Making American Government a social experience by Mark Shanahan

Getting young people to engage in the political process appears to be a problem all across western democracies. Politics and politicians seem remote from the young and the gap between the Baby Boomers and Generation X figures holding the reins of power and the Millennials now making their way through university appears ever wider.

This year, I’m convening a second year undergraduate module introducing the system, processes and key themes of American Government to a group of 71 Politics and International Relations students – with a sprinkling of historians, and language students. This could be particularly dry: there are any number of books and learned papers on the theory and practice of politics in the US of A and this could easily become just another module where students stand on the shoulders of scholarly giants regurgitating the same arguments that have held sway for decades.

Luckily my predecessor had already opened the door to some new methods of teaching – her lectures featured plenty of small snippets from US TV, while the seminars have been set up to be highly interactive and built around core themes in the American psyche – issues such as gun control, religion and the media. That works for me since it’s the world I’ve come from (the media, that is – not so much the other two…). I’m a late entrant to the world of HE teaching, having spent more than two decades in journalism and, latterly, corporate communications. In my working world, it has been my practice to seek out my subjects and talk to them – not to read about them in academic literature. I’ve tried to bring a little of this into the lecture theatre and seminar room.

The American system of government, from local, through State to national level, and then focused on the triumvirate of the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary is complex and could be quite daunting. So my focus has been to bring it to life by focusing on interesting people and ‘live’ events. We spent a session looking at Cory Booker’s recent Senatorial election, focusing on how he – a rising star of the Democrats – engaged with the media throughout his campaign. It raised questions around the role of broadcast media; the cost of getting elected and the interest groups that largely met that cost. But towards the end of the Autumn term we stepped up that engagement in the political process in action by engaging – albeit vicariously – in a race for a Congressional seat in Massachusetts.

For one seminar, I split my groups of 18 or so students into two teams – Republican and Democrat. I gave each a sheet with a few details of Massachusetts District 5 where there was a special election brought about by the sitting Representative winning a seat in the Senate that had been vacated by John Kerry when he was appointed Secretary of State. Each sheet had the bare social media details of the competing candidates – their Facebook page; Twitter and You Tube links plus the email address of their campaign headquarters. The goal for our teams was to find out about and build a profile of their respective candidates: Katherine Clark for the Democrats and Frank Addivinola for the Republicans; to find out what were the burning issues for Mass District 5 and to formulate questions that young voters in the District would want answers to. Nothing particularly new at this stage. But then I asked my students to use their social communication tools to engage directly with the campaign: to follow the candidates on Twitter; to like their Facebook page and to start posing some of the questions raised in class themselves.

The real breakthrough – the real eureka moment that directly connected the students to what American elections are all about – came when Frank Addivinola tweeted back in the middle of the seminar. The twitter feed was up on screen so everyone saw it. It was immediately galvanising, adding new energy to the session. Suddenly this wasn’t about books and theory. Instead, the students were communicating directly with a real politician in a real race that really mattered.

Over the subsequent four weeks up to the special election, we’ve kept up with the race and have had sporadic feedback from the candidates. We’ve learned that they will comment on postings to their Facebook pages and will answer individual questions raised in Tweets. Despite promises to the contrary, neither candidate responded to the batch of questions collated by the seminar groups that we emailed to their campaign HQs. We’ve learned that the race was one-sided from the start and even to win the equivalent of a UK MP’s seat in, effectively, a one-horse contest, the winning candidate, Katherine Clark, had to raise and invest over $1 million. We’ve learned, by following and engaging with a couple of Boston political journalists,that the race garnered little conventional media interest, but that both candidates were active in social media, often bypassing the traditional outlets to get their points of view out to a demographic largely engaging with the process online.

The fact that my students, digital natives all, and for whom my life events such as the end of the Cold War, are just history, are growing up in an age where social communication is the norm, made it easy to engage them in the political process using social tools.

It has been a learning experience for me too. I had no idea if the candidates would take any notice of a group of students who were thousands of miles away and wouldn’t be voting in the election. But social media brings immediacy to communication and shrinks distances rapidly. I certainly plan to use it more in future modules dealing with contemporary issues. 140-character messages are a powerful means to engage.

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