civic life and health research

This is an online lecture (video, slides, and discussion questions) entitled “Civic Life and Health Research.” It’s offered by, and thanks to, the Tufts Clinical Translational Sciences Institute (CTSI), where I hold a research professorship. Dr. Thomas Concannon introduces the CTSI and the session. I then offer four frameworks for understanding civic life:

  1. social capital
  2. collective efficacy
  3. common pool resources
  4. the public sphere

For each one, I explain why there are important empirical and conceptual connections with public health that have implications for both research and practice. Public health really serves as an example to illustrate how to apply these concepts, so the talk might be of some use in other fields as well, such as education or economic development.

(You can find and register for other free CTSI courses here.)

college curricula for civic learning and engagement

I’d welcome recommendations of particularly promising undergraduate courses or programs that are intended to boost students’ civic knowledge, skills, and engagement. I’m especially interested in two approaches: 1) requiring a specific course with a civic focus for all students at a given institution, or 2) offering a major, minor, or certificate program for especially interested students.

Civic education at the college level may address contested concepts (justice, citizenship, democracy), skills (from facilitating meetings to reading regression tables), bodies of knowledge (how a bill becomes a law; the texture of the local geographical community; social determinants of health …), self-understandings and identities (“Who am I and what is my role in the community?”), and relationships among students or between students and others. The list of possible outcomes is so long that one reasonable view is: A civic education is a liberal education–it’s the whole curriculum and co-curriculum. But it’s valuable to consider what to offer (or perhaps even require) in the finite span of one course or one major.

Many colleges and universities require first-year seminars. Students can typically choose a course from a menu, but all the seminars create a similar experience, which is supposed to build a community among the students. To the extent that first-year seminars address issues of civic importance, this is also a way of teaching ideas and skills relevant to citizenship. At Cal. State Chico, the guiding principle of the first year seminar program is “Public Sphere Pedagogy.” Chico aims to shift “from a typical classroom setting” to real public dialogues with “diverse campus and community members.”

Other institutions require a particular course or sequence of courses for all students. Columbia’s Core Curriculum is a distinguished example that dates to the early 1900s. Since Columbia’s Core course on “Literature Humanities” has included the Iliad, Oresteia, and Inferno for all of its 75 years, every Columbia College student since WWII has read those books. “The communal learning–with all students encountering the same texts and issues at the same time–and the critical dialogue experienced in small seminars are the distinctive features of the Core.” One could focus mainly on formal, historical, or theological issues while reading texts like the Inferno; but among the topics emphasized in the Core seminars are explicitly civic ones: “What does it mean, and what has it meant to be part of a community?” “By what rules should we be governed?”

At Florida Gulf Coast University, all 13,000 students must take the University Colloquium, an “interdisciplinary environmental education course designed to explore the concept of sustainability as it relates to a variety of considerations and forces in Southwest Florida. In particular, we will consider environmental, social, ethical, historical, scientific, economic, and political influences.” The Colloquium requires 10 hours of service, which can go toward FGCU’s universal requirement of 80 hours for graduation.

Note the interesting difference in content focus: classic texts at Columbia; the local physical and human environment at FGCU.

At least 31 institutions offer majors with titles like “Civic Engagement,” “Service Learning,” “Civic Leadership,” “Community Service,” or “Leadership, Ethics, and Social Action,” and variations on those themes.* I would add majors in “Peace & Justice Studies,” “Advocacy Studies,” “Citizenship & Civic Engagement,” and others to this list.

These programs almost always require community-service experiences or internships. Most also require a foundational course. Butin* finds that the content of these courses varies a great deal. The most frequently assigned material is research about civic engagement in America, e.g., Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone or excerpts from de Tocqueville; but those particular texts are assigned in a minority of all the foundational courses.

Majors are usually more ambitious than minors or certificates, but a program like the University of Maryland’s Civicus is not only a certificate with some required courses; participants also live together in a dedicated dorm and conduct service projects beyond their courses. In that situation, a certificate may be more intensive than a major.

