Creating an Environment for Student Engagement and Web Writing: The “We Just Want Stephen Colbert to Come to Our College” Super PAC
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 In the fall of 2012, I plunged my students — and myself — into the world of web writing centered around a campus-based, self-protesting Super PAC (Political Action Committee). The public writing that resulted reflected my growing interest in changing technologies (by which I mean “ways of doing things”) in both the political world and the classroom. The three fall classes and their student web pages were: Political Science 100: Introduction to Politics; Political Science 348: Parties and Elections; and Political Science 303: Law, Courts and Judges. Other pages on the parent website for “We Just Want Stephen Colbert To Come To Our College SuperPAC” also feature student content. 1
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 7 This was the first time I had used public web-writing activities in a class. As a political science professor, I have always assigned a lot of scholarly writing in my classes (as we may all now do with writing-across-the-curriculum firmly ingrained in liberal arts institutions). But it seemed increasingly important to bring newer technologies and social media into my classes as they have become key aspects of the political process and election campaigns in areas such as fund-raising, voter outreach, and the contentious field of independent expenditures. In addition, familiarity with communications technology is now something that ought to be included in a political science curriculum as our graduates aspire to careers in politics, advocacy, and journalism—all fields where being tech-savvy is expected.
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Background: We Just Want Stephen Colbert To Come To Our College SuperPAC
In March of 2012, political satirist Stephen Colbert offered his viewers, and especially college students, an opportunity to purchase his “Super Fun Pack” in order to start to their own SuperPACs. They could then join in with Colbert’s “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” in what became a campus-based protest of SuperPACs, the money raising organizations that had developed largely as a result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. (SuperPACs are organizations registered with the Federal Election Commission [FEC] that can raise unlimited amounts of money and make unlimited political expenditures as long as those expenditures are made independently of any candidate or party.) The kit contained, among other items both useful and questionable, instructions on how to file forms with the FEC.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Having filed the requisite papers for organizing a SuperPAC with the FEC, I quickly learned that the media were keeping track of newly registered PACs. The day after we were approved, Politico, recognizing the ambiguity in our SuperPAC’s name, opined that we might be “the most honest Super Pac ever.” 2 The Huffington Post and the New York Observer’s Politicker also noted the filing and made inquiries. I issued a press release, continuing to maintain an ambiguous stance toward Colbert the best I could. Colbert, for example, had promoted his Fun Pack with a treasure hunt for a silver turtle, whose finder would win a visit from Colbert to the campus of her choice. The press release noted my own small collection of silver turtles and the SuperPAC motto: “Treasure None but Your Vote.” 3
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 We continued to play off this ambiguity and it seemed to work, my college president recognizing it as “political satire on political satire.” In a way, Colbert’s irreverent approach to political icons inspired our playful stance toward him. The Colbert Report, for example, occasionally features a “Better Know a District” segment where a Congressional guest becomes the focus of Colbert’s pointed humor. As a foil to Colbert’s faux interviews with the representatives’ constituents, we instituted “Better Way to Know a District” and held more than two dozen voter registration events throughout Maryland’s Fifth Congressional District (whose Representative, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, is a steadfast holdout from Colbert’s “Better Know” interviews).
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 3 It was important to maintain this kind of approach to Colbert—that is, neither adulation nor condemnation—in order to foster the kind of environment I envisioned for my students, with room for a variety of viewpoints. As much as possible, I wanted the setting to encourage direct engagement with the political process and to be fun as well as interesting.
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Introducing Web Writing into My Course Design
Having decided to employ this SuperPAC as a vehicle for student learning, web-writing, and civic engagement, I engaged in a summer of preparation to do precisely that. I first thought of having the students in my classes help build a website for the SuperPAC, but inquiries to colleagues, discussions with some of the college IT staff, and my own summer experiments with various templates and Dreamweaver soon dissuaded me. I did not want mastering code for website development to substitute for learning political science in my classes, especially without being able to count on significant institutional support. (See more on my technical choices below in the section, “How-to”.)
