Teaching The Democratic Imagination

The Democratic Imagination

This section lays out a few ideas about how you might use The Democratic Imagination to teach a class. Course Planning explains the relevance of the democratic imagination in relation not only to political science, but other disciplines and interdisciplinary perspectives. Classroom Activities provides a few examples of the types of small group activities we think might help generate class discussion around the core themes of the book. These examples aren’t meant to be rigid scripts that have to be followed exactly in order to "work." Rather, our aim here has been to model one way of linking debates in the book to current events by providing a worksheet that includes some contextual discussion of current issues, hyperlinks to news stories about the issues, and prompting questions to get students talking.

Activity #1: Democracy in Decline?

Activity #2: Democracy and the Environment

Activity #3: Do Something Democratic

Activity #4: Voting Age Disparities

Activity #5: Democracy Journal

Activity #6: Directions for Use

Activity #7: Democracy and Do-It-Yourself Culture

Activity #8: A Transit Map of Democracy

Activity #9: Democracy and Post-Secondary Education

In addition, the Further Resources page provides extra materials that complement the book’s aims, and could be incorporated into your course.

Course Planning

We wrote The Democratic Imagination to engage students in active reflection on the forms of governance in the world around them, getting beyond their taken-for-granted assumptions about the meaning of the word democracy and the practices associated with it. The goal of the book is to help students enhance their critical thinking skills through the analysis of some of the defining values and institutions in the society in which they live.

The book should therefore be useful in courses about democracy, governmental institutions, and political systems. Many instructors will want to use this book along with another text or readings that map out specific institutions and their histories. For example, introductory political science courses often use a textbook detailing the emergence and essential parts of a specific country’s form of government, such as the Constitution, legislature, bureaucracy, and political parties. We think The Democratic Imagination could supplement these books and help students better grasp their significance by situating specific institutions in a broader social context. The Democratic Imagination provides possibilities for framing courses in a critical thinking mode, opening up the question of democracy while examining the details of actual existing forms of governance.

The Democratic Imagination should also be useful in courses oriented towards the development of critical thinking, theoretical analysis, and the examination of everyday life. The book casts the study of democracy in a comparative theoretical frame that shows how different the same practices and beliefs can appear in the light of contrasting premises. Specifically, the book compares the official-democracy frame that uses the existence of specific institutions and practices (such as elections for parliament or congress) as the measure of democracy with the democracy-from-below frame that assesses democracy against the standard of direct popular power. By engaging with fundamental institutions through this comparative frame, students will be encouraged to develop their own theoretical thinking skills and to reflect on their own beliefs.

The book also covers many subjects and themes that are not always associated with the study of democracy. For instance, it examines the relationship between bureaucracy and democracy, within government, corporations, and social movements. It looks at the way democracy is expressed in specific bodily practices that ultimately have a huge impact on our sense of ourselves. It also examines the importance of culture and ideas in maintaining and challenging existing democratic systems. Because of its core interest in power relations throughout society—including those running through formal political institutions but also those extending into less clearly "political" terrains—we think the book could be useful in courses focusing on power and culture in society.

The book, then, is well suited to courses on the subject of democracy and/or political systems. At the same time, the approach we took in this book might make it a valuable text in other courses that seek to promote critical thinking and active reflection on the world around us. Specifically, the book focuses a great deal on the role of analytical perspectives in framing our views of reality, through the examination of the two contending approaches discussed above. The widespread feeling that democracy is part of the furniture of the spaces we inhabit in countries with established electoral systems of government makes this book a valuable case study for the understanding of framing processes. The book can be a tool to contribute to work on effective recognition of the role of framing in shaping our understanding of events around us. This is a crucial element in the development of critical thinking.

Classroom Activities

#1: Democracy in Decline?

