Students turn towards the classroom to learn about the US Election

Brian Schaffner, professor of civic studies, is pictured. via Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life

As many of us watched the first presidential debate on Tuesday, the closeness to the election became clear — we are only a short month away from election day.

In an ode to election season, classes in various disciplines are being held this semester on the topic of the election. Students are given the opportunity to apply their education directly to what is happening in the U.S. government and in the media.

Jack Waisel, a senior and political science student, is teaching the Experimental College course Presidential Campaigns. When creating this course, he pulled from current events. 

“I actually built [the course] during the summer, and during COVID, and shortly after the murder of George Floyd. So a lot of it really focused on COVID and racial injustice and systemic racism,” Waisel said. “It’s a lot more about the current election and the stakes, and about all of those issues surrounding this year.”

His course is also studying the systems that exist in the government. 

“I’ve tried to have a lot of focus on how the structure of American government and American elections has got us to where we are today, such as the electoral college,” Waisel said. 

Waisel explained how concerns around the presidential election system are affecting his course. 

“Perhaps more broadly just how the structure of American politics and government has put us into the situation that we’re in today, and how … it has brought us to this point where for perhaps the third time in 20 years, we’re going to have someone win the presidency without winning a plurality or majority of the popular vote,” Waisel said. 

More than just studying it, Waisel wants to discuss political reform with his students.

“I want them to take that away and say, ‘Wow, we have a system that might be pretty unjust, and so how do we go about fixing that?’” said Waisel. 

Like many Experimental College courses, Presidential Campaigns is an exploration course for first-years and is very hands-on in terms of discussion and participation. Last week, his students presented critiques on political advertisements, focusing on their messaging and effectiveness.

“I think a lot of them are good enough to be [advertisement] makers,” Waisel said. “It was pretty entertaining.” 

By diving deep into the topic of campaigns, Waisel hopes his students can get more out of understanding the election.

“I want the students to, and myself too, cause I’m learning a lot in class as well, to really understand how we got here. This is just a crazy moment in really anyone’s lifetime,” Waisel said. “[If you] understand how we got here, maybe you can help us either prevent situations like this or change the way we do things.” 

In the political science department, Professor Brian Schaffner is teaching Seminar in American Politics: Polling the 2020 Elections.

Through the lens of political polling, students are analyzing the 2020 election. It is a project-based course, where students create their own research study on voter behavior. More specifically, the class focuses on predicting the factors that bring different groups of people out to vote, according to Schaffner. Right now, they’re learning the fundamentals of survey design.

“I spend the first month or two of the class basically teaching the students how to write good survey questions [and] how to analyze survey data,” Schaffner said. “Then they come up with research projects that they want to pursue with survey data, and then they design survey questions.”

Students’ research questions can span a variety of subjects. 

“In 2018, [students] did all sorts of different projects. Some people were looking at how different people voted differently depending on the race or sex of candidates. Some people looked at support for changing the constitution,” Schaffner said.

When this class was taught during the 2018 elections, many students had the opportunity to write about their projects for a blog at Data for Progress, a progressive think tank. This year, students will do write-ups on their data for the election website of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civil Life, according to Schaffner.

Schaffner commented on how the uncertainty in this election is affecting his students. 

“This past weekend, a lot of students were talking about how they’re feeling, [being] upset and worried about Ginsburg’s passing and what that would mean. You can definitely feel the emotions,” Schaffner said. “Even on the first day of class, students had lots and lots of questions about who’s going to win. ‘How sure are you that that person is going to win?’” 

Current political polls are in favor of former Vice President Joe Biden’s winning. However, we are still five weeks out from the election.

Since 2012, Eitan Hersh, professor of political science and civic studies, has taught courses on U.S. elections at Yale University and now at Tufts. 

Hersh’s course is primarily based on election laws and political campaigns in the United States. Some topics covered in the course are the U.S. constitution, public policy, redistricting and voting rights. 

In addition to learning about the structures of an election, Hersh finds ways to bring in examples from today’s political climate. 

“We are learning about the rules of party nomination, like primaries. As people learn about the analysis that political scientists [make], it shows whether it’s better to nominate a very extreme candidate like very liberal, or very conservative, or is it better to bring someone more moderate?” Hersh said. “If you bring up a question like that, people bring up the race of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.” 

Hersh finds that students this year are reacting differently to the upcoming election compared to past semesters. 

“The students this year are not particularly engaged in the election, most of them are not volunteering, for example. I don’t think that many of my students are enthusiastic about Joe Biden,” Hersh said.

Hersh’s students are pretty divided in terms of predicting the presidential election outcome. 

“I actually just surveyed the class today. Three-quarters of them say Biden is going to win, one-quarter says Trump is going to win,” Hersh said. 

Hersh believes his course to be helpful in better understanding the 2020 election. 

“In order to understand how voters are behaving and what politicians are doing, you have to understand the rules that they are playing by,” Hersh said. 

This election season brings up many stresses. However, taking a course on it may just be a way for students to relieve some of that stress. 

“Sometimes when you are anxious about something, or something bothers you, one, way of dealing with is actually just [to] study it. It helps you feel like you have a little more control over the outcome, and just because you can understand it better,” Schaffner said.


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