I view public policy programs (whether undergraduate or graduate) as somewhat different from programs in civics. I like to say that the question for Civic Studies is “What should we do?” whereas the question for public policy is “What should be done?” (Or, “What should a policymaker do?”) However, public policy programs can emphasize the citizen’s side of policymaking. Some assign all their students to participate in simulations in which they role-play various official leaders in a fictional crisis. These simulations typically fill a limited number of days before the main coursework begins and serve to build a community while teaching civic skills. I am not aware of any institution that offers or requires a simulation for its whole undergraduate student body, but that’s an interesting prospect.

* Dan Butin, “’Can I major in Service-Learning?’ An Empirical Analysis of Certificates, Minors, and Majors,” Journal of College & Character, vol. 11, No. 2 (2010), pp. 1-18.

Exploring Possibilities by Challenging Assumptions

We wanted to share this piece from NCDD member, Beth Tener, on the New Directions Collaborative blog about her recent experience at a workshop she ran on The Art of Strategic Questioning and the insights she took away about the power of framing questions. Tener notes how much more powerful questions can become when they are co-developed by a diverse group of people in order to test the assumptions on how a question is framed and consequently open up the creative possibilities. We encourage you to read Tener’s article below or find the original on the New Directions Collaborative blog here.

Questioning to Question Our Assumptions

Asking powerful questions can spark people’s intrinsic motivation to learn, contribute, and create positive change. They also allow organizations and networks to tap and synthesize the knowledge, experience, and perspectives of many people in a system, organization, or community. Today I taught a workshop called The Art of Strategic Questioning, with a group of about 30 people who do facilitation, sponsored by New Hampshire Listens, a civic engagement initiative of the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH. We explored the art of framing questions that open up possibilities and help a group find its way to a joint vision and/or action steps.

Good questions are framed in a way that is truly open, meaning they don’t lead to a yes/no answer or contain or suggest a solution. Examples of open questions are, “what is an important conversation we are not having?” or “what gifts and assets can be better utilized and connected?” We practiced creating questions for one another’s current challenges and noticing what makes a question powerful. Here are some insights that emerged:

In the introductions, I asked people to share their name, organization, and a question they were sitting with. A wide range of interesting questions were shared and about halfway through, I asked people to notice how they felt hearing others’ questions. They said they were drawn in, curious, and wanted to talk further and hear more. Acknowledging our questions, what has us thinking, and where we are curious or don’t know naturally stirs human interest and puts us on a more equal footing.

A participant mentioned the need to be aware of her assumptions. This is hard to do on your own. The time spent talking and practicing questions revealed that the way to really see our own assumptions, beliefs, and blind spots is through the process of conversation. Being asked questions by people who have other perspectives sheds light on where our viewpoint or thinking is limited.

Through the course of the workshop, people noticed how their own assumptions affected how they framed the question. For example, we can frame a question as “will option A or B be a better way to go?” or we can open it up to ask “what course of action will help me achieve my intention; option A, B or some other option I can’t see yet?”

As a way to practice using good questions in meeting design, we practiced the 1-2-4-All exercise, a great alternative to traditional brainstorming. People answered this question:

What question could be most powerful for us to take into our communities at this time?

Participants wrote their ideas first and then shared in a pair. One of the participants wrote this question first:

What happens if the current versions of our social safety nets fail?

When he paired up to talk with another participant, the reaction he got was, “wow, that’s a downer of a question that would be hard to get people to engage with.” They both recognized that was true. His professional training as a software engineer had him trained to look for problems and what might fail. This is a valuable skill and way of thinking for some situations; however, in a context of engaging a group and community in a conversation, this question needed some work. Together, they came up with a reframed version:

What would our community look like if it didn’t matter if our safety nets failed?

A more powerful question, indeed. When the original pair joined another pair of people to talk, the other participants immediately began envisioning what that community would feel and look like. This is a sign of a good question – it unleashes a sense of potential and possibility, it draws us in, and sparks our intrinsic motivation to engage and contribute.

