Professors pull 2016 election, politics into the classroom
Emily McConville | Friday, September 2, 2016
Political Science 30101: Election 2016 requires readings on some of the constants in American politics, like the history of the elections and the Electoral College.
The months ahead — the presidential debates, statements by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and the election itself — will determine the rest.
“We have lots of holes in the syllabus where it’s to-be-determined what we’ll be reading and doing,” political science department chair David Campbell said, who is teaching the course with professor Geoffrey Layman. “We left it open. Students just have to stay tuned, and as we come across things people have written about events that unfold, we’ll assign them and talk about them.”
The 2016 race for the presidency is “truly is unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” Campbell said. Trump, who has no political experience and does not conform with GOP orthodoxy, and Clinton, who in Bernie Sanders faced a challenger farther to the left than anyone expected, are challenging conventional wisdom both in national discourse and in academia.
Campbell said one theory that has “not survived very well” is the idea of invisible primaries, when candidates win nominations by winning the support of their party establishment. Trump, he said, secured the nomination despite strong Republican opposition, prompting scholars of American politics to reevaluate what they know.
“You could say that theory worked perfectly on the Democratic side; the establishment was behind Hillary,” Campbell said. “We know that they were working behind the scenes from the Debbie Wasserman-Schultz stuff, the emails — we know she definitely had the party officials on her side. It in no way shape or form describes the Republican race. There’s a case where a real-world outcome has shed light on this debate.”
The Election 2016 course is about these kinds of debates, asking which factors led to the current political landscape and discussing what might happen next — not about partisan arguments, Campbell said.
“The nature of the class is not to debate the merit of the candidates,” he said. “It’s to understand what’s happening in the election. The partisanship of the professors and the students is frankly not relevant in the class.”
Junior Jack Kill, a political science major who is taking the Election 2016 course, said the race comes up in discussions in several of his classes.
“You can’t help but think about different strands of liberal thought and conservative thought and go, ‘How do these candidates match up with that and how do they not match up with that?’” he said.
Not only political science courses examine the election. Susan Ohmer, associate professor of film and television, has taught “Media and Presidential Elections” every four years since 2000, analyzing television coverage of election events and how the press portrays candidates.
“They construct our image of the candidates and of ourselves as voters so that’s very important to be attentive to,” Ohmer said.
A large component of Ohmer’s classes is historical context. One of her specialties is United States cinema in the 1930s and ’40s, including films about fictional and real-life presidents, and she said her studies in that area got her interested in comparing past and present elections. She does not believe the 2016 presidential race is unprecedented — Andrew Jackson’s campaigns in the 1820s, for example, illustrate a successful political “outsider.”
“There’s a precedent for almost anything,” she said.
Ohmer said her students, mostly film, television and theatre majors, bring a sophisticated understanding of how media works and an increasing understanding of the importance of social media in elections.
“Our students are very hyper-aware of media as a construction, as a series of choices, as an artistic environment that sets up certain situations, certain dramas, certain narratives, so they’re very shrewd in assessing how media functions, and that’s increased over time,” she said.