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Innovative Course Allows Students to Make Educated Decisions at Polls

By Keeley Peters

Janette Muir, a professor at George Mason University, teaches an enthusiastic group of New Century College students about the ins and outs of political campaigning. She strives to educate her students about pressing election issues and encourages them to educate others by reaching out to undecided voters in the area.

“I came into this class with absolutely no knowledge what-so-ever about the 2008 campaign,” said Sara Hardy, a senior at George Mason from Springfield, Va. Like many others in the class, Hardy claimed, “All I knew was that Obama was the Democratic nominee and McCain was the Republican nominee.”

Students in the political campaign class eagerly await the election on Nov. 4. So far, classes have included discussions regarding primaries, the national conventions and the debates. Muir encourages students to voice their opinions whenever a major event takes place within the campaign.

She even provides a blog space on the Internet as a forum for open discussion.
“I posted on the blog when the Democratic and Republican candidates were announced, after both candidates gave speeches at the conventions and after the first presidential debate on Friday (Sept. 26),” Hardy said.

The blog space on blogger.com has become a medium for constructive criticism, venting and somewhere to post links to articles written on a daily basis about the major party candidates. The class is also informed of major happenings within the campaign with continual updates made by Professor Muir.

Together, each class group must collectively log 60 Experiential Learning hours, which encourages extensive learning outside of the classroom.

“As for learning outside of the classroom, I would like to see healthy, rich conversation on the blog,” Muir said. “I would like to see students engaging new ideas and their reactions to what is happening.

Too often, when given an assignment like blogging weekly or whatever, students resent doing it. I want the blog to be a communication space outside of lecturing.”

In addition, students have taken the initiative to reach out into the community to encourage people to vote and provide information about the candidates.

“The most interesting aspect(s) of the campaign in this particular election is the fact that we have minorities represented, and the role that media has been playing throughout the whole thing,” Muir said.

Muir hopes that her students will be able to persuade others to educate themselves about party issues, the candidates and the various representations of both presented by the media.

Self-selected class groups have participated in activities that encourage this, including DebateWatch, both high school and elementary level information sharing sessions, the distribution of candidate information on campus and student taped interviews.

While group work is definitely a major aspect of Muir’s class, individual research projects are also required; much of which is inspired by the course text.

Students chose topics for individual research regarding almost every aspect of the campaign: the effects of media on the campaign, the effects of debates on the respective candidates, the effects of personal decisions on a candidate’s campaign and even the presidential image.

After the research is done and the individual papers are constructed, the students participate in a panel-style symposium. Students with similar topics will participate in discussions together.

“The symposium structure models what we do in conferences. We bring in papers that we construct and present them in a thematic panel,” Muir said. “Having an individual presentation for 25 papers gets boring. By presenting in a symposium setting, everyone works together and no one has to repeat something that has already been presented.”

A unique aspect of the course allows students to use unconventional sources for their research like Youtube, “Saturday Night Live” episodes and print resources.

Students observe multiple media sources in class regarding campaigning. Recently, Muir asked students to select a political ad, state the purpose of the ad and determine whether or not it was effective.

“Most of the ads were either meant to bash the opposition or give information for the candidate’s platform, which is helpful in making a decision about who to vote for,” said Diana McGeough, an early education major from Chantilly.

“But sometimes, to more uneducated or less informed voters, these ads could contribute to the downfall of a candidate. It all depends on how much you care and how much time you actually spend trying to find out the truth about the issues.”

Learning how to find out about the issues is perhaps the sole purpose of the class. Muir makes sure that her students are aware of all of the available resources in order to do thorough research both inside of and outside of class.

“I read the (Washington) Post every morning, listen to NPR every day and I read several different blogs,” said Muir. “I also find my colleagues who study political campaigning, like me, to be a great source of information.”

As a result of the constant in-class discussion, it appears that Muir’s students have learned a great deal more than they originally knew.

“The Political Campaign class is helping me as a citizen become more informed on how the political system works,” Hardy said. “Through the class discussions, research and group work I have found this class to be one of the most enlightening classes I have ever been in.”

“It has definitely opened my eyes and understanding about the issues that are consuming our nation,” she said.

Muir said of her students, “They have definitely gained a new sense of awareness in campaigning.”

From: UPI

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