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 5 I also did not want the web-related activities, or the civic engagement assignments, to be mere add-ons but rather to be integral parts of the courses. I reworked my course design to facilitate this, first by creating term themes for each class. For “Intro to Politics” I made “Democratic Participation” the overall theme of the course and focal point for examining the discipline of political science. I added new readings and emphasized existing course material on theories of participation and democracy, modes of participatory democracy in various countries, and explanations for rates of citizen participation. “Parties & Elections” had a course theme of “Money and Votes in 2012” and seemed a likely course for civic engagement activities as it has major sections devoted to voting and other electoral activity. Interest groups and campaign finance were also regular topics in that course so it lent itself to having the students involved in the SuperPAC’s website development. The major adjustment for “Parties and Elections” was introducing the concepts of voter turnout and GOTV (Get Out The Vote) activities earlier in the semester than usual. The challenge for integrating blog and web activities was “Law, Courts, & Judges,” a junior-level course on the judicial process. I decided to highlight, in the first few weeks of the term, two particularly significant examples of courts and politics in 2012: a contentious race for a local judgeship and the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, particularly its role in the origins of SuperPACs. These issues reinforced the theme for the course—“This is an election year; who cares about courts and judges?” (Of course, an obvious answer to the question posed is “Al Gore in 2000 certainly did,” making the point that courts do matter in electoral politics.)
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The syllabi for the three classes included writing blog posts and comments as part of the course requirements; these were ways, I announced in the syllabus, in which students could demonstrate both their knowledge of course material and their ability to communicate that knowledge effectively. One of the junior level classes (Parties & Elections) also called for the students to conduct group research projects that would contribute to the SuperPAC website. My classes continued to use more traditional mechanisms for assessing knowledge and communication skills, such as exams, papers, and class participation. I adjusted the weight of some of these other class requirements and altered or eliminated some of my typical course elements in order to make the web-writing a substantial part of the students’ grades. These changes also left “room” in the semester for civic engagement activities.
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POSC 100: Introduction to Politics
Students in this class were directed to post regular blog entries (at least 3 times a week) and to comment on other students’ blogs. In general, the posts were to reflect what they were learning in class about politics, participation, and democracy; their civic engagement projects; and current election events. I suggested some routes the students could take in devising blog topics such as raising a thought question about a reading assignment, describing a point from the reading that needed clarification, or commenting on political news. The blog posts and comments constituted 20% of a student’s final grade for the course. Students in “Introduction to Politics” also earned 15% of their final grade through civic engagement activities that consisted primarily of registering voters in the community (following mandatory training by the local Board of Elections) and taking part in GetOutThe Vote activities over the first six weeks of the semester. Eventually some of the student’s voter registration experiences made their way into the blogs, these two changes in the course reinforcing one another.
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POSC 303: Law, Courts, and Judges
For 15% of their final grade, students in this class were asked to post 2 or 3 times a week and occasionally comment on others’ blogs. I alerted them to possible ways to link judicial process concerns with the election season, including judicial elections, challenges to Voter ID laws, and the effects on the Supreme Court of possible Obama or Romney appointments. Students in this class were also given the option of developing group research projects for inclusion as pages on the SuperPAC website in lieu of individually written research papers. While this class did not have a civic engagement requirement, I offered students the opportunity to qualify as voter registrars and to submit applications to serve as Election Judges in county precincts, with a number of students taking me up on the offer.
