Public Affairs class has lasting impact on students

EDITORS NOTE: The purpose behind this story is to highlight innovative teaching methods that make a difference in the classroom. The instructor of this course, Erik Johnston, was given the 2015 Public Service Educator award by the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. He is one of a dozen inaugural fellows selected to the Provost's Teaching Academy, a program tasked with helping first-year ASU professors incorporate successful teaching strategies. 

Samantha Whitman signed up for PAF 300 Public Management and Administration because the course satisfied a graduation requirement. And it was offered at a convenient time, Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 10:30 to 11:45.

She figured the class would be as dull as its official course description: examines the context and role of the public manager and the development of the field of public administration. Scintillating, right? But she needed it for her degree in health science and health policy. So, she was one of 77 students who enrolled for the fall 2015 semester.

“I wasn't too excited, to be honest. It was a lecture hall,” says Whitman. “There were a lot of students coming in, so I thought it was going to be really boring and dry.”

Samantha Whitman ( middle) is a health science and health policy major.

Samantha Whitman, middle, is a health science and health policy major.

The class was anything but. It turned out to be the best she had ever taken. In college. In high school. Ever.

“This class and teacher was a blessing to me personally,” Whitman says. “ I have never in my life been more motivated and inspired--to not only want to do good in the world--but to act on it as well.”

Many students who took PAF 300 with Johnston in the fall semester share Whitman’s sentiments.

“This was the very first class that I've ever taken at ASU that I actually fell in love with,” says Beth Suchocki (pronounced SUE-hockey). “If I wasn't this close to graduating, I would probably change my major. My major is health sciences and health policy.”

In fact, many of the students who take the class during the fall semester end up changing their major to public affairs says Erik Johnston who has taught PAF 300 four of the last five fall semesters.

His boyish all-American good looks make Johnston appear much younger than a professor in his late thirties. He dresses conservatively, usually in a suit or sports coat and tie. He smiles as he talks. His voice reflects the passion for his work.

The idea for how the class is taught grew from Johnston’s own experiences and research. He is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs, part of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. The school prepares students to work in the public sector. Many students from the school go on to management positions in local, state and federal government.

Johnston is also director of the ASU Center for Policy Informatics where he studies how computational and information technology can be used to address complex public policy and public administration problems. And he is part of an international team of researchers working for the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance. Their goal is to design effective ways for individual citizens to play a role in the government decision-making process at the local, national and international level.

Needless to say, Johnston spends a lot of time studying how technology can be leveraged to improve governance. Now, he had the chance to put that knowledge to work in the classroom.

Only one problem. His students didn’t appear to be all that interested in the class subject matter. Something he learned the first day he began teaching the class in the fall of 2011.

“I asked people why are they taking this class,” say Johnston. “Everyone sort of gives a thirty-second blurb. And without exception, they say ‘because it fits my schedule, because it achieves the requirement for a different degree.’ Not a single person in the class was taking it for the content.”

Not to worry, Johnston had a plan to get student’s attention that first day of class.


Student buy-in

He tells them no expensive textbook is required. No quizzes or tests. Just show up on time, participate in classroom discussions and complete all assignments. Simple, right?

While most ASU classes use an online learning system called Blackboard for class information and assignments, Johnston informs students that most everything they need will come from a course ‘wiki.’ Each student will post assignments to their own wiki page, which will be accessible to everyone else in the class.

“I was excited that there wasn't an assigned textbook,” says Whitman, whose stance on the class began to shift. “The first shocker to me was how it's an all wiki page-based class. That was a paradigm shift.”

Learning how to use an internet-based course wiki was the first assignment. Students had to build a bio page that included a photo and information on their background as well as their academic and personal interests. They had to list what they have in common with other students by reviewing their classmates' wiki pages. And they had to answer the question “What is your art?”

Suchocki listed photography as her art and included a few sunset photos and the quote “We take photos as a return ticket to memories that may someday be forgotten.”

A section of Beth Suchocki's wiki page for PAF 300.

“It’s like your own website and you get to put your own ideas on there,” says Suchocki. “The wiki makes the class a lot smaller. Because we see each other's faces in class and online.”

That was the intent of the instructor.