This story also illustrates how coming up with a powerful question is best done in conversation with a group. This allows us to can better see our own assumptions and get insights from various perspectives. This is why it is so valuable to have a design team work together well ahead of a meeting to “set the table” for a good meeting. The team can design the agenda and get clear on the appropriate questions and how to word them most powerfully. Diversity on a design team is key to discern the most appropriate question(s); diversity in a meeting or gathering is key to discern the best answers.”

When we ask questions we don’t know the answers to and trust the unknown and the wisdom of the group, new insights and possibilities can emerge. This quote from Ria Baeck and Helen Titchen Beeth sums this up beautifully:

“Emergence is the manifestation of the truly new that has never existed before, where new connections are made that create a new whole. It requires a degree of chaos, where the structuring comes not from manmade attempts at control, but from holding a strong energetic container for the necessary chaos, while staying with the guiding question and the intent that the emergence is invited to serve.”

You can find the original version of this New Directions Collaborative blog article at

City Hall to Go

Summary The City of Boston’s “City Hall To Go” is an ongoing, Boston-based initiative that seeks to provide mayoral services in underserved communities through staffed food truck vehicles.[1] Rather than serving food, the food truck vehicles are designed in order to enable constituents to complete a range of municipal transactions,...

Encrypted Tractors – and the Open Source Solution

Imagine that you’re a farmer who bought a John Deere tractor for $25,000 – or perhaps a big, heavy-duty model for $125,000 or more.  Then something goes wrong with the computer software inside the tractor (its “firmware”).  Thanks to a new licensing scheme, only John Deere can legally fix the tractor – for exorbitant repair prices.  Or maybe you want to modify the tractor so it can do different things in different ways.  So sorry:  the license prohibits you from bypassing the encryption, taking it to an independent repair shop, or fixing it yourself.

As reported by Jason Koebler in Vice Motherboard, lots of American farmers frustrated by John Deere’s licensing terms are now turning to Ukrainian and Polish hackers to buy software fixes. They want to be able to fix and modify their own legally purchased tractors. (“Why American Farmers Are Hacking Their Tractors with Ukrainian Firmware,” March 21, 2017.) 

This very type of problem inspired hacker Richard Stallman to invent free software in the late 1970s. When an experimental laser printer donated to MIT by the Xerox Corporation kept jamming, Stallman tried to develop a software fix so he could help everyone who used the printer. He quickly discovered that the source code for the machine was proprietary -- a stupid, self-serving limitation that prevented him from helping his colleagues.

This sort of copyright control has frequently crippled machinery over the decades. The basic point is to protect a company's market power and proprietary control -- a form of power usually protected by law.  Under US law, for example, bypassing “digital rights management,” or DRM, systems on DVDs, CDs or websites is against the law.

In the case of land vehicles such as tractors, a legal exception was carved out under US copyright law in 2015. But John Deere was able to evade that provision by requiring farmers to sign a new licensing agreement when they buy a tractor.  The license prohibits “nearly all repair and modification to farming equipment, and prevent[s] farmers from suing for ‘crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software,’” Koelber writes.

Most computer users have become accustomed to the annoying End User Licensing Agreements, or EULAs, which most people click-through and ignore.  (Are you actually going to read through 15 pages of legalese or hire an attorney to re-negotiate the license?)  The EULAs are essentially “contracts of adhesion” – one-sided agreements drafted by sellers to give them greater control over how their product may be used after its purchase and to limit sellers’ legal liability.  Contracts of adhesion purport to be freely made agreements between seller and buyer, but of course, they are nothing of the sort.  They are highly complex pseudo-contracts that reflect only the interests of the seller, which uses its raw market power or technological dominance to foist ridiculous terms on hapless consumers.

So if it’s harvest time and your tractor doesn’t work, the license insists that only an authorized John Deere dealership can fix or modify your tractor.  And if company technicians aren’t available, or 50 miles away, you’re out of luck.  Some farmers fear that the license gives John Deere so much legal authority that it could remotely shut down their tractors that have violated the license agreement.