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POSC 348: Parties and Elections
Students in this class had two web-writing requirements and a substantial civic engagement assignment (15% of their grade) as well. As part of their civic engagement responsibilities, the students trained as voter registrars and took part in off-campus voter registration events. They were also expected to serve as Election Judges, helping supervise the voting process in local precincts. Those unable or ineligible to serve as Election Judges could volunteer as precinct “greeters” for candidates or parties of their choice, drive a shuttle to transport student voters to the local polling station, help staff the SuperPAC-sponsored “Election Command Center” on campus, or observe the official canvass of provisional and absentee ballots in the weeks following the election. Blog posts and comments constituted another 15% of the grade. As in the Introduction to Politics class, many of these students used their blogs to write about their experiences registering voters, working at the polls, and taking part in other civic engagement activities. Finally, in lieu of the traditional, individually written term paper, all students in this class engaged in group research projects (worth 25% of their final grade) that resulted in webpages on the SuperPAC website, also submitting individual annotated bibliographies of the materials they used in conducting their research.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 For the group research assignment, I created placeholders on the SuperPAC’s homepage labeled with broad topics related to the Parties&Elections course and the SuperPAC’s concerns and asked the students to select from among them and to form their groups. Ultimately the students decided to create webpage content for topics that included, among others, “SuperPACs,” “Gerrymandering,” and “Voter Suppression.” 4
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There are numerous “how-to” options for getting student writing on the web. Students can create their own websites, using a free or fee web-hosting site. Students can create their own pages using Dreamweaver and upload them to a class website. As noted earlier, these are options I eliminated early on. Although I found the widely-available templates are not hard to use, many are not reliable. They are not difficult precisely because there is very little one can do with most of them—the template parameters are very confining. Moreover, I found none, other than WordPress, that offered real technical support. While it would be useful in the professional world for students to know Dreamweaver or another website development tool, the courses where I planned to employ web-writing are in political science, not website design. To minimize technical hassles, I decided that, while I—or more precisely, the SuperPAC—would have a website, students would be blogging on their own sites and not uploading content directly to the SuperPAC site.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 4 A second decision was where the SuperPAC website would be hosted. While it was true that my college probably would have provided storage space on its servers, it seemed better to go to an external host. For legal purposes, it was important to keep the SuperPAC financially separate from the college to make sure there was no entanglement that could run afoul of FEC regulations. In addition, our impact on the security of the college’s IT system would not be an issue. Finally, the SuperPAC could easily shape its independent website as it wanted. After looking at several options, I decided to go with HostGator. With a $20 per month low-level “Re-seller” account, I could accommodate separate accounts for about 1000 students, far more than I would need.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The next issue involved how students would be blogging. Again there were several options. Students could set up their own blogs, selecting one of the many platforms available for blogging, many of them free sites. The instructor can set up a blog and have student blogs appear as “categories” on the blog. I decided to use WordPress—yes, a template, but one that is clearly oriented toward blogging and is well supported through its forums.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 In order to have the student blogs identified as being associated with the class SuperPAC website projects, I first set up individual HostGator sub-domains and cPanel (administrative) accounts for each student’s site. From there it was easy to establish WordPress accounts in each sub-domain, as HostGator has a quick “one-click” installer for WordPress. I did a bit of customization, selecting one of the basic, well-tested WordPress themes and setting up the initial pages for each blog.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Overall, using WordPress worked well because my students could focus on writing on their blogs rather than learning how to use code or set up a blog account. The students did, technically, all have their own websites and were able to customize their WordPress sites fully without incurring any additional fees. This arrangement left them ample room to customize their sites to reflect personal tastes. A couple of the more enterprising students went so far as to live blog one of the presidential debates, a process that required them first to test several live blogging plug-ins and then get one up and running on their sites. 5
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 WordPress’s ease of use and great flexibility make it an extremely popular blogging tool. Its popularity with bloggers may be matched, however, by its appeal to spammers. This was a nuisance because of the volume of spam that did come in; on several occasions I found myself having to remind students to be judicious in approving comments.
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Web Writing Goes to Class
At the third meeting of each class, I gave the students individualized printed information on both their HostGator and WordPress accounts, including their WordPress passwords. We met in a computer lab on those days so that I could walk them through the process of identifying important information on the cPanels for their sub-domains, getting to their blog sites, and logging into the WordPress dashboard. I also created two short video tutorials intended to reinforce the information provided in class. For each course, I set aside a number of workshop days throughout the term where we could use the computer lab and untangle any technical problems that might have arisen during their blogging efforts. Those were also days when I talked about the nature of blogs and other forms of public web-writing and how they differ from typical academic writing assignments.
