townhall/about.