The British newspaper The Guardian published a story this past summer called "British democracy in terminal decline, warns report." It describes the core research findings of a recent study done by a group calling itself "The Democratic Audit." The study concludes that people in the UK are becoming more and more detached from their political representatives, and corporate influence over government decisions is becoming stronger and stronger. This is viewed as a serious decline in popular power. According to the study's lead author, Stuart Wilks-Heeg, perhaps the biggest cause for concern is the dramatic drop in voter turnout in recent decades, and the overall turn people have made away from political parties. In his words:

"The reality is that representative democracy, at the core, has to be about people voting, has to be about people engaging in political parties, has to be about people having contact with elected representatives, and having faith and trust in elected representatives, as well as those representatives demonstrating they can exercise political power effectively and make decisions that tend to be approved of […]. All of that is pretty catastrophically in decline. How low would turnout have to be before we question whether it's really representative democracy at all?"

We think Wilks-Heeg asks an important question. Should there be a minimum percentage of the population that votes if the results in an election are to be interpreted as the legitimate voice of the people? What might that percentage be, and what reasons explain your answer?

But we also think that Wilks-Heeg raises other important questions about democracy, though that isn't exactly his intention. He assumes that representative democracy "has to be" about a lot of things: people voting, participating in political parties, trusting in their representatives, and so on. But is that truly the case?

Working in small groups, discuss the following question:

Could you argue that, in fact, representative democracy doesn't have to be about those things at all?

Regardless of which position you choose to argue, try to come up with some specific examples from the text or from events in the world to support your point.

#2: Democracy and the Environment

In spring 2012, the Conservative government in Canada introduced a budget bill to Parliament that included a large number of changes to environmental policy. For example, it weakened the environmental review process through which new industrial projects are assessed, placing the ultimate decision about projects such as new oil pipelines in the hands of the minister, not an independent review board. It also shortened the duration of review processes, and restricted the ability of some people to participate in them.

Budgets lay out a plan for how governments will generate and spend money. Typically, they do not include proposed changes to other policy areas. This is both in order to ensure that representatives are able to focus on, debate, and vote exclusively on the proposed budget, and to ensure that other policy areas are not revised without adequate study and debate on those issues. When governments combine proposed policy changes relating to varying areas into a single piece of legislation, this is called an "omnibus bill." The prefix "omni" means "all." The Globe and Mail provides a background on Harper's omnibus budget.

The Conservative omnibus bill was widely criticized in the media and activist circles. Not only environmental groups, but also community activists and labour unions accused the government of attacking democracy. Some of these critics created a website called BlackOutSpeakOut.ca. It urged concerned groups and citizens to "Join a committed group of organizations representing millions of Canadians as we darken our websites in protest against efforts to silence your voice."

This episode raises many questions about democracy in the twenty-first century:

1) Are omnibus bills democratic? What might a critic of the Harper government say, and how might a defender of the government respond?

2) It might be obvious why environmental advocates are critical of the omnibus bill, but why would labour unions care? The head of the United Steelworkers Union said: "Steelworkers will not stand for the weakening of environmental protections included in Bill C-38 [the budget bill]. And we won't stand for the silencing of activists and organizations that fight to protect our environment." What might explain why labour unions took the position they did in this struggle?

3) Forms of online protest—like BlackOutSpeakOut.ca—are becoming more and more prevalent. How effective do you think they are, or have the potential to be, at achieving their goals? Name a few ways you think they might help to expand the democratic imagination, and consider whether there are ways they might actually limit democratic capacities.

#3: Do Something Democratic

By Kris Erickson, Ryerson University

The point of this assignment is simple: to get students to do something democratic, according to their own working definition(s) of the term, and drawing from the book. Students should do this during or outside of class time (as appropriate). They should make some notes about the process, thinking about how what they did was or wasn’t democratic in the end.

How to Make This Work: For Instructors

This is a generative task, and should be treated as a way to motivate students’ critical thinking about defining the term, not about “getting it right.” Instructors should expect a written/visual report from students about their experiences. As such, they may want to keep notes in a journal; this could even be a requirement of the activity. "Do Something Democratic" may best be used to initiate critical reflections on our commonsense assumptions through personal journaling or small- or large-group discussion.

How to Make This Work: For Students

Part One: Week One

1) By next week, you need to do something that is “democratic.” The request is purposefully vague: you need to take some form of action that relies on some interpretation of what doing something “democratic” involves.

