Politics meets academia: elections used in lecture


Adria Watson

Candidates Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump dropped into an LMC class via the techniques of Photoshop.

The 2016 presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has been one of the most contentious in recent U.S. history and there has been a lot of debate — by both Democrats and Republicans — about how the country got to this point, but can the situation serve as a teaching tool for college professors to enlighten students, some of whom may eventually lead this country. Some Los Medanos College instructors say yes, others say no.
“We are constantly talking about it,” said political science instructor Milton Clarke. “I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t get into it.”
Although he said he talks about the election process in his classes already, Clarke opts to move the unit to the beginning of the semester during a presidential election year. Clarke said he focuses on the Electoral College by getting out a map and has his students guess which candidate will most likely win each state. He also has students use their own experiences and knowledge — if they’ve have been to a particular state or have family living in them — to help with these predictions.
But he said the most interesting part of using this election in the classroom is discussing the debates and who won, because most students say neither is a winner. By this point in the game, most people’s minds are usually made up — but that isn’t the case this time around.
“This has definitely, by far, been the weirdest” presidential election said Clarke. He acknowledged that in 2012 when President Barack Obama was first elected was different because of racial components, but he said he has never seen so many students repelled by the process than in this election.
Political Science Colleague Dave Zimny, also uses the election in his classes because he said there is always a new set of issues with new candidates and it keeps “all this interesting.”
Although he doesn’t show the debates in class or repeat them verbatim, he does take the information relevant to what students are learning, and tries to apply the election to “just about everything we look at.”
Although, traditionally, you may think of courses in government as the most obvious to use the election didactically, instructors in other disciplines have found it helpful as well.
“I talk about it all the time,” said English instructor Michael Yeong, who teaches critical thinking.
Students do not like watching the debates, he said, so he uses clips from “The Daily Show’s” Trevor Noah and “Late Night’s” Stephen Colbert to cover topics of the current presidential race because funny can also be educational and informative.
Yeong said he likes to start with something visual, but then follows it up with some sort of reading. For example, he has students consider comments posted below the videos he shows and then asks them what type of comment they themselves might leave. He said he wants students to analyze what they are thinking and feeling.
“I think they like it because they are always asking for [the videos],” said Yeong, but added laughingly that maybe its just they don’t want to do the actual work he has scheduled for the day.
As a critical thinking teacher, Yeong said he most wants students to be able to recognize the flaws of each candidate’s arguments. He added that the campaign is also unusual because it has brought forth the country’s problems with gender equality. Yeong said Hillary Clinton receives a harsh backlash for some comments, while Donald Trump often gets a pass for statements that are “horrendous.”
Although some instructors use the election as current examples of important course concepts, not all of those who do go into as much depth on the subject.
English instructor Alex Sterling, who also teaches a critical thinking course, said he has not incorporated the election “in a major way.” He did, however, instruct his students to go to the website Politifact.com to view the validity of statements the candidates have each made, because when you fact check policies, he said, you can also see examples of logical fallacies, which are a part of his curriculum.
“We couldn’t always get online and fact check so quickly,” said Sterling, adding that while all politicians commit fallacies, Donald Trump is pretty unique in the fact that he is “undeniably worse” than any other candidates he has seen since he started voting in the 1980s.
He said candidates mostly use two type of fallacies — ad hominem, which is when you attack someone’s character, and strawman, which oversimplifies a complicated idea or position and criticizes it based on that oversimplification.
Cherry picking facts is common for politicians, explained Sterling, “because they are trying to win votes” and make the other candidate look bad. He called it political mudslinging, and said these types arguments are sloppy and have logical fallacies.
Speech and mass communications instructor Star Steers said she uses elections in two different ways, depending on the course she is teaching. In her public speaking class, Steers said students are focusing on the third presidential debate for their midterm and will be required to pay attention to the content of the speeches and evidence used to support their statements as well as their delivery method.
Melania Trump’s plagiarism debacle at the Republican National Convention, in which she used parts of a speech Michelle Obama had given at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, served as a prime example for Steers’ students on why note-taking and citation is important.
“It can be both mortifying and can seriously damage your credibility as a speaker,” Steers explained.
Although she is not teaching mass communication this semester, Steers said during election years the focus would be on the role of advertising in the campaigns and the amount of money spent by each party’s nominee. This campaign season, she noted, has been “unique” because Donald Trump has not had to use traditional methods of fundraising due to the constant media coverage he receives.
“He hasn’t had to spend a lot of money,” said Steers.
Courses in some disciplines without such a tight connection to politics can also use the election as a catch study.
“I used election poll results today in class to discuss sample proportions/percentages and margin of error to build the idea of a confidence interval,” said math instructor Jill P. Destefano. “An election year is a great time to show an example of statistics at use in the world that most students/people can connect with.”
But Math instructor Rick Estrada, who also teaches statistics, has skipped integrating the election this fall and explained that while talking about elections can be useful, students should understand that polls are always important — not just during elections.
So, instead, Estrada covers how polls do and should work in general — how to select a sample for a poll, when to give the results, margin of error and confidence intervals. He also includes poor ways to sample for polling, like going after what is convenient, such as voluntary response.
Other instructors have made a conscious decision to keep the election and its issues out of the classroom.
Economics instructor Shalini Lugani said she doesn’t use the current election as a teaching tool in her classes because she regularly covers topics like income inequality, taxes and the need for a healthy middle class already.
Lugani added that subjects like economics, political science and critical thinking correlate with each other and most social issues are already “woven into the fabric” of these general education courses, which focus on gaining knowledge and developing the skills to think critically about these subjects. She said, hopefully, students will be able to use what they have learned to make their own informed decisions backed by research and facts.
Sociology instructor Alex Sample shares a similar view.
“I don’t talk about elections in my class because we look at society as a whole and not the attributes of candidates,” Sample explained.
But already including the material wasn’t the only reason instructors might steer clear of politics in the classroom.
“Many are deliberately avoiding talking about it,” said Lugani, because they do not want to appear biased to their students. She posed the question: Would you want the professors up in front of your class telling you their opinions and trying to influence you?”
Even those who use the elections as instructional material said they, too, try to keep the information in their courses as impartial as possible.
Steers said the only type of individual political or social leaning her students study in class is theirs.
“We talk about personal bias,” explained Steers, adding that those in her classes analyze their own psychological noise while watching a debate. Otherwise, she said, the elections are used purely for their content and how they operate.
While he gives an unbiased view of the information and both sides when he teaches the subject of elections to his classes, Zimny said, to be fair to his students, he tells them he is a democrat and will be voting for Hillary come November.
Despite the current impact this election is having on the country, what might be most interesting is what happens when it ends.
The incivility of the candidates has been a major issue for voters, and Clarke explained he doesn’t know if it can just dissipate after everything is over, although. He added, “I hope it does.”
Zimny, on the other hand, said this isn’t the first time an election has gotten nasty — it was the norm. Only starting in the early 1900s, began the idea of running a clean and civil campaign the new standard. Politics began returning to the rough and tumble campaigns in the 1960s — which have progressively gotten worse ever since.
“This election is the worst I have ever seen,” he said of the elections in his lifetime.
But perhaps the most important thing about this long year of campaigning is what the students will take away from it.
Clarke said “previous elections have indicated strange things can happen,” and students should pay attention to several issues as the results unfold — like, the electoral college tally, what supporters for each candidate say and do in these final days and the aftermath — because “at some point we are going to be held accountable for the events of today.”