“There is this great sense of ‘wow, these people in my class are not just nameless faces that I'm sitting in here with,’” says Johnston. “’They have interesting back stories, they are like me. We might disagree on sports teams, or whatever else it is. But I get a sense that they're much deeper than I initially realized.’”

Beth Suchocki makes a pitch to Erik Johnston's PAF 300 class asking classmates to consider selecting a charity she wants the class to donate money to.

Johnston knew it would take more than technology to get his students engaged. He had to show he was personally invested too. So, he memorizes the names and faces of every student by the time the class meets a second time. That’s between 75 to 80 students each semester. Johnston says they are surprised to be greeted by their first name when they return to class. In front of everyone, he puts himself to the test by going through every student name. And if a student uses a different name or nickname that's not on the class roster, Johnston makes sure to use it. So far,  he has yet to misplace a name.


The experiment

Now that he had their attention, the professor had to find a way to make public policy management meaningful to students who may not really care. Rather than lecture about it in the traditional sense, Johnston wanted students to actually feel it. So, with the blessing of his school director and dean, he launched an experiment.

“So I thought to myself, ‘I've got an immense amount of leverage here to figure out how to teach the concepts,’” recalls Johnston. “How do we create the policies that are happening in the real world--in the context of a class--in a way that tangibly affects them? And, in a way that they will probably respond to?”

The answer? Their grades.

“Instead of trying to address them financially, or trying to affect them in the same way that policies do, grades serve as a very interesting sort of intermediary currency that they cared about, that they have been trained to focus on,” says Johnston. “So it can be used instrumentally in the same way that certain policies advantage or disadvantage other people.”  

Johnston identifies a couple of high-achieving students within the first three weeks of class and invites them to help craft grading rules for an assignment that reflects the inequities of public policy implementation. Johnston asks them to be imaginative but base the grading rules on real-life policies. One of the students was Samantha Whitman.

They came up with a grading scheme that benefited some students but harmed others.

Veterans and active duty military personnel received an extra five points for the assignment. Students with a hat or sunglasses were also given an extra five points. Students who sat in the last row had to turn in this particular assignment three days earlier than other students in the class--reflecting the disparity of opportunity for some people. Male students could only earn 77-percent of the grade of female students on the assignment, not unlike the pay disparity between women and men who do the same job. 

Then, there was the ID check and fake DNA swab.

Reflecting the spate of recently passed voter ID laws, Johnston required all students to present two forms of ID. But white students also had to produce a bill with their current address, which was hard for some. The requirement came the same week that the state of Alabama, which requires photo IDs to vote, shut down the locations that issue these IDs in every community. Many were in predominantly African American communities, which made it much harder for them to get a photo ID to vote.

Reflecting the random searches done by Transportation Safety Administration agents at airport checkpoints, students lined up on one side of the lecture hall to present their IDs to a teaching assistant. She wore a lab coat and latex gloves and took a cheek swab of each student under the guise of using it for a DNA test to confirm identity. It was a ruse, but the students didn’t know it.

 PAF 300 students line up to present forms of identification and to give a DNA sample. Notice the microscope for effect.

PAF 300 students line up to present forms of identification and to give a DNA sample. Notice the microscope for effect.

A few expressed reservations about the whole thing. Johnston took them aside.

“I say ‘look, if you want to get the grade you have to go through this process,’” Johnston says. “And a few are like ‘nope, I'm fine with a zero.’ And then we just talk about the choice that they are making and everything else. It's completely their choice to opt-out. But they do earn a zero on the assignment. A zero they should be proud of.”

The professor says many students suspect something is up. Before the end of class, he goes over his standard rationale with everyone.

“This is public administration, not public policy,” Johnston explains to students. “Regardless of what the policy is, it's our obligation as public servants to execute fairly, efficiently and with respect to the people that we are serving. I believe that we have done all those things today. And so this is really a lesson in how do you administer policies you might or might not agree with.”

Johnston says students hate that response. Some have even acted on it. One demanded Johnston be fired. Another threatened to ruin his career on social media. Others filed complaints with his school director or dean who were aware of the experiment beforehand.

But students had an out.

