Last week, in the wake of the violence at the Tree of Life, I wondered if we were doing enough to engage our students in difficult conversations. One of the challenges faculty face when trying to do so is that a large number of undergraduates feel alienated from politics. Who can blame them? In a world that favors sound bites over discussion and agonistic tones over evidence, it is hard to feel called to participate. When every “fact” turns out to be at the very least a shaded truth, and sometimes just false, political engagement can seem futile.
I understand the alienation, but to leave it unaddressed would be a failing on the part of education. We can’t just reveal problems: we must also reveal pathways to solutions. At WCSU, one such pathway to engagement, and perhaps solutions, is a fall course called Election Connection.
For almost a decade, Dr. JC Barone of our Communication and Media Arts department has been running a television production course focused on local and national elections. Election Connection invites students to conversations about politics in a really interesting way. Instead of starting with the issues, the students start with the logistics of producing a quality television show. Some are tasked with promotional duties, others with casting, and others focus on the local angle of important political issues. It is wildly popular, with robust enrollments, that include students from multiple disciplines.
The brilliance of this approach is threefold:
- First, we live in a part of Connecticut that gets very little media coverage, so there is a true need for this show. This need gives it a level of importance that producing for the campus alone would not generate. Our students run to campaign headquarters to watch the returns. Candidates welcome their presence, and have been known to call in to report results.
- Second, the casting of the election night broadcast always includes anchors and guests from multiple political perspectives to insure robust dialogue among people who work and study together. This tends to create some tension, as appropriate, without leading to incivility. It is also important that the casting blends faculty and student panelists, tearing down some of the barriers that can emerge in the classroom, as students sometimes fear contradicting faculty. In service to the show, all participants are equal.
- Third, the production team must produce news packages on important political issues. Students who may not have had any real interest in politics or political processes, suddenly become engaged because they want their story to air.
It all works because, rather than telling students they should be engaged, the are busy pursuing excellence in studio production. It is the kind of hands-on learning that benefits students by developing tools as media producers and gaining knowledge of the subject at hand. Dr. Barone sets ground rules that promote inclusive dialogue, diversity of perspectives, and civility. Students rise to the challenge, no longer avoiding tough topics, but digging in for a better understanding of the challenges to consensus.
Today, I salute this innovative approach to teaching. Election Connection truly supports the goals we have for our students, both excellence in media production and a rich understanding of the cultural context for that work.