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Lessons learned: The Results of the Experiment
First, and important to note, this use of new technology in my classes reminded me that, overall, students will rise to expectations when given motivation and encouragement. This is not so different from what we see in traditional student assignments.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 6 Because I had not specified particular questions to be answered or issues to be addressed in the student blogs, the content varied considerably. A few confined themselves to reporting political news with little or no commentary but most went well beyond that minimal kind of effort. As students in the Introduction to Politics wrestled with issues such as the difference between a nation and a state and why socialism seems to be a dirty word in U.S. political discourse, I saw that they were learning the language of political science and the kinds of questions the field addresses. In some of these posts, I identified interest, even passion, that was not evident in the classroom as the students personalized the theories and abstract materials covered in their readings. Another interesting theme occurred after the Parties and Elections class was visited by three of the four candidates running for the U.S. Senate. A number of the students used their blogs to analyze the candidates’ presentations, comment on their likelihood of success in the election, or report on what the fact-checking they had done on the candidates’ claims. Many students in all three classes used their blogs to reflect on their civic engagement activities: the demographics of people they registered, what kinds of questions they were asked at the registration tables, how hard it was to muffle their political views during registration events, and the adventures they had as Election Judges.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 There was also an interesting spill-over effect from the class activities. Over the summer I had launched a Facebook page for the SuperPAC. 6 Some of the students in my fall courses started commenting on the FB page about the current election events such as poll standings and candidate statements to the press or in debates. Eventually I made interested students “content managers” so that they could post status updates directly, as the SuperPAC.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 2 Throughout the semester, the pattern of our SuperPAC-related course activities replicated the patterns found in election campaigns. For the first half or so, the students (and I) had to balance limited hours, course objectives, on-going projects, and blogging…all within the fixed constraint of election timing, including the mid-October close of voter registration, the deadline for requesting absentee ballots, and the election itself. Following the big buildup to Election Day in early November there was a sudden release of tension and the question arose, “Now what?” We all then shifted our focus from one kind of community outreach to another kind of publicness via the blogs. The nature of the blog writing thus changed after early November; in the post-election season (after most had gotten in a few good comments on the outcome of the elections), the Intro class turned to world events and their posts were more reflective over all, while in Parties and Elections, students began to use their blogs to float ideas generated by their research projects.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 For my purposes, web writing was not the focus of the courses but rather a set of tools. In that sense, the semester was highly successful. Students did write —most of them a lot—about politics. They were more involved and invested in that writing and engaged a broader range of topics and concerns than they would have in traditional, narrow-themed academic papers guided by the Chicago Manual of Style. They moved beyond minimal reflection on the outside world (accomplished by my requirement that they bring relevant news stories to class each day) to more direct engagement with the real world of politics. In addition, the comments to the blogs allowed the classes to escape the dyadic nature of most class discussions, which are more often serial exchanges between an instructor and a student than true interaction among the students.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Overall, I found the range of student performance in these web-writing activities to be similar to what I find with other class assignments and exams. Individual students generally received the same kinds of grades on exams and so on as they did for their blogs. There were a few surprises, though, where some students apparently felt more comfortable in blog writing and did much better there than they tended to do in standard exams and academic research papers.
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 3 On the civic engagement side, I saw some truly outstanding commitment by these students. Some got up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday to go register voters. Others spent 15 hours at the polls serving as Election Judges. (This duty was not without its rewards, as one student’s post clearly revealed.) 8 A pair of students ineligible to serve as election judges spent Election Day out in the cold volunteering for local candidates and greeting voters on their way into polling locations. On Election Day we provided shuttle-service to take student voters to our nearest polling place (7 miles from campus in our rural area that has minimal mass transit). We also ran an election command center where we posted election-related news such as turnout projections and tackled problems and questions on our email and telephone hot-lines, including whether campus employees had the right to time off in order to go vote. Our efforts were recognized locally: three of the students who served as Election Judges were interviewed by the local newspaper 9 and the Chief Election Judge at our local precinct sent an email the day after Election Day, noting a marked increase in the number of voters in her precinct and attributing it to our efforts.
