In first jointly taught CIVICA master’s course, students explore “Democracy in Crisis”

Photo credit: Marta Nascimento/Sciences Po and Svenja Krüger/Hertie School

Florence Faucher of Sciences Po and Christian Freudlsperger of the Hertie School teach 70 students from both universities.

Voter participation is an emotional topic, as students from Sciences Po and the Hertie School discovered in their jointly taught course, “Democracy in Crisis”,  a few days after the 2020 US election. Reading in before class included “Why do all our feelings about politics matter?” (Laura Jenkins, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 2018), and a group of students prepared a presentation on voter suppression in the US.

“Of course, it was very timely – and very lively,” says Florence Faucher, Professor of Political Science at Sciences Po in Paris, who teaches the course together with Hertie School postdoctoral researcher Christian Freudlsperger. Discussion wasn’t limited to events in the US, with students from places like Peru, China, Moldova and other parts of Europe  contributing their own perspectives on voter participation. “In this course, we really focus on discussing the reading and getting the students to participate,” she said.

Democratic malaise and the meaning of “crisis”

Around 25 students from the Hertie School and 45 from Sciences Po signed up for the first joint course of the eight-university CIVICA alliance, which was founded in 2019 under the auspices of the European Commission’s European University Initiative. For the fall 2020 sessions, the professors homed in on two topics of public interest around the globe – democracy and crisis.

“Even before the crisis of the pandemic, we were thinking about a course on the malaise democracy is experiencing in many places ­– and also on crisis, because we are constantly speaking of crisis, rightly or wrongly,” says Faucher. “This can be a crisis of institutions – so a contestation of the representative system – or a crisis of exogenous events like climate change. It can also be a crisis in the relationship between citizens and their institutions – so a crisis of participation.”

Although the course is technically divided into two classes, due to the two schools’ different online platforms, the Hertie School and Sciences Po students come together frequently in other parts of the class. Split into small mixed groups from both institutions, they create and record weekly presentations and upload them to the Moodle learning management system, which both schools use. Via this platform, students from both institutions meet up online to discuss the presentations and other course topics. Faucher and Freudlsperger also jointly teach both classes ­every week. CIVICA hopes to have a combined teaching format eventually.

Aside from political participation, the professors from Berlin and Paris cover topics such as populism, protest, liberal representative regimes, the construction of threats and risks to minority groups in society, and depoliticisation. Their aim is to present students with a set of analytical tools to understand the many facets of crises and how they can affect contemporary democratic systems.

“We try to understand how crises can be politically and societally constructed – and also exploited by political actors,” says Freudlsperger, who is also a researcher at the Hertie School’s Jacques Delors Centre. “You really have to understand how crises come about, how they are perceived by different actors and how they're used by different actors for different purposes.”

Managing at times heated debates about topics of intense current interest takes some skill, especially when students from different countries are taking part online and in different time zones – some in the middle of the night. “We have seen lots of dedication on their part,” says Freudlsperger.

Paris, Berlin and beyond

Luckily, digital teaching tools were already part of the CIVICA concept for a cross-border European University of Social Sciences. Both Sciences Po and the Hertie School adapted quickly to the quirks of online teaching in reaction to COVID-19 last spring – a kind of trial by fire that laid the groundwork for the course.

“If this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that online teaching works quite well – and I think this is a window of opportunity for the CIVICA project,” says Freudlsperger. “Even without being permanently physically present, or travelling back and forth between Berlin and Paris, we are really able to teach students from different institutions from very, very diverse backgrounds together.”

Lectures for the course are pre-recorded so that class time can be spent on discussion. A different group of students prepares a presentation every week and all are required to write a weekly log with their thoughts about the assigned reading. At the end of the course, they have to write a final paper. Essay questions include “Is democracy in crisis?”, “Is liberal democracy compatible with environmental sustainability?”– or any topic agreed with the instructors. 

While the two groups are taught separately, students from one university do regularly join the class on the other’s platform – students from all over Europe, the US, Latin America and China. And they also have other opportunities to interact ­– in particular through Moodle, where they find the online lectures, readings and course materials, and upload their weekly group presentations and reading logs for everyone to see and discuss online. “There’s always a lively discussion taking place on Moodle outside of class,” says Freudlsperger.

Over the next semesters, CIVICA will increase the number of jointly taught master's courses so that students from all eight partner universities can have access to them. The development of a digital course catalogue and a digital dashboard to support online and blended formats is in full swing.

Faucher and Freudlsperger are already looking to use experiences from their fall sessions to develop this course further – even in-person sessions with both universities are a possibility. They say students bring a wealth of experience to class that enriches discussions, such as the lively debate on voter participation. “I think for the students it was a very helpful discussion in many respects ­– and, I should say, also for us,” Freudlsperger says.

This interview was originally published on CIVICA's website.