Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor of Political Science Rob Baker found a creative way to keep students engaged in his honors seminar class, American Democracy: Problems and Prospects,” this past semester.
Baker, who is also a city management expert, explained that the course takes the premise that a number of significant challenges exist that, unless addressed, seriously threaten U.S. democracy.
“These challenges include radical individualism, an increasingly politicized judiciary, trivialized elections, low levels of political participation, increasing political and economic inequality, a privileged position of business in politics, lack of transparency in the national security state apparatus, and even our constitutionally designed separation of powers,” Baker said. “Class discussions and assignments (papers) were geared toward a critical assessment of these challenges and their relative threats.”
To affect change and create discussion, Baker also challenges students in the course to write a ‘letter to the editor’ for any newspaper, including the “admonition that they even aim high at a national paper.”
Recent graduate Lindsay Fetherolf, Wittenberg class of 2020, was the first to meet his challenge, getting published in her hometown newspaper, the Union County Daily Digital. Not long after, Clara DeHart, another recent graduate, was published in the Tennessean.
“The only constraint was that the letter must address concerns about our democracy,” Baker said. “Some will be accepted and some won’t. But, Lindsay was the first to write, and she got published in her local daily.”
Fetherolf, a sociology and communication double major from Marysville, Ohio, was published on April 17. In her letter, she asks Americans to keep an eye on our government so that “our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not taken from us.” Read the complete letter here.
DeHart, a political science major from Pegram, Tennessee, had her letter published in the Tennessean on April 29. In her letter, she talks about “our individual rights” during the COVID-19 pandemic and how “we ought to remember that our individual rights will exist only as long as we all work to protect our common interests.”
Until the pandemic hit, the final class project was going to be a campus-wide ‘deliberative poll’ in which students from across campus would have been invited to participate in a discussion of how the nation might go about reforming (or not reforming) the system. There were 13 students in the seminar.
“Students wrote a final paper that offers their own perspective on how serious these challenges are, and what (if anything) they would advocate we do to address them,” Baker added. “As the pandemic has progressed, and we’ve seen different governing approaches, and significant disparities of impact, I added readings to help them integrate the current context into their thinking about how well our democracy is holding up, and how systemic change might be even more necessitated by the crisis. From the outset, one assignment had always been the ‘letter to the editor’ project. But the pandemic has obviously entered in as a possible theme for some letters, both Lindsay’s and Clara’s being examples.”