Johnston allows students to drop the grade for one assignment each semester. They can also get 100 percent on the assignment by paying $25 to be used for a class project later in the semester. The first year, Johnston says about one-third of the students opted to pay the $25. That grew to about two-thirds of the class the following year and most students this year. He says this option highlights how some people can easily pay money to solve issues with government while others, who have no money, can not. 

“It's incredibly expensive to be poor,” notes Johnston. “And there are many, many articles about that in terms of how difficult it is to navigate our judicial system, for instance, or the basic necessities of life when you don't have the money that you can quickly just say ‘that's inconvenient, here is $25. I don't need to worry about that anymore.’”

The following week is when the first intention of the experiment is revealed. The topic is politics and each one of the made-up class rules is tied directly to policies or practices that are taking place in the United States. In addition to voter ID and pay gaps, policies around the drug testing of welfare recipients, targeted tax breaks, border security, and the prohibitive costs of bail are tied to the class experiment. As a result, the students now treat these topics as issues of consequence in their lives instead of hypothetical thought exercises that only impact other people.

Tied to the experiment is one of the hardest concepts Dr. Johnston teaches. He uses a quote by the author Upton Sinclare: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” The quote highlights the difficulty of changing the system when those with the power to make the change are advantaged by the way things are.

So, Johnston designed a semester-long lesson on structural advantage, only students didn't learn about it until the very end. On the last day of the fall 2014 semester, he informed students he had inflated their grades all semester long.

“I asked them did you think the class was graded too hard, and no one raises their hand,” recalls Johnston. “‘Did you think the class was graded just right?’ And a third of them raise their hands. ‘And do you think the class was graded too easy?’ And two-thirds of the class raised her hand. And I said ‘because of that, that is why it is so difficult to change systems that advantage anyone.’ Two-thirds of the class realized there was something wrong with the grading but it worked out in their favor so why even fight it.”

Surprisingly, two students did approach Johnston after that lesson and ask him to lower their final grade for the class. One student suggested a “C” instead of an “A.” They settled on a “B.”

Empowering Students

As much as students learn about the complexities of carrying out public policy, Johnston wants them to come away with something more. Much more. He wants them to feel empowered.

Over the course of the semester, Johnston has 15 different learning modules that cover such topics as organizational theory, public sector leadership and behavioral economics. Besides lectures and class discussions, he has students learn about the topics through information and links to articles located on each of the assignment pages on the class wiki. Many of the learning modules feature short videos from YouTube or TED Talks that reinforce the topic.

One module on public budgeting features a link to an online budget simulator from the New York Times. Users are asked to find $7 million in savings for the cash-strapped city of Wilmington, North Carolina. Students are required to try their hand at solving the budget crisis and post the results and their reasoning behind their decisions on their wiki pages.

Beth Suchocki opted to save money by only making needed road repairs, and partially financing other capital projects. She chose not to close a fire station to save money. And she spent money on new police officers, new police cars, a fire truck and a 2.5 percent pay raise for employees who had gone without the past couple of years. To help pay for it, Suchocki borrowed money from a reserve fund and raised property taxes.


Students in PAF 300 used an online budget tool to help solve a fiscal crisis facing Wilmington, North Carolina.

“No one likes taxes raised,” Suchocki pointed out in her assignment posted to her wiki page. “That was the only way I could balance my budget. Borrowing the money was also hard, but I really wanted to get a new fire truck and keep the station open. So, I had to borrow the money.”

Suchocki and other students appreciate that the class gets students to think critically. They also like class discussions that give them the chance to learn from other student experiences. One discussion on structural discrimination left some students in tears but created a level of understanding that wasn’t there before.   

The conversation focused on the distrust of police by minority communities following the shootings and other actions by white officers against black victims nationwide.

“We were talking about racial tensions in the class and it was just the best class I've ever been in at ASU,” says Suchocki.

That’s because the conversation included an emotional back and forth between a criminal justice major who is a member of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Posse and a public policy major who immigrated with her family from Somalia. Her family lives in a predominantly minority community with a heavy police presence. She expressed the real fear they face about being stopped by police. Another student, a petite Latina, talked about being pulled over and detained by police without any plausible explanation besides her race.

