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Politics in Action: Juniata Professor Takes Students to National Party Conventions

(Posted August 20, 2008)

A contingent of six Juniata politics students take in an orientation session at the Democratic National Convention in Denver Colo.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Usually students have to have a few weeks of classes under their belts before they get to go on a field trip. Not so for Juniata College's "2008 General Election" course, where eight students will attend the 2008 national party conventions during the first two weeks of the semester.

Six students, plus Dennis Plane, assistant professor of politics, will travel to Denver, Colo., to attend the Democratic National Convention from Aug. 25-28 (the first week of classes at the college), followed the next week by two student attendees at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. The trips are organized in part by The Washington Center in Washington, D.C.

"Instead of learning about campaigns from a text book, we are going to look at a campaign as it naturally unfolds," says Plane. "We can assign readings on issues as they arise, and some can be from academic sources while others can be from journalistic sources."

The opportunity to study an election in real time is rare for politics students, according to Plane, because the nature of political science is to glean meaning and analysis from past events and past campaigns. "One big problem we have in political science is that we don't properly take into account politics. Political science research is not contemporary; it's all about what happened in the past. Politics is about what's happening now."

The course is designed to give students insight from both politics and political science while the students analyze the presidential campaign as it happens. In addition to the students who attend the conventions, Plane will assign the students who did not travel to the conventions to watch the conventions on television. "The media looks at politics differently than voters and the students who watch the conventions will have a different perspective than the students who were in attendance," he explains.

"Instead of learning about campaigns from a text book, we are going to look at a campaign as it naturally unfolds."
Dennis Plane, assistant professor of politics

The convention course is unconventional in that few colleges have tried to incorporate current political events over an entire semester. Plane is expanding on a formula he first developed as a visiting assistant professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., when he accompanied students to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Mass. "The students in 2004 were excited by the experience, but when the convention was over that was the end of it," Plane says. "One of the factors I want the Juniata students to analyze is how can people maintain an excitement about politics when there isn't a big event, like a convention." This time around, Plane is keeping the learning process in motion by requiring a follow-up course that will track the campaign through Election Day.

One of the requisites of the follow-up class is to give students a glimpse at how political parties maintain the excitement of the campaign process. Plane requires that every student enrolled log 20 hours of election-related activities over the course of the semester. Students can volunteer for the national campaign, organize a voter drive, help out at a polling place, attend political lectures or other activities.

The students will post blog entries to the Juniata Web site and to the Web site for the Lewistown Sentinel.

Plane doesn't expect the students enrolled in "2008 General Election" to go out and start grassroots campaigns or become political activists. Instead he's looking for students to find a spark of political interest that can be nurtured over time.

"In the end, it will encourage good citizenship," Plane says.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.