Political Communication Class Immerses Students in 2012 Presidential Campaign

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Attending college in a political swing state made things very interesting for Mason students this fall as both presidential candidates held rallies on campus. For a select group of students enrolled in the 2012 Presidential Campaign class, a New Century College Learning Community special topics course, the election offered not only front row seats with a political insider, but also a kind of living textbook for the course.

Leading the class is New Century College professor Janette Muir, an expert in political communication and civic engagement. She has studied and written about the media and the presidency, covering everything from political campaigns to first ladies. In fact, first ladies and candidates’ spouses and families were a recent class topic, and Muir was scheduled to talk to a Brazilian television station on the same topic later that same week.

Mason professor Janette Muir (third from left) toured the Newseum’s Every Four Years exhibit with students from her Presidential Campaign class. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Muir’s goal for the course was to help students understand and explore the role communication plays in understanding the American political campaign process.

“I like to encourage people to think more about the political process,” says Muir, who is also associate provost for undergraduate education at Mason and a former C-SPAN Fellow. “I hope that no matter what level of political interest the students came in with, even if they were just casual observers, that this class has helped deepen their understanding of how the media shapes what we see.”

Over the years, Muir, along with Mason colleague Lisa Gring-Pemble, has taken Mason students to New Hampshire for the primary in a course she created titled On the Campaign Trail. Once there, students served as participant-observers in the process and as researchers collecting data. They then wrote and blogged about their experiences and perceptions.

Students from Mason professor Janette Muir’s 2012 Presidential Campaign class take notes at the Newseum’s Every Four Years exhibit. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

With the number of campaign events taking place in Virginia and on campus this fall, the 25 students in NCLC 475 were also able to serve as participant-observers because it was easy to become immersed in the campaign politics of a swing state. At the start of each class, Muir and the students would discuss and analyze what had occurred the week prior whether that involved a campus visit from President Barack Obama or a presidential debate.

A key part of these discussions was how the event was reported in the media. After the last presidential debate, the class compared the front pages of the Washington Post with those of the Washington Times, and how the papers and the networks handled the debate coverage, including declaring a winner, and whether the students agreed with the reports.

“Visuals can say far more than what we are hearing,” Muir reminded the class as they picked apart the coverage.

Early in the semester, the class met at the Newseum to take in the Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the Press exhibit. Because the class has group research projects that must include information or a comparison to a historical campaign, this was a good resource to get the research started.

For their projects, the groups are working on a variety of campaign topics, including the use of humor, negative advertising, women and politics, and third-party candidates.

“We’ve discovered ‘mudslinging’ is considered an American tradition even though it happens all over the world,” reported one of the students in the negative advertising project group. “Our research has shown that it has been around about 212 years.”

Class discussions are nonpartisan and astute. In fact, students in Muir’s class knew quite a bit about the third-party candidates running in the election—and where their campaign events were being held—more than many of average voters did.

“I thought [the class] looked interesting,” says Mason integrative studies major Craig Bisacre. “I heard great things about Dr. Muir and thought it would be interesting to talk to a professor about the election during the campaign.”

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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