Poli-sci professors note benefits, challenges from non-traditional campaign

'This actually has been a benefit to students'

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In presidential election years past, political elites could sway the selection of their party’s candidate. Nominees used implicit language to address sensitive issues like race. And one speech slip-up could foil a candidate’s bid.

This presidential campaign season has deviated from all sorts of norms. And that has translated to aberrations in political science classrooms across Iowa, college faculty said.

But some educators say they welcome the challenge as they’ve encouraged critical thinking, raised interesting questions about shifts in American culture and democracy and sparked lively classroom debate.

“It’s created a lot more discussion in the classroom about why certain things that we talk about don’t necessarily fit with the current events,” said Hans Hassell, an assistant professor of politics at Cornell College in Mount Vernon.

One of the main goals across higher education is to teach students critical thinking — not just information retention and regurgitation, Hassell said.

“This actually has been a benefit to students because it encourages them not to just take whatever they are reading on face value,” Hassell said.

Twists and turns in this campaign have honed professor skills and theories as well, he said.

“There are components where the outcomes that we’ve seen out of the primaries are very different and distinct from what would expect based on political science theory,” Hassell said. “And that’s good. I think it forces academics to reconsider some of the explanations that we’ve had.”

This year’s campaign rhetoric has presented new ground for political science professors trying to mask personal political leanings. Hassell and others said they’ve managed by focusing on political processes and asking equal questions of each candidate.

“I try to keep as neutral as possible,” said Angela Jean Caulk, a graduate research assistant at Iowa State University who is teaching an honors course this semester about the 2016 presidential election. “I try to tell them I don’t have a horse in this race.”

Students have plenty of thoughts they’re not afraid to share, Caulk said.

“But they are respectful,” she said. “One person covers one side. The other person covers the other side. And they both have refrained from personal attacks.”

Cary Covington, who has taught political science at the University of Iowa since 1982, said this year — like in years past — he focuses on process. He’s also tapped his knowledge about each party’s ideology to present candidates in a light their parties would deem fair and accurate.

“Liberals would agree that captures our way of thinking, and conservatives would be able to make the same statement,” Covington said.

Some political science professors go full-disclosure and let students know where they stand. But Covington said he wants students to evaluate the science of politics and identify and explain patterns of behavior.

“I consider myself a success in the classroom if, at the end of the semester, students come up and ask, ‘So what are you? A Democrat or Republican?’” he said.

At the University of Northern Iowa, associate political science professor Chris Larimer said he too wants to hide his political cards and has been digging into techniques to make sure he comes off unbiased — like grounding everything in research.

“You always talk about and present both candidates and the sides of both candidates,” Larimer said, adding he’s found the biggest challenge this year to be getting students to maintain a big-picture perspective.

“I think that’s more difficult this year because the events are more unusual.”

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