Political Science Professors Weigh in on Election, Inauguration Learning Opportunities

The last several months have given professors a wealth of teachable moments

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For many college students, this was the first presidential election they were able to cast a ballot for.

It was a historic one, to say the least. But it's also given their professors new teaching tools.

"It really does provide just a wealth of teachable moments," said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

Since the fall, he's been able to highlight so many different issues in his lesson plans. From the nature of the Electoral College to the process of democratic transition to the dynamics of the House and Senate and the question of a potential party realignment in the United States.

“We certainly talked about all of those issues in the fall. We talked about how a person's vote in a presidential election goes into the decision-making process, the relationship between the popular vote and voting in the Electoral College. The difference between powers that are wielded by the president versus members of Congress versus state and local level officeholders," he said. "My role is not to push students in the direction of the Republican party or Democratic party, or for or against a particular candidate. My role as a political science professor is to equip them with the knowledge and understanding of the basis of democratic citizenship that they can use to make informed choices of their own."

As students watch history in real-time, Wilson said his role as an educator has been taken to new heights.

"This year, however, with all the disruptions of the pandemic and the racial unrest in the country, the contesting disputing election results, and the riot on Capitol Hill -- one thing after another has been unprecedented or highly unusual," said Wilson. "That role of providing students with information and trying to help them interpret events, trying to help them find some context and historical perspective on the events that have been unfolding has taken on more importance."

UT Arlington political science professor Rebecca Deen said the important thing she wants students to remember Wednesday is that a peaceful transfer of power is a huge part of what makes our country a free republic.

"Even when we have had really tumultuous elections -- I think back to the 2000 election where the supreme court was the final arbiter. And that happened weeks after the election," she said. "So the transition period was truncated and yet, then governor and president-elect George W. Bush took over power on noon January 20, just like it’s supposed to happen."

She said she wants students to pay close attention to the inauguration speech President-elect Joe Biden will give on Wednesday, adding that it usually sets the tone for the challenges a president faces when he's about to enter the office. That is something she will be discussing with her classes this week.

"[Biden] is also taking office in the middle of this crisis, which is health, politics and economics. That’s what we see with this pandemic," she said. "And he’s going to have to do really hard logistical things like improve the rollout of the vaccine, figure out how to get the economy back on track or have a national plan for helping local educators get their kids back in school full-time face-to-face. So these are really big policy issues that face the president right away.”

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