2) You will need to talk and/or write about your experience: describing what you did, what worked, and what didn’t go as expected, as well as highlighting any research (academic, empirical, or popular) you did before or after your so-called democratic action.

Part Two: Week Two

3) Write individually, or discuss in small groups, the following questions:

a. Briefly describe what you did, and what happened as a result.

b. Did your democratic action go according to plan? Why or why not?

c. Did this action, whether a “success” or a “failure,” challenge or reaffirm your notions of democracy?

d. Did you do any research, about democracy or anything else, in relation to your democratic action? If so, how did that research change what you did or what you thought? If not, why not?

Small groups should assign a note taker to keep track of key points in the discussion in order to report these back to the class as a whole.


Because this is a fairly early-semester, generative activity, evaluation would best be conceived of as diagnostic and formative: on the one hand, an indication to the instructor of student preconceptions and misunderstandings s/he might try to address through modifying the lectures; and, on the other hand, an indication to students about what kind of critical and reflexive thinking to expect from the course.

A simple pass/fail or complete/incomplete grade may suffice, attached to attendance or participation grades.

#4: Voting Age Disparities

By Kris Erickson, Ryerson University

This activity should get students thinking about the place of youth, including themselves, in their society. It should also raise the question of inequality by highlighting the sometimes arbitrary nature of laws related to democratic citizenship.

How to Make This Work: For Instructors

The disparity should be emphasized, and the arbitrariness could be pointed out, perhaps by asking “Are Austrian 16-year-olds more mature and responsible than Canadian 18- or 19-year-olds?” Small group discussions leading to either plenary discussion or a brief reflective writing assignment might be interesting.

How to Make This Work: For Students

Currently, Austria’s minimum legal voting age in all elections is 16 years old. This means that Austrian citizens can vote as soon as they turn 16. In Canada, the minimum voting age is 18 years and, in some areas, 19 years. In small groups, discuss this difference, and answer the following questions:

Why do you think this disparity exists? What other disparities currently exist that limit who has the right to vote in municipal, provincial, or federal elections in Canada? What other disparities have historically existed (and why might it be important to know of these, even if we’ve “gotten past” these inequalities)?


For a written assignment, the degree to which the rights of youth are addressed in terms of fairness and equity is a principal criterion. Bonus points for relating voting inequality to other forms of inequality.

#5: Democracy Journal

By Kris Erickson, Ryerson University

The goal of this activity is to encourage students to develop self-reflexive thinking about course activities and materials and, to a lesser extent, about their own experiences of postsecondary learning.

How to Make This Work: For Instructors

To be effective, journal writing needs to be consistent throughout the semester. Instructors might develop a randomized spot-check system to ensure that assignments are being completed in a timely fashion. While broad questions should be assigned to encourage students to respond to class or course content, a number of more open-ended activities, and possibly mixed- or multi-media (such as collaging or website reviews), should also be assigned.

How to Make This Work: For Students

Keep a journal of reflections on this course. It is your choice whether you want to keep a paper journal or an online account. Here are some useful resources for keeping paper journals [local stationary shops]; here are some useful links for keeping online journals [blogs; social bookmarking like Delicious, Scoop.it, etc.]; tools to aggregate findings [Evernote, etc.]


This should consist of 2 or 3 randomly timed complete/incomplete assessments, the purpose of which are to encourage a process-based (rather than product-oriented) self-reflection.

#6: Directions for Use

By Kris Erickson, Ryerson University

The goal of this activity is to encourage students to mobilize key aspects of democracy/democratic practice, gleaned from the book and from lectures, in a playful, metaphorical way.

How to Make This Work: For Instructors

Some students may find working with non-text-based directions (such as Ikea assembly instructions) are preferred, though written or oral explanations of the various steps should be evaluated. This should occur over two sessions if to be completed individually, or more if to be completed in partners or small groups.

How to Make This Work: For Students

From A Book of Surrealist Games: “Using the style and format of the Directions to be found on the labels of household products, D.I.Y. kits and other ordinary items, apply them to items that do not require such instructions.” In this case, make a set of directions for the term democracy.