The Vice Motherboard article describes a movement among farmers to push for “right to repair” legislation:

“If a farmer bought the tractor, he should be able to do whatever he wants with it,” Kevin Kenney, a farmer and right-to-repair advocate in Nebraska, told me. “You want to replace a transmission and you take it to an independent mechanic—he can put in the new transmission but the tractor can't drive out of the shop. Deere charges $230, plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out and plug a connector into their USB port to authorize the part.”

“What you've got is technicians running around here with cracked Ukrainian John Deere software that they bought off the black market,” he added.

Kenney and [Nebraska hog farmer] Kluthe have been pushing for right-to-repair legislation in Nebraska that would invalidate John Deere's license agreement (seven other states are considering similar bills). In the meantime, farmers have started hacking their machines because even simple repairs are made impossible by the embedded software within the tractor. John Deere is one of the staunchest opponents of this legislation.

The John Deere EULA is just another example of how corporate players are making commoning illegal.  Code can’t be shared; it must be monopolized and monetized.  Farmer Kluthe has modified his John Deere to run on methane derived from pig manure, but it likely violates the EULA.  Richard Stallman would understand the frustration.

Although right-to-repair legislation would be a significant advance, I recently ran across another option:  an open source tractor.  The Oggún Tractor, completely open source but for its drive train, was introduced in November 2016 by an Alabama-based company called CleBer.  The Oggún Tractor -- a fairly basic tractor that is intended for small-scale and family farms – sells for $12,500.The Oggun Tractor

One of the founders is Horace Clemmons, who, as a veteran of the US computer industry, understands the value of open standards and open source development.  CleBer eplains that its business model is motivated by

“the fact that 80% of the world’s farmers can’t afford a tractor. Open System Manufacturing (OSM) changes that by being a customer based business model, not a stockholder based business model.

Open System Manufacturing is grounded in the idea that farm technology can advance more rapidly than it does today and get cheaper every year. While farmers do not currently see this reality for their tools, nearly everyone has seen this reality in the form of cell phone technology that becomes more useful and affordable every year. We have seen these benefits because of Open System Software and Computing. Why not apply the same concept to farm equipment?”

As an open source tractor, the Oggún uses common, off-the-shelf parts; uses the same components and subcomponents in multiple pieces of equipment; uses locally sourced parts, where possible; uses simplistic designs that allow the user to make unique adaptation and modifications.

“Our goal is to provide an affordable foundation that allows the people closest to the problems to innovate unique solutions that work for them and their community,” says the company literature.  “It’s not just a tractor, ‘it’s a way of thinking.’” Part of the thinking behind the Oggún tractor is to help revive make local and regional farming at smaller scales.  The low-cost, open source tractor should be especially attractive to farmers in the global South.

There are, of course, other open source agricultural equipment projects such as Open Source Ecology and Farm Hack. However, a difficult problem with those projects is how to capitalize the designs and make them commercially available.  It’s hard to get capital for projects that don’t own intellectual property (i.e., a patent in a proprietary technology). CleBer seems to have solved that through the mission-oriented investments of its two founders, who want to revive small-scale farming in the US, Cuba and elsewhere.

The Oggún tractor is still a very new tractor and one aimed at a very specific market segment of farmers. Still, the fact that it exists at all as a commercial enterprise is remarkable – and its potential, if taken to different levels, could be amazing. There are a lot of owners of John Deere equipment who would surely prefer not to be buying illegal software from eastern European pirates, but helping to build a new, more innovative ecosystem of open source alternatives. 

The First Teenagers’ Municipal Council: “Living Together in a Multicultural World”

Introduction The 1st Teenagers’ Municipal Council, held in the city of Ilion, Greece in 2015, was a simulation of the Ilion Municipal Council intended to familiarize high school-aged constituents with local democratic institutions. The event was held within the framework of the European Local Democracy Week — an annual a...

Smart Chicago

Problems and Purpose The so-called ‘Internet of Things’ - using the Internet to allow physical appliances to connect with other tools on the network - offers policymakers the opportunity to collect and share massive amounts of data about constituents’ behavior to guide and improve public well-being. Seeking to capitalize upon...

Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center

Problems and Purpose While communities in Western Pennsylvania, led by Pittsburgh, have sought to be at the forefront of government open data projects, these data sets are scattered across the over 130 municipalities within Allegheny County alone.[1] To remedy this problem and create a unified data hub for all of...

