Teaching Political Communication on Campus
Beyond its conversation events and programming, the Stubblefield Institute’s mission extends to being a catalyst for introducing the topic of civil political communication across the Shepherd University campus. While the ongoing pandemic has frustrated in-person interaction, the institute was able to connect with several academic departments and assist with the planning and launching of several new programs in its first year of operation, with the hope of more to come.
Dr. Stephanie Slocum-Schaffer recalls that the entire Political Science Department at Shepherd University was invited to the early conversations with the Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communications (see previous article on page 4) about how to engage with students on the topic of political communication. “I was designated as the liaison from my department and was pretty jazzed about the mission. We also realized we needed to bring in faculty from the Communications department to partner with on the curriculum development, which is how Dr. Matthew Kushin got involved.” She explained that from that collaboration, the new Concentration in Political Communication was developed and added to the curriculum this year and the Minor in Political Communication is working its way through the process to be included next year.
Dr. Slocum-Schaffer estimates that typically half of the Political Science majors are intending to continue to law school and another quarter will continue to graduate work in public policy or public affairs. For students interested in specific aspects of politics, she noted there is a lot of flexibility in the degree, including the ability to take electives in other departments. For the new Concentration (and Minor), “we’ve used a lot of existing courses, but organizing it helps give the students a specific focus.” `
A Degree For Our Time
David Welch, director of the Stubblefield Institute, offered his perspective on the new Concentration: “Political Science is not typically considered an applied degree, and most of what is taught in the core curriculum is not career specific. What we saw is that political communication has become a well-defined career. Political communication has become a lot more sophisticated and a great deal of strategy goes into planning campaigns, not just for electing candidates, but for promoting causes and influencing legislation and policy. Being a media director for public affairs is about influencing and changing public opinion. Marketing a policy idea is different from marketing a product.”
Welch noted that there are very few undergraduate programs specifically in political communication. Dr. Slocum-Shaffer confirmed that observation and noted that the “access to practicing professionals from the Washington DC area that we can bring into the classroom allows students to learn directly from people who are actually doing this work. We’re also planning to connect our students with internship opportunities to expand the practical experience too.”
Around the Campus
Dr. Slocum-Shaffer noted that she sees a lot of students outside of the department in the introductory course on American Federal Government. She also noted her concern that many of these students have not had any civics education in high school and many will even say that “they hate politics, it turns me off.” She noted that the students in her class often have a very different perspective and understanding after the semester. This observation that some basic familiarity with the political process can unlock engagement is the driver behind the Stubblefield Institute’s Listen, Learn, Engage Initiative, aimed at students across the campus.
As a specific example of the initiative, Welch described a collaboration between the institute and faculty in the Nursing, Education and Social Work disciplines. Funded by a CARES Act grant, the institute worked with students to plan elements that can be introduced into the curriculum “to support leadership-oriented classes, to help these students understand civic engagement. Particularly in the world shaped by the pandemic, our students who will be teachers, nurses and social workers will need skills related to policy to do their jobs. We want them to have a greater sense of how public policy will influence the work they want to do.” Wench noted that this type of program could benefit students in other majors as well, such as teachers “who will be asked to join a union, deal with ongoing public health issues, and might even be asked to strike.”
Dr. Slocum-Shaffer has observed that “politics for many students is a dirty word. And yet, the current polarization in politics seems to have encouraged young people to become more engaged. Whether it’s love or hate for a particular candidate or issue, they do seem more interested in the political process. I see students who want to bring about change, but don’t know how to make it happen.” With the Stubblefield Institute and the new programs in the Political Science Department, Shepherd University is providing students with the tools to support that desire to engage.By Staff Contributor