What kinds of instructions for preparation or use, warnings, additional recipes, storage requirements, and the like might be included?

Two examples:


To retain its perfect freshness, keep THE HEART dry. UNLIKE similar products, THE HEART WILL EXPAND WHILE DRYING OUT. All actions performed with THE HEART are therefore definitive.

PREPARATION OF SENTIMENTS: To one measure of delirium, add 2 1/2 measures of HEART. Stir until a sentimental solution forms. Allow to stand one night. While you sleep, the sentiment will take on the desired consistency (creamy, oily, or malleable). Do not prepare more HEART than you can use immediately, since even in a short space of time it tends to cling.


THE HEART casts a self-satisfied glow over generous and kind individuals. When applied to meaner personalities however (especially if allowed to penetrate the whole being) it tends to be dissipated throughout the pores and becomes totally transparent.


Its combination of instantaneous and eternal action ensures that DEATH is absolutely harmless to man or mammals.


DIRECTIONS: Remove the self-preserving seal, hold DEATH vertically, valve upwards, and apply by pressing the stopper.


For gambling debts, dishonour, tedium vitae etc.: Apply DEATH liberally around the edges of the room, near skirting-boards, in cracks in the floor, in any dark cranny. Repeat every four to five hours.




Creativity should be a criterion for success alongside, but not instead of, critical and appropriate use of interrelated concepts from lectures and the book.

#7: Democracy and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Culture

By Kris Erickson, Ryerson University

The purpose of this activity is to encourage students to grasp the significance of “democracy from below” in their own everyday lives.

How to Make This Work: For Instructors

Model the research process for students by opening, or getting a TA or student to open, in class, a web browser and search simply the term “DIY” and report back on the results while clicking through the links. Focus on whether and to what extent information (or materials and resources) are being made freely available and when these require payment.

How to Make This Work: For Students

The DIY (short for “Do It Yourself”) movement has been around for decades, and describes peoples' inherent capacities to make and share things without being dependent on formal institutions, corporations, and the like. However, recent theorists (like David Gauntlett in Making is Connecting) have argued that DIY culture is also a form of democratic practice. Construct a response in approximately 600 words, addressing the following questions:

1) Research one instance of DIY culture: How does that practice use materials, ideas, information (and so on) to assert and realize democratic principles?

2) In what ways, if at all, is cooking, sewing, gardening, making music or art, etc., actually about “doing it ourselves” (as opposed to the individualistic “doing it myself”)? In point form, outline how aspects of a specific practice directly contributes to democracy.

3) Are some DIY practices more democratic than others? How so?


Evaluate the writing for how it makes the case of not simply being self-interested, but democratizing (i.e. supporting the principles of democracy from below). Bonus points for incorporating research on DIY practice/history.

#8: A Transit Map of Democracy

By Kris Erickson, Ryerson University

The purpose of this activity is to invite students to map out their understandings of course content in non-text-based ways.

How to Make This Work: For Instructors

Because this will likely rely on students who know how to use drawing or design software, small groups might be best. Sufficient time to complete the project (perhaps 3-4 weeks), or framing it as an alternative or optional (bonus points) assignment might yield the best results for student learning. Providing some rich examples of what is possible through metaphorical mapping is helpful. Some links to share:

Map of Online Communities 1: http://xkcd.com/256/
Map of Online Communities 2: http://xkcd.com/802/
TTC Subway Map (May 2008): http://spacing.ca/toronto/2008/11/05/new-ttc-subway-map-back-to-the-drawing-board/
Ten Examples: http://blog.visualmotive.com/2009/ten-examples-of-the-subway-map-metaphor/

How to Make This Work: For Students

Now that you have done some reading and thinking about democracy, create a transit map that represents what these forms and practices look like in relation to one another. Think of a subway map as a metaphor for democratic action: to get from one form of democracy to another, what other forms or practices would you have to move through? What fields of thought (neighbourhoods) or specific thinkers (landmarks) dot the terrain?

Make it as simple or as complex as you like; at the very least, you must have one “route” running vertically and intersecting (in one or more places) another route running horizontally. Where they intersect, and why they intersect in this/these places, is up to you, but should be theoretically informed by the book and lecture notes.


