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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Academics & Research

Presidential debate class analyzes elections, impact on communication


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Honors professor Sarah Spring is teaching a special topics class that analyzes presidential debates. | Pablo Milanese / The Cougar

In the midst of UH’s close encounter with the presidential debate process, the Honors College is providing an opportunity for students to analyze political debates from present and past elections with a new class: Presidential Campaigns and Debates.

The course, HONS 3397, asks students to critically observe the televised presidential debates for insight into how the design of the debate, from chosen moderators and quantity of audience members to stage design, affects the overall outcome of campaign communication.

Taught by Speech and Debate program director Sarah Spring, the course asks students to maintain a documentary-style blog, recording their observations about the candidates’ dialogues. The blogs are also used to apply theories about impacts on the election cycle.

The idea for a course interpreting ongoing civic discord presented itself in October, when UH announced it would host the RNC debate before Super Tuesday.

“I was working on course descriptions for the spring, and I decided that teaching the class would be timely and a nice adaptation of the argumentation and debate classes I typically teach,” Spring said.

As a special topics class, the course is only taught once or twice, but the motivations behind it are longstanding topics of interest that have captivated the nation for decades. Spring found a way to highlight their academic value.

“I’m interested in the increasing national prominence of presidential debates, for both the general election and the primaries, in American political culture,” Spring said.  “The course provides me with an opportunity to look at these debates along with the students from an academic perspective that considers their function beyond the sound-bites.”

The goals of the class include learning about the history and context of presidential debates, engaging with and applying theories of political communication and using students’ knowledge to contribute to contemporary political discourse.

“Presidential debates have become cultural norms in American politics,” communication junior Lubna Qadri said. “I think it is crucially important for students to learn and analyze the process of debates for the sake of democracy in the future.”

Spring’s students paid particular attention to the debate held on campus. In the midst of the CNN campus takeover, they wrote real-time blog posts discussing their views and deliberations on the event. Throughout the remainder of the semester, they will critique it from a historic viewpoint and explore how primary and general election debates differ.

“I’ve never considered the fact that modern political debates are not necessarily structured as actual debates, or the level of influence the media has in controlling debates and their outcomes,” decision and information sciences sophomore Nicole Churbock said.

Millennials’ supposed disinterest in politics is just one of the cultural insights Spring’s course challenges, initiating change in broader cultural issues.

“I hope that students will come away from the course as more engaged, informed and responsible citizens,” Spring said.

If enough demand arises, Spring may offer a variation of the course in the fall within the general trajectory of Argumentation and Political Communication courses.

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