Breaking through Media Rhetoric: ECSU’s Democracy at Work Considers the 2016 Election

Presidential Election, Democracy at Work, Eastern Connecticut State University

The 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign has drawn attention not only from all corners of the country, but also from across the globe as campaign rhetoric continues to influence media. And while the election season has brought many a prickle of frustration, amusement, or elation, even the most casual observer could tell the hype surrounding the 2016 election has been massive, unique, and inescapable.

At Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU), professors noticed the hype and its effect on students, and wanted to do something to demystify what has been a very public spectacle playing out across all viable media for the better part of a year. Rather than fight the media deluge as the crucial moment approached, the university considered the situation carefully and decided to organize Democracy at Work, an engaging series of events and lectures open to students and the community as a means of helping people hone their critical thinking skills and find ways to make sense of the situation.

One of the ECSU professors who opened the doors to her lecture was Dr. Elizabeth Cowles of the Biology Department. Dr. Cowles presented on the overarching theme of scientific distrust throughout the election and the positions each of the four candidates have on issues of a scientific nature, including vaccinations and public health. These are high profile subjects due to mounting concern about autism and the ZIKA virus. Environmental issues like climate change, the fresh water supply, and ocean health were discussed at length with an emphasis on scientific fact and its importance to legislation.

Dr. Cowles provided insight into her role as an educator in the series: “In my view, education is key. I give the science behind each topic and provide people with the facts, and then review what the candidates’ views are. So I’m not going to come out on one side or the other, I just say, ‘This is what they said and why you should be concerned with these topics.’ I emphasize why science matters to the general public, and why you should be informed.”

More important than the campaign platforms though, is getting students to realize there is more to the candidates’ speeches than initially might meet the ear.  Of high value to the participating professors is the opportunity for students to become self-informed. Dr. Cowles felt that “students really got something out of [the event], realizing their voices do matter, and that in order to be an informed voter you really need to step back and do some reading and some thinking and not just listening. The rhetoric [of the election] has been confusing for many voters.”

Dr. Nicole Krassas, faculty member of the Political Science department at ECSU, was part of three presentations during the week of Democracy at Work.  When asked about the idea behind the event, the professor replied, “Essentially, this was a very unusual election, and because it’s so unusual, the university president, faculty, and the political science department decided we needed to do something to give students tools to better evaluate what is going on.” The basic model for the event was based on three motivations: 1) to enable students to gather and assess the perspectives of those who regularly provide press coverage of the election, 2) to demonstrate faculty expertise in “open classrooms,” where any member of the university or public could attend, and 3) to create opportunity for other means of “intellectualizing the election” through events like an open house and voter registration drive, as well as poetry reading and historical trivia on the lawn.

Dr. Krassas observed that students’ feelings about politics and the election season tended to go in one of two directions: some “felt constant about a candidate one way or the other,” while others have been “uniformly perplexed and unsure what to make of it.” Of the latter half, the professor noticed they’re “not quite sure how to sort through what they’re seeing on social media and the news media” all at once. Democracy at Work made strides to help students sort through snowballing media influence, so that they could understand their own opinions before accepting those of others.

Interactions with students and observations like those of Dr. Krassas and Dr. Cowles make the function of Democracy at Work clear, as the event provided an opportunity not only for professors to work closely with students but to engage individual minds. By providing challenging and complex material that encouraged students to think critically and consider freedom of speech, professors were able to exercise their own academic freedom and contribute to community education via tenured positions.  Without these liberties, the professors wouldn’t have been able to hold such an event. The effect of Democracy at Work has been far-reaching, making a substantial contribution to the community by educating voters across the board.

“The feedback we’ve gotten has been good, attendance was good,” Dr. Krassas reported. “Close to 200 people, almost all [of our] students, came to the opening event… As for attendance, we had around twice the number of people in the audience as were registered in the class. Other [classes] were three or four times [the usual number].”

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Democracy at Work was held on ECSU’s campus, kicking off on September 29 with a panel discussion with national experts, and continued with open classes and events running from October 4 – 7. A political Fine Arts exhibition ran for the entire month leading up to the election, October 4 – November 2.

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