Problems and Purpose Each year, federal agencies author approximately 2,500 to 4,500regulations. While these regulations are typically supposed to be subject to a public comment period, public input is largely nonexistent. [1] is an online platform where users can comment on pending and proposed federal regulations. The portal is...

psychoanalyzing presidents

There’s lots of conversation right now about Donald Trump’s mental condition. It includes claims that he demonstrates narcissistic personality disorder and that changes in his speech patterns reveal cognitive decline. I [analyzed] his speech pattern from a particular angle here.

This discussion evokes the episode in 1964, when Fact magazine surveyed psychiatrists about then-candidate Barry Goldwater’s psychological fitness to be president.

Just under half (49.2%) of the 2,417 respondents thought he was unfit, with the rest split evenly between those who didn’t believe they could answer and those who considered him fit for office. Fact also gave respondents a chance to write comments and printed 40 pages of quotes from their answers. Goldwater sued and won over $1 million in damages (which bankrupted Fact magazine), leading to the American Psychiatric Association’s “Goldwater Rule,” which forbids members from making evaluative comments about public figures whom they have not examined as individual patients. A patient/physician relationship triggers ethical responsibilities that are absent when psychiatrists discuss public officials.

For me, the original Fact magazine issue is a fascinating example of professional authority encountering politics. It’s important to note that a considerable minority of the quoted statements either object to psychoanalyzing Goldwater without examining him in person or vouch for his mental health. Some of the surveyed psychiatrists even opine that he is the only sane candidate, surrounded by crazy socialists. But the majority of the quoted MDs make claims that now seem risibly dated and morally problematic. They do so under their professional titles, in a magazine entitled “Fact.” For example:

  • “Descriptions of his early life that I have read indicate to me that his mother assumed the masculine role in his family background. … The picture, therefore, is of a domineering, emasculating mother and a somewhat withdrawn, passive, narcissistic father. … This would provide a fertile background for sado-masochistic temperament, such as is seen in paranoid states.” — M.D., name withheld.
  • “From TV experiences, it is apparent that Goldwater hates and fears his wife. At the convention, she consistently appeared depressed and withdrawn. Certainly she was not like the typical enthusiastic candidate’s wife, e.g., Mary Scranton.” — M.D., name withheld.
  • “Barry Goldwater’s mental instability stems from the fact that his father was a Jew while his mother was a Protestant. This ethnic and cultural split accounts for his feelings of insecurity and spiritual loneliness. … ” — M.D., name withheld.
  • “In trying to analyze Mr. Goldwater’s behavior I am tempted to call him a ‘frustrated Jew.’ … He has never forgiven his father for being a Jew. … What the Senator from Arizona stands for is the antithesis of the traditional Jewish concepts of social justice, of humility, of moderation in speech and action, and of concern for the feelings of others, especially the vanquished. In eschewing these concepts, the Senator subconsciously expresses his hatred for his Jewish father.” — Max Dahl, M.D. Supervising Psychiatrist [etc.]
  • “In allowing you to quote me, which I do, I rely on the protection of Goldwater’s defeat at the polls in November; for if Goldwater wins the Presidency, both you and I will be among the first into the concentration camps.” – G. Templeton, M.D.,  Director, Community Hospital Mental Health [etc.]
  • “Characterologically, Goldwater is like many middle-class Americans. He is ‘formula’ oriented with a belief in the infallibility of his own rhetoric. … In short: Goldwater is an anal character who believes all’s well in his ‘tidy’ world.” — M.D., name withheld.
  • “From his published statements I get the impression that Goldwater is basically a paranoid schizophrenic who decompensates from time to time.” — M.D., name withheld.

I think we should talk about Donald J. Trump’s character and psychological fitness for office. It seems problematic to use the Goldwater Rule to keep the whole psychiatric profession out of this discussion. And yet these quotes from 1964 remind us how historically-relative, value-laden, and agenda-driven people can be, even when they present themselves as scientific specialists dealing only in Facts.