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It is important to make sure students understand why they are being required to blog in these political science classes. One goal of the blogging assignments, as stated explicitly in the course syllabi, was to demonstrate a certain level of knowledge and to communicate that knowledge effectively. In this way, blogging supplements standard techniques like exams, papers, and contributions to class discussion. Blogging also reinforces the idea that not all class-related writing must be directed to the instructor. Writing about a reading—article, chapter, or Supreme Court opinion–in one’s own words enhances the learning process. When students use blog posts to field ideas about research projects as they are developing, the blogging helps demonstrate the iterative nature of writing.
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 4 A related point: reinforcing the goals noted above and enhancing the goal of interaction within the class seems to require sustained (not necessarily constant) involvement by the instructor. Comments to student posts should be frequent and regular. In addition, the expected “class –> blogs” relationship can be flipped to become “blogs –> class.” A thread or theme from picked up from various blog posts and comments by the students can serve as the entrée into a subsequent class or classes. This would demonstrate the importance of the blog assignment as an integral part of the course.
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 4 Finally, as in any writing assignment, consideration of the intended audience is important when students are asked to create content that will be posted on the web. The course should include discussions of writing for a public, not necessarily academic, audience and of how the medium of the web differs from text on paper.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Having seen what students are capable of and can produce in blogs and other web-writing, I plan to use these assignments again in my political science courses. These assignments might be modified, as I take lessons from the fall 2012 classes, but they are definitely on my agenda.
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- Susan Grogan, “We Just Want Stephen Colbert To Come to Our College SuperPAC,” Parent website for Political Science 100: Introduction to Politics; Political Science 348: Parties and Elections; and Political Science 303: Law, Courts and Judges, St. Mary’s College, Maryland, Fall 2012, http://wejustwantstephencolberttocometoourcollegesuperpac.org/. ↩
- Anne Palmer and Dave Levinthal, “Chesapeake playing both sides in clean air debate,” Politico, June 13, 2012, http://www.politico.com/politicoinfluence/0612/politicoinfluence282.html. ↩
- Tyler Kingkade, “St. Mary’s College Professor Starts Super PAC, Inspired By Stephen Colbert,” The Huffington Post, June 14, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/14/college-super-pac-stephen-colbert-st-marys-college-of-maryland_n_1597624.html; Colin Campbell and Hunter Walker, “Meet The Turtle-Collecting Professor Who Formed The ‘We Just Want Stephen Colbert To Come To Our College Super PAC'”, Politicker, June 14, 2012, http://politicker.com/2012/06/meet-the-turtle-collecting-professor-who-formed-the-we-just-want-stephen-colbert-to-come-to-our-college-super-pac/. ↩
- Susan Grogan, course parent website pages on SuperPACs, http://wejustwantstephencolberttocometoourcollegesuperpac.org/super_pacs.html; Gerrymandering http://wejustwantstephencolberttocometoourcollegesuperpac.org/gerrymandering.html; and Voter Suppressionhttp://wejustwantstephencolberttocometoourcollegesuperpac.org/suppression.html. ↩
- Nicole Zimmerman, “Live Blogging the Final Debate,” My commentaries for POSC 348: Parties and Elections, October 22, 2012, http://nlzimmerman.wejustwantstephencolberttocometoourcollegesuperpac.org/?p=102. ↩
- “We Just Want Stephen Colbert To Come to Our College SuperPAC,” Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/WeJustWantStephenColbertToComeToOurCollegeSuperPac. ↩
- “Gerrymandering” page, http://wejustwantstephencolberttocometoourcollegesuperpac.org/gerrymandering.html. ↩
- “What this blogger did on Election Day,” Our Favorite Circus: A Paean to the Twisted American Electoral System, December 2, 2012, http://jrholtzman.wejustwantstephencolberttocometoourcollegesuperpac.org/?p=51. ↩
- “St. Mary’s College students team up to help at county polls,” November 2, 2012, http://www.somdnews.com/article/20121102/NEWS/711029870/1044/st-mary-s-college-students-team-up-to-help-at-county-polls&template=southernMaryland; John Warton, “Plenty to note before the vote: Election judges, precinct hosts scramble toward Nov. 6,” October 19, 2012, http://www.somdnews.com/article/20121019/NEWS/710199836/1051/plenty-to-note-before-the-vote&template=southernMaryland. ↩