Class gets first-time voters engaged

University Park, Pa. — With every presidential election comes a new class of college freshmen, many of whom will be voting for the first time. With that in mind, every four years Michael Berkman, professor of political science at Penn State, offers a first-year seminar, a general requirement for freshman students, focusing on the election.

His goal is to acclimate young voters to the electoral process, get them engaged in voting and help them understand the meaning and importance behind that year's election.

"I hope they are learning to think about elections systematically," says Berkman, who is teaching the Schreyer Honors College class to 18 students this fall. "I believe they are learning to think about the election in a larger context … And I also want them to take a critical perspective to the meaning and outcomes of elections."

That big-picture view of elections creates discussions among the class about generational changes in voting behavior, what the election means in terms of problems such as the current financial crisis and understanding what does and doesn't change as the result of an election.

To get his students engaged, Berkman gets them to observe, analyze and take part in the electoral process. After all students in the class were registered to vote, they then learned from members of Represent, a non-partisan student group that encourages voting, how to register voters themselves.

During Constitution Day events in September, the class sponsored two "Writers' Blocks," three-dimensional figures placed around campus that pose questions on constitutional issues. Class members took shifts registering voters near the Writers' Blocks.

They also write about their observations of the electoral process — including visits to political rallies and campaign headquarters — as well as how ideas discussed in the classroom emerge in news stories covering the campaigns.

"Up until the election I let the class be driven by current events as much as I can," Berkman said. "Writing assignments that are frequently required include taking something from The New York Times and applying it to what we've been reading and talking about. After the election we will pick up the thread of when do elections matter, what do we expect to see, that kind of thing."

He has found the students to be passionate in their discussions, but very interested in the deeper issues that impact voting. He explained that the class has been particularly taken with "The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation Is Shaping American Politics," a book that examines how different generations consider citizenship.

"You have a younger generation with an attitude of engagement and involvement — a broadly defined citizenship that may not actually require you to go vote. That's as opposed to an orientation of civic duty where voting, enlisting and those kinds of things are seen as important. It has had a lot of resonance for them — for themselves and in viewing the campaigns and candidates, the themes that Barack Obama and John McCain talk about."

The seminar draws some students who intend to major in political science, but it does not dwell on the minutiae of campaign and election law, Berkman said. It engenders some fierce discussion, but it rises above partisan bickering, he added. Along the way, the class fulfills the first-year seminar goals of orienting students to University academic life as Berkman helps students improve their writing and become familiar with other academic areas and resources.

"I think the class is very engaged," he said. "I have some students here who want to know what's going on but really don't and others who are really into the campaign and generally very partisan one way or another. We have a very lively group.

"The course is not designed for political science majors. It stands by itself and addresses a variety of questions about elections…. This is about different ways of thinking about the significance of elections, where elections matter, aspects that go into voting decisions and the particulars of this campaign. We try to gear it around getting students engaged."

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Last Updated November 18, 2010