A photo taken after class featuring two students who lead a discussion on race.

A photo taken after class featuring two students who led a discussion on race.

“It’s only an hour and it probably could've kept going in class,” recalls Samantha Whitman. “Some of us were just like ‘do we have to leave?’ Because we wanted to keep the conversation going.”

Some students did just that, meeting after class to continue the conversation.

“You could see that it was the first time that other people got exposed to a person that had to live that experience but that did not fit the stereotypes that they had in their mind,” adds Johnston.

Johnston says the level of discussions in PAF 300 shows just how much the millennial generation cares about what’s going on in their community.  

“There is an inaccurate assumption that the current generation of college students are too dependent on technology or too dependent on social media and they don't care,” observes Johnston. “And I find that to be exactly the opposite.”

That’s because he’s seen it. Remember the experiment on grades where certain students were treated differently? Where those in the back row had to submit the assignment three days before the rest of the class did? And where male students received 77 percent of the grade earned by female students? Any of the affected students could have used their free pass to avoid the assignment and the consequences. Or they could have paid $25 to get 100 percent. But three male students chose to do neither. They accepted a grade that was 77 percent of what female students got.

Johnston told the class that if they wanted to come up with a solution to solve the grading disparities, he would be willing to listen. Some volunteered to give the students points from their assignment, but Johnston wouldn’t have it. He told them they had to come together with a collective solution that involved the whole class, not just a few students.

So, Whitman and others brainstormed on how they could help their aggrieved classmates. They came up with a social media campaign titled “Stand4Three” to call attention to their injustice and created a peitition drive calling for action. Their petition drive netted 110 signatures, well short of their goal of 200. But their efforts were enough to convince Johnston to restore the student’s grades.

Images from a Twitter campaign and petition call attention to the unfair grading of a PAF 300 assignment.

“What matters to me is giving them the sense that they are not powerless,” says Johnston. “That when you pay attention to people, when you listen to what they care about, and when you give them pathways to do something about it, they flourish. But most of the time people are not paying attention to what they are going through or what they care about.”

When approached with ideas, Johnston tells students he may not have all the answers to their questions, but steers them to other professors who may.

“He stands up there and tells us we can do anything that we put our minds to and we can achieve greatness,” says Auburn Dush, a senior majoring in exercise and wellness. “It just has to be started with a thought.”

Dush had just such a thought.

She was concerned about freshmen who drop out of college for emotional, economic or cultural reasons. Dush grew up near a small town on the Navajo reservation. She earned a scholarship to ASU, but living and studying in a major metropolitan city was a culture shock.

“And I brought my thought to professor Johnston and he said ‘it's a great idea, here's who you can talk to about this,’” says Dush. “And it was amazing how he just facilitated this environment of growing ideas and innovation.”

Johnston connected Dush with researchers in the ASU Obesity Solutions group. She came up with the concept for “The Freshmen Wellness Initiative.” It’s a team made up of students majoring in exercise and wellness or kinesiology. They would research risk factors behind students dropping out of school with the goal of using results to create personal health plans. The plans would help improve student wellness and self-empowerment, thereby reducing the chance of freshmen withdrawing from college.

“I think helping freshman with their health in that transition is something that I'm really passionate about,” says Dush. “And that's why I started this organization. I got the idea from this class.”


Pitch Day

Toward the end of the semester, the class begins learning about participatory budgeting, where the public gets input on how to spend the budgets of their communities. Students are then asked for their input on how to spend the money raised when students pledged $25 to opt-out of the experiment. Johnston suggests students take a serious look at something called a Kiva loan. Kiva is a nonprofit that provides zero-interest small business loans to impoverished individuals around the world.

In 2015, students had a total of $2,700 to spend. Those who had opted-out of the earlier assignment by paying $25 each had raised $1,375. Johnston put in $275 of his own money after telling students he would throw in $20 for every additional $100 they raised. Another $1,050 paid back from Kiva loans made by previous PAF 300 classes was also available to spend. Johnston insists this money be reinvested in more Kiva loans.

The assignment requires students to recommend funding a specific Kiva loan or propose a nonprofit where the money should go. Recommendations are posted on a dedicated class wiki page. Then, students are invited to make a formal pitch in front of the class about why their selection should be funded. More than a dozen students sign up to speak to their classmates.

