‘Election 2020’ course explores presidential election in real time
Ryan Peters | Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Political science professors David Campbell and Geoffrey Layman drive the same kind of car, live on the same street, co-authored a book and share a love of teasing each other.
So when they teamed up for the second time to teach a course covering the current presidential election, they made sure to use their “comedic” relationship to enhance the unique atmosphere of their course.
“Because we’re friends and have known each other for a long time, I think that makes the dynamic more fun for the students,” Layman said. “It certainly makes it more comfortable for us.”
Their course, “Election 2020,” examines the 2020 presidential election as it unfolds. Campbell and Layman teach the course by framing the election in a historical context and teaching the students how to understand the electoral process through the lens of a political scientist, instead of that of a partisan.
And because the course covers content in real time, the professors also incorporate current events into the curriculum.
“[We] go deep into the campaign as it happens. Which is, for us as professors, really teaching on a wire without a net,” Campbell said. “An event happens, we don’t necessarily know what that’s going to mean for the campaign, but we want to bring it to the students and talk about it.”
Campbell and Layman first taught the course during the 2016 election. They were pleased with how the course went that year and received constructive feedback; however, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges for the course’s second go-around.
Due to the large class size of almost 150 students, it now takes place in the 840-seat Leighton Concert Hall in order to provide enough seating with adequate spacing.
“[Leighton Concert Hall] doesn’t lend itself very well to having a discussion about the events of the campaign, so … we’ve added a number of voluntary discussion sessions through Zoom,” Layman said.
Instead of having essays written by individuals, the students team up to write group essays. Ahead of the most recent group essay about the Electoral College, Layman and Campbell debated each other in front of the class.
“We just had a group essay about the Electoral College, and so professor Layman and professor Campbell did a debate in class where each of them took a side,” Izzy Grassel, a sophomore political science major, said. “That was actually really interesting to watch just because there’s a lot of debate about if the Electoral College should stay or go.”
The class typically consists of each professor lecturing once a week. Occasionally, one of the professors will lecture twice in a row if he is more of a specialist in the subject matter, but the course is structured so Layman and Campbell have the same number of lectures throughout the semester.
Also included in the course are several days dedicated to discussing current events surrounding the election.
“I would say there are maybe four or five days over the course of the semester that are actually on the syllabus as just days when we’ll talk about what’s going on,” Layman said.
One of these days addresses the upcoming presidential debate and will allow students to express their thoughts.
“We’ll have a whole class just debriefing about the first debate and allowing students to chime in about what they thought and if it will matter,” Layman said. “We’ll set that up by the class before the first debate being all about presidential debates, how they’ve gone in the past, how they worked and what political scientists know about whether they matter.”
Grassel said she enrolled in the course to further her interest in politics and become more informed ahead of the first election in which she will be eligible to vote.
“The 2016 election really got me into politics in general just because it was an extremely different election. It was one of the first elections I actually paid attention to and it was an interesting situation, especially with the winner of the Electoral College losing the popular vote,” she said. “Also, this is the first election I’ll be voting in and so I just found the whole situation to be super interesting.”
The 2020 election has given Grassel a much more complete understanding of components of the electoral process, ranging from Joe Biden’s nomination for his vice presidential candidate to comparing the two national conventions.
“I definitely get a better view of both sides of the spectrum,” she said.
For Campbell, his goal for the class is to draw students from all areas of study to explore their interest in political science and help them get a better understanding of current events from the perspective of two political scientists.
“We’re hoping that this is a class that lots of students can take, and maybe not even political science majors, but students who maybe have an interest in politics but wouldn’t necessarily major in political science,” he said.
Campbell hopes that the class will become a staple in the political science department come the fall of every presidential election.
“We would like to think of this class as a signature class for the political science department. It’ll be offered every four years, always in the fall of the presidential election year, and we intend to keep it big,” Campbell said. “We want as many students as possible to take this class.”