Teaching the election

December 27, 2000

Nick Marinello

Talk about your teachable moments. Most members of the faculty will tell you that those elusive instances in a classroom in which a teacher can substantively connect with his or her students are priceless. But what if the circumstances of an entire society shift to create a colossal interval rife with educational opportunity?

Thanks to George Bush, Al Gore and an equally divided electorate, that is just what happened last month, and many members of the faculty were happy to take advantage of it. "Our class had very much been following the presidential campaign," says John Patton, professor of communication, who is teaching Political Communication this fall.

Patton, whose fields of expertise include political rhetoric, says class discussions building up to the Nov. 7 election covered topics such as political language, media advertising, speechwriting and even the candidates body language. When it became apparent on Nov. 8 that the elections outcome would not be immediately evident, Patton used Tulane's Course Info system to post a question to his students.

He invited them to suppose that the election resulted in Gore winning the popular vote and Bush taking the electoral vote. "I asked them, 'what rhetorical strategy would they advise Gore: statesmanship and concession or an active challenge of the ballot?'"

In the next class, which occurred two days after the election, students measured theoretical issues of political credibility and competency against real-life events such as the effect of Sen. Hillary Clinton on the hierarchy of the Democratic Party. Patton also asked students to speculate on how long the story would remain in the forefront of the American consciousness.

"Was this a model of the mass media setting the agenda or was public interest driving this?" he queried his students. "Will the public get fed up?" Patton further fed the students excitement and interest in the breaking political story through setting up links to the presidential debate commission Web site, as well as other politically oriented sites.

The ups, downs and otherwise surreal events spinning out of the supremely narrow margin separating the two presidential candidates also stimulated an engaged enthusiasm among the students in Ron King's American Politics course. Before the election, King, an associate professor of political science, had students employ conventional political science wisdom to forecast the outcome in the electoral college.

Students, said King, considered such tried-and-true principles as Duvergers Law, which postulates that in a two-party plurality election, the candidates on the fringe of the political spectrum tend to draw votes from their friends and elect their worst enemy. (Ask Gore campaign officials about the impact of Ralph Nader's candidacy.)

Through King's analytical approach, students learned to see beyond coverage by the news media. "News people don't know what they are saying because they have not taken Political Science I," said King. "Reporters report the news; we teach them the olds," he adds, suggesting that historical voting patterns of the electorate are a more effective tool for political prognosis than day-by-day reports of happenings on the campaign trail.

While stripping away the glitz and glamour of political campaigns may initially stir a degree of cynicism in his students, King believes it ultimately makes them happy connoisseurs of the political process. "I teach them that elections are not free-for-alls but rather, regulated and organized affairs that stipulate who can vote, when they can vote, what constitutes a legitimate ballot, who certifies the elections. Students love watching the effects of these rules on the results."

Art students also were buzzing with political discussion. Those in Ronna Harris' abstract painting class received an informal briefing from King on the fallout from the previous night's election results. Harris, an associate professor of art who often engages her students in discussion of current issues and events, had placed a call to King to gain background information on the elections. "The class happened to be in her office when I returned the call," said King. "So I explained what was going on."

The students in Doug Rose's Elections in America course had a decidedly out-of-classroom experience with the election. Rose, an associate professor of political science, had talked a great deal about presidential elections to his students as part of their preparation to conduct exit polling on Nov. 7. While the poll focused on political corruption, students had a broad array of questions for their teacher on the next day.

"They were full of questions about Palm Beach County," said Rose. "They were thinking about possible screwups in the electoral process. Students were also naturally interested in the flawed exit poll conducted in Florida that led to the state being initially called for Gore. Students were more interested in these elections," said Rose. "This has galvanized people's interest in a positive way."

David Gelfand, professor of law, found that his students excitement had them asking questions that strayed from the typical topics embraced in his First Amendment Freedom class and his seminar on Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. "I didn't mind talking about it," said Gelfand, who had already planned to teach election-related cases that focused on financial contributions to campaigns, spending limits for political parties, soft money and other topics that are often in the news during election years.

"Turns out the election was even more exciting," said Gelfand, who has an active interest in the Florida electoral process. In 1992 Gelfand was court-appointed independent expert witness who prepared the reapportionment plan used for U.S. congressional districts in Florida and later served as special master in a case that resulted in the districting of the County Commission for Dade County.

Gelfand used his familiarity with Florida's election law to talk to students about the controversial butterfly ballot and other relevant legal issues. During the heady days after the election, Gelfand and Rose also began a lively political conversation that resulted in the idea to organize a presentation "Stolen Elections and Voting Controversies: From the 19th Century to Nov. 7, 2000." The event, which featured Gelfand, Rose and King as well as history professor Larry Powell, took place on campus on Nov. 16.

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