One student asks them to fund a group of ASU students participating in the annual no shave November fundraiser called “Movember.” Another plays an audio clip from a local radio show that delivers hundreds of dollars worth of gifts and gift cards to individual kids who otherwise would have few Christmas gifts.

Many students selected causes they have personally been affected by, so there is a palpable degree of emotion in some of the presentations.

One student talks about her brother’s struggles with bipolar disorder and depression and how it caused him to temporarily drop out of college. Students see photos of the two projected on the classroom screen. As she wipes away tears, she asks her classmates to support the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance which funds local support groups.

Another student talks about his uncle, who by all accounts was a respected and successful cardiologist. The student tells classmates that his uncle was so unhappy and so stressed out from his job that he committed suicide. He asks his fellow students to donate to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Camp Kesem is a weeklong summer camp for kids who have a parent with cancer. One student talks about the important role the camp played as she struggled with her mother’s cancer. Now that she is in a position to give back, she coordinates a Camp Kesem program through ASU and asks her classmates to sponsor a child at the cost of $500.

Images of Easton, a nine-year-old boy with Cerebral Palsy who is sedated and confined to a crib in a Ukrainian orphanage are later put on the screen. One of the students brought her friend who is trying to adopt him. They talk about the impact adoption could have on his life and the amount of money needed to pay adoption costs. The woman previously adopted another “angel boy” from the same Ukrainian orphanage and has seen remarkable progress in his health and well-being since he arrived nine months ago. They ask the class for a donation to Reece’s Rainbow Down Syndrome Adoption Grant Foundation.

A classmate has her friend talk about the help needed in adopting a special needs orphan from Ukraine.

When the presentations are done, students are asked to vote for where they would like their money to go. In addition to nine different nonprofits, students can also select from four people nominated for Kiva loans. Students line up along the right side of the lecture hall and wait their turn to mark their vote on a large whiteboard.

After students return to their seats, Johnston and his graduate teaching assistant tally the votes and turn around the whiteboard for students to see. Some students share hugs. Others well up with tears.

“I was balling, I admit,” admits Whitman. “We were all just so touched by everybody. And Dr. Johnston, he was choked up. He was very touched by it, just like the rest of us.”

Camp Kesem received the most votes and received $500 in funding, while Reece’s Rainbow received $350 to aide with Easton’s adoption, an amount that was matched by an anonymous donor. The class sent $350 to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and $150 to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The JohnJay and Rich Christmas List received $100 as will two local nonprofits, Valley Neighbors and Justa Center.

The class helped four individuals seeking Kiva loans. Samira, a Lebanese mother, needed money for an urgent cancer-related surgery. An Egyptian immigrant named Hekuran, who lives in Albania, needed drywall and painting supplies for his construction business. Saidu, a corn farmer in Nigeria, needed food and clothes until his next crop was ready to sell. Students also funded Diego, an Argentinian immigrant who drives a big rig in New Jersey. He needed money to repair his truck. With the help of the class, all four had their loan requests fully funded. Already, all have made progress paying back their loans. The last four PAF 300 classes have now donated over $8,000 in total.

Samira, Hekuran, Saidu and Diego each received funding from Erik Johnston’s PAF 300 class.

The exercise is one of the highlights of the class for students. And the lesson isn’t lost on them.

“This just took it up to a level of personal involvement,” says Whitman. “I’ve never had another class hit me as hard. I can’t compare to any other. We’re not just there to get a credit. We actually learned something about people, about how we can all come together and solve problems.”

Whitman was so taken by what she learned that she is now volunteering with ASU’s Health Informatics Lab and Policy Informatics lab. She’s also planning to earn a master’s degree in health informatics or public health. She credits the class and professor Johnston for helping her discover what she really wants to do with her degree.

“When you pay attention to people, when you listen to what they care about, and when you give them pathways to do something about it, they flourish,” says Johnston. “And now they have a set of tools and a perspective that make it possible to actually make a difference.”

Johnston says he still hears from former students who took the class in previous semesters. They usually email him around pitch day, ask him how the current class is going and thank him for the experience.