Design should always be a secondary criterion. The main criteria should consider: whether main ideas are represented or not; to what extent a subway “line” provides a useful category or theme for the “stations” on it; and how junction/intersection points relate to arguments from the book or lectures.

#9: Democracy and Post-Secondary Education

By Matt Feagan, Ryerson University

This exercise could be used to help flesh out the contrast between “official democracy” and “democracy from below” in Chapter 1 of the book (i.e. how would the following struggles be seen through these two respective lenses?). It also overlaps with the "Democracy @ School" section in Chapter 2 of the book (i.e. how do students have a say in the conditions of their own education?). There is also a fit with Chapter 6’s discussion of expertise and the changing role of higher education (see p. 123) and Chapter 7’s discussion of the Quebec students’ strike (see pp. 167-168).

The goal of the activity is for students to discuss some examples of current struggles surrounding higher education and identify/evaluate the particular ideas about democracy expressed.

How to Make This Work: For Instructors

1) Have students form groups of at least 3 but no more than 7 with the people sitting around them. Provide a sheet with one of the three examples (see below) to each group (one sheet per group tends to work best since the group is forced to come together to listen, but in some cases it may be a good idea to have extra copies, for example, where the design of the classroom makes it difficult for students to hear each other).

2) Tell the groups to start by having one person read the example out loud, then take about 10 minutes to discuss the questions listed at the bottom of the sheet. Remind students that they should make an effort to hear from everyone in their group.

3) Check in with students to see if they need some more time (maximum 5 minutes more) before you call on them to share some of the main points of their discussion.

4) For the take-up, you may find it useful to make some notes (or assign a TA as notetaker, for example) and start by asking groups working on Example 1: How did they respond to the questions? What were the main points of their discussion? You can either call on every group working on Example 1 or take a sampling of responses until the groups no longer have anything else to add that hasn’t been said already. Repeat the same process for Example 2 and Example 3. The entire take-up could be done quickly (about 5 minutes, depending on the size of the class) or as part of a longer debrief (15-20 minutes).

5) Finally, you should provide a very brief summary (2-5 minutes) of the key emerging tensions, questions, or themes. Essentially, what are the main contrasts? The challenge in doing this summary is balancing what students have actually said with a list of the basic tenets of “official democracy” and “democracy from below.” Also, although the examples focus on university education in Canada—especially in Ontario and Quebec—you may want to relate the key tensions to the other current issues and situations with which students may be familiar.

How to Make This Work: For Students

Essentially, you are asking students to practice working with the two lenses of official democracy and democracy from below by looking at some examples of current issues in higher education. Tell them they will be working in groups, and each group will receive a sheet with an example and some questions on it. There are three examples, so each group will not be working with the same example. They will have about 10 minutes (or so) to read the example out loud in their group and discuss the questions at the bottom of the page. Explain that you will then ask them to share some of their responses.

Example 1: Accelerated Education

Instructions: Read the following example of a struggle currently taking place in higher education and discuss the questions below. How does the example express particular ideas about democracy?

Before stepping down as Premier of Ontario in October 2012, Dalton McGuinty and the government of Ontario worked on a new strategy for higher education, which was leaked to the public in February 2012. Below is an extract outlining the proposed “3x3 Strategy” (see here for a longer version of the report):

On February 23 2012, the Canadian Press covered the story, and here are extracts from the article:

A report before the Ontario government is calling for universities and colleges to move a third of their courses online—a proposal that's received a failing grade from a prominent students' organization.
The policy paper, which hasn't been released to the public, lays out three main strategies meant to "revolutionize Ontario's university system" over the next three years as the province grapples with mounting financial pressures.

Dubbed "3x3," it recommends emphasizing three-year undergraduate degrees and bulking up the summer semester to promote year-round schooling—measures also suggested by economist Don Drummond in his report on government cost-cutting.

Under the plan, participating schools should improve productivity by three per cent for each of three years, the document reads.

Schools that opt out of the program would be required to find three per cent in savings each year.

