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W&L First-Year Seminar Focuses on the Presidential Campaign

When Washington and Lee University politics professor Robert Strong decided to create a first-year seminar based on the presidential election of 2008, he figured that the topic would be a draw.

He was right.

More than 60 members of W&L’s entering class applied for the class, which is limited to only 15 students and is one of five first-year seminars being offered this fall. They are part of a program that began three years ago. The first-year seminars introduce students to a field of study through in-depth examination of a special topic, issue or problem.

“Clearly there is a lot of interest among the students in this presidential election,” Strong said. “That gives you real leverage in the classroom. You can achieve sustained engagement with the subject. And when you assign the students to come in the evenings to watch a movie or to watch the presidential debates, you are assured not only good attendance but also good discussion.”

There is, however, a catch.

Strong and his students could spend every minute of every class period solely on the morning’s headlines — the previous day’s polling, the endless commentary of television’s talking heads.

And yet that’s not the focus of Strong’s class. Instead of looking at yesterday or even today, Strong wants his students to explore previous campaigns in order to get a better understanding of the process in which Americans engage every four years.

So it was that one early Thursday morning, Strong tried his best to steer the students away from stories of the moment — in this case, both the unfolding economic crisis and a new poll that showed Florida becoming blue.

For 25 minutes, the discussion touched on what might happen in the event of an electoral tie, to what a community organizer actually does, to what the next night’s first debate might hold.

“We haven’t even gotten close to the topic yet,” Strong said, finally moving the students from the freewheeling conversation back to the day’s text — Howard Fineman’s “The Thirteen American Arguments.”

The class spent the rest of the period comparing historic issues that Fineman raises from campaigns past — everything from the role of religious faith to the importance of Supreme Court justices in a campaign.

One by one, the class explored some of the 13 arguments that Fineman argues are central to every political debate and tried to determine whether these arguments are really in play during the current election cycle.

“I would be less inclined to teach a course on the election as it’s unfolding if it were not a first-year seminar,” Strong says. “Our goal is not so much to figure out what’s going to happen in November as it is to show that there is context to the election, that what is happening now is based on what happened before.

“For instance, most of these students have heard of Karl Rove, the political consultant. But they are not familiar with earlier consultants who paved the way for Rove — Pat Caddell, for instance, or Lee Atwater. This will be the first election in which most of the students in this class will be eligible to vote, so understanding the context can be very useful.”

That’s just what Tyler Grant of Suwanee, Ga., says the course has done. He was initially surprised that the class was not a daily debate but finds that the readings have made the current campaign easier for him to understand. “We are building context on which to interpret the election,” he says.

Grant intends to major in politics. He confesses to being disappointed by some of the things that he has seen in the campaign, but adds that “I feel as though I’m being compelled and challenged by this seminar and Professor Strong to do something about it and make it better.”

Austin Hix, another member of the class and self-professed political junkie, found unexpected benefits. “The insight from the past presidential elections that we study has been incredibly valuable when we look at the current election,” says Hix, who came to W&L from Lafayette, La. “ And when we do talk about the current events, the diverse opinions of our class always challenge my view.”

When the first presidential debate was held, the class members also served as a quasi focus group for WVTF, the Roanoke-based public radio station. Reporter Fred Echols watched the debate with the students and then gathered their opinions after the event.

Interestingly, when asked by Echols whether any of the students had changed his or her mind based on the debate, none had — and that turned out to be the consensus of experts in the days following the debate.

On the eve of the election next month, the class will gather to watch “Recount,” the HBO movie about the 2000 election, and will then view the returns together the following night. The students will continue their education as they watch the electoral map on the screen in Huntley Hall turn blue or red.