Sara Rowell found herself in the position of a lifetime. A sophomore and a self-described political junkie, Rowell was sitting on the dais a few feet away from Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry during his September swing through Cincinnati. At one point, he was so close she could have touched him.
“It was nice, sort of surreal,” she says. “I was at the Kerry rally to observe, and they were looking for people to fill the risers. They asked me if I wanted to sit up there, and I said, ‘Of course.’ ”
This was education in action. Rowell’s part of a new honors course created just for this year’s presidential race. With Ohio being one of the most-watched battleground states, the course offered her and her classmates unprecedented access to the candidates and their campaigns—educational opportunities that can’t be found in a book.
The two-part course—mass media and politics and constructing the public—was created by professors John Fairfield and Gene Beaupré specifically for the 18 students in the new honors program, Philosophy, Politics and the Public. The first part, in the fall semester, examined the campaigns. The second part, in the spring, examines how politicians legislate.
The PPP program, developed in 2003 and modeled after similar ones at Yale and Oxford, stands apart because of its inclusion of “the public” as a separate discipline. This year, it didn’t take long for Beaupré and Fairfield to realize they had a perfect teaching opportunity. With its prime location in Ohio during the high-stakes presidential election, the University was perched on a wealth of information and activity—from research and polling to mass media frenzies and grassroots speechifying.
“Ohio was the epicenter of the 2004 presidential race,” Beaupré says. “No state received as much attention as Ohio. Our first formal PPP class hit during the presidential election. What an opportunity. You couldn’t pick up a paper and not have stuff to talk to your students about.”
Halfway into the fall semester, the students were using the presidential campaign to understand what it takes to get elected, how to identify voters, what to communicate to them and how.
In addition to voluminous reading assignments, the students volunteered for either candidate’s local campaign to learn each one’s message and how it’s relayed to potential voters. They handed out buttons and flyers during Cincinnati Reds games. They made phone calls to likely voters, keyed in polling data and attended rallies. In short, they did it all.
And they not only did it in Cincinnati, they fanned out statewide to learn how the campaign messages differ in different parts of the state. They spent election night Nov. 2 at WVXU radio helping report election results on the air to the radio audience. The overall goal is to teach them how to participate in public debate by having them experience how a person gets elected in America, Beaupré says. As they studied the campaigns—following the media, volunteering, attending rallies, gathering data and reading deeply about politics—they developed their own campaign plans with a studied message and a method for whom to reach and how to reach them.
During one class in September, the students were shown pictures of the candidates in various poses—Kerry on his motorcycle, George W. Bush as a rancher, Kerry with Lincoln, and the class’ favorite, Bush’s profile against the famous faces of Mt. Rushmore. The discussion was about the messages and at what point do they slip from reality into fiction. It primed the students for the visual ads they would create as part of their campaign plans.
“You can’t understand and do legislative politics without understanding campaign politics,” Beaupré says. “You have to understand how people got to that power.”
Fairfield brings a historical context to the study of American politics and public policy. He doesn’t just ask why decisions are made but asks what other possibilities were considered and discarded. He says he wants his students to believe that politics does matter and they can change things for the better. The experience is tailor-made for Rowell, who expects to go to law school. “I want to make a difference in our government and how it works,” she says.