Source: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/story/2012/02/23/ontario-online-post-secondary-classes-report.html.

Discussion Questions:

1) What are the basic assumptions underlying the 3x3 strategy?

2) How might the proposed strategies be seen through the different lenses of “official democracy” and “democracy from below”?

Example 2: The Canadian Federation of Students

Instructions: Read the following example of a struggle currently taking place in higher education and discuss the questions below. How does the example express particular ideas about democracy?

In 2012, the Canadian Federation of Students issued a report entitled "Public Education for the Public Good: A National Vision for Canada’s Post-Secondary Education." Here is an extract from page 8:

Moreover, the report notes that “in September 2010, the total amount of student loans owed to the government reached $15 billion, the legislated ceiling set by the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act.” But rather than confront the crisis of skyrocketing student debt the government simply amended the Act “to increase the limit to $19 billion while, at the same time, dramatically reducing parliamentary oversight of the [Canada Student Loans] program” (CFS, 2012: 12).

Ontarians, in particular, have witnessed the sharpest increases in tuition fees, which have risen from an average of $2,105 per undergraduate student in 1992 to $7,180 in 2012, making Ontario the most expensive province in Canada for higher education. If current policy and legislation are not changed, by 2015 the average domestic undergraduate arts and science tuition fees in Ontario will cost each student $9,231 per year (CFS, 2012: 12).

Source: http://cfs-fcee.ca/research-policy/policy-papers-and-submissions/.

Discussion Questions:

1) What steps might students take to direct higher education along a path that does not force them into having to pay higher tuition fees while taking on greater debt?

2) What ideas about democracy does the Canadian Federation of Students express?

Example 3: The Quebec Student Movement

Instructions: Read the following example of a struggle currently taking place in higher education and discuss the questions below. How does the example express particular ideas about democracy?

The following extracts are from an article by Ethan Cox entitled “The (CL)ASSE is ascendant: Quebec student movement realigns in wake of strike,” published November 24, 2012 on rabble.ca. The article describes how students who were once members of the FEUQ and FECQ (Quebec Federation of University Students and Quebec Federation of College Students) are voting to disassociate themselves from these organizations in favour of joining ASSE (Association for Syndical Solidarity among Students), an organization attempting to express a new form of democracy.

Lost amid the celebration of the victories of this year's Maple Spring is a different consequence of the longest strike in Quebec history, one which has gone largely unnoticed outside student circles.

There is a fundamental realignment going on within the student movement in this province, one which promises to have far reaching repercussions. CLASSE, the temporary coalition formed to fight the tuition hike, may have dissolved, but its mother organization, the ASSE (Association for Syndical Solidarity among Students) is ascendant.

"Many associations joined CLASSE at the beginning because the federations were not inclined to work towards the strike," said [a spokesperson for ASSE]. "They saw CLASSE as a truly democratic association, which was to be the main vehicle for the strike and whose practices of direct democracy and combativeness ultimately made the strike a success. The federations also made some curious choices, such as demanding the abolition of tax credits on tuition without consulting their members, and these sort of democratic faux pas forced many students to question their membership".

In addition to the points raised regarding democracy and transparency, many critics of the federations point to their opposition to free education and seeming disdain for protests and pressure tactics since the PQ government came to power as evidence that the federations are too moderate, and too close to the PQ.

The victory of the strike also makes ASSE's demand for free education seem much more like an achievable objective, and less like a pipe dream, than it did before.

By reaching out and building reciprocal alliances with other parts of civil society, ASSE was able to reach out to allies and partners and transform a student movement into a full fledged social movement.

Where the federations are determined to fight a limited battle, largely by lobbying the PQ government, ASSE are as concerned with climate change, gender equality, and class struggle as they are with education. They see themselves as a powerful wing of a larger social movement fighting for nothing less than systemic changes to a badly broken system.

Source: http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/ethan-cox/2012/11/classe-ascendent-quebec-student-movement-realigns-wake-strike.

Discussion Questions:

1) What is this article saying about the Quebec students’ movement?

2) Justify why the article might align with either the “official democracy” or “democracy from below” point of view.