For many students, following this year’s presidential election is a hobby. For others, it’s also homework.
As John Kerry and George W. Bush face off in what expects to be one of the closest presidential elections in the country’s history, several professors are using the campaign to teach students some real-life lessons in American politics. The race is intensifying interest in many political science courses among a student body known for its high political awareness.
“It changes the terms of discussion,” said Sean Aday, assistant professor of media and public affairs. “Students are more likely to be paying attention or more likely to actually be working for a political campaign in an election year, and during a presidential election the tensions are higher.”
The professor, who teaches a course called “Campaigns and Elections,” said he regularly uses examples plucked from the news cycle in the classroom. Students in the class use events from the Bush and Kerry campaigns to fuel discussions about strategy, voter habits and the media’s role in elections.
“Every class is pretty much about what happened since the last class,” Aday said. “We’re constantly applying theories we’re reading about to what’s gone on in the past 48 hours or the last five days.”
Interest in the course, which is generally taught only during a national election, has swelled in response to the high stakes of this year’s race, Aday said. The class was expanded to accommodate high demand, and Aday said he still found himself signing in several students at the beginning of the semester.
Aday’s course is just one of many classes at GW that concentrate on the campaign process. Steven Keller, a political communications professor, teaches two classes called “Political Debate” and “Campaign Advertising.” Though the courses are taught year-round, Keller said the election season brings more excitement to the classroom.
“It differs in the sense that much more of the class time is spent talking about current developments,” Keller said. “That has an immediacy that you wouldn’t have in a non-campaign semester.”
This fall, Keller said he used the three televised Bush-Kerry debates to teach students in his debate class about the art of political rhetoric, while the advertising course has largely focused on the political ads currently being run. Last week, students presented storyboard projects on what type of ads the candidates should have run in the final weekend of the campaign.
While Aday’s and Keller’s courses focus specifically on political campaigns, other more general politics courses take on a new twist in the height of the campaign season. Lee Sigelman, a political science professor who teaches an introductory course on American politics, said he tries to mold his classes around what’s going on in the current campaign.
“Even though a lot of this is material I go over every semester regardless of whether or not there’s a campaign going on, we do so much more intensely in an election year,” Sigelman said. “There’s simply more to talk about.”
Taking advantage of the moment, Sigelman added two guest lectures to his syllabus that focus exclusively on campaigns and takes time in the first part of every class to discuss with students the latest election news.
The professor, who has taught at several universities, said student interest in the campaign is far higher here than at other campuses he has been affiliated with. Sigelman’s sentiment is seconded by a Kaplan/Newsweek college guide that dubbed GW the “hottest school for political junkies.”
“The sort of interest one finds at GW is much more the sort of in-the-system political interest,” Sigelman said. “For many students, electoral politics is politics.”
Students echoed their professors’ observations, saying they feel an added sense of tension in the classroom. Andrew Rose, a junior in Aday’s campaign class, said if a student was not already paying attention to the race, taking a class on the subject leaves no room for apathy.
“Class discussions are very involved, and if you don’t read the paper you’re kind of behind,” Rose said. “It definitely sparks your interest in the campaign.”
Rachel Zell, a sophomore majoring in political science, said her politically themed classes enable her to view the election on a whole new level.
“I probably follow it from a more scholastic point of view, instead of just kind of watching it on CNN,” Zell said. “It gives you more of an objective angle on the campaign.”
In addition to higher awareness and more timely discussions, professors said they also notice their students’ political loyalties hardening. Keller, who teaches the debate and advertising courses, said it is much harder to find a middle ground during a race as tight as this one.
“My guess is there are more arguments in the classroom, and there’s a greater sense of partisanship,” Keller said. “If anything, it’s harder to look at an ad objectively in a political season because people are so involved.”