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How Do You Teach Politics During An Election That Defies Convention?


And how do you teach politics in a campaign season here in the U.S. dominated by a disruptor, a year when conventional wisdom about elections has been flipped on its head? NPR's Sam Sanders spent some time in class to find out.

JEROME HUNT: Don't forget that your exam is coming up next week. I will give you a study guide on Tuesday.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Jerome Hunt is guiding the conversation in his American Politics class at the University of the District of Columbia.

HUNT: So are there any questions before I get started?

SANDERS: And he's getting a lot of questions.

KEKE DAWN HARRISON: Do you think either one of these people can, you know, do a second term?

WILLIAM WEST: What would their party look like in eight more years?

KELLY ELLA-MEAN: Depending on who wins the election, what's that going to do for the Supreme Court?

SANDERS: That was Keke Dawn Harrison, William West and Kelly Ella-Mean.

So this, all these questions, is this the new normal?

HUNT: I would say yes, in terms of the fact that more students are interested in exactly what's going on.

SANDERS: Besides professor Hunt, I talked to about a dozen other Political Science professors on Skype. And they all said the same thing. Students want to talk about this election a lot.

Todd Shaw at the University of South Carolina, he says that interest, it's - well, let's let him tell it.

TODD SHAW: Yeah, I think there's was a car wreck feature to it, fascinated by the wreckage but standing off from a distance.

SANDERS: For Lorna Bracewell, some of that fascination is also discussed.

LORNA BRACEWELL: We go in assuming a baseline among students, which is that they are uncritically, unreflectively fans of democracy, right? America is a democracy, we all love America. Democracy is good. This election season, that baseline - my experience has been - can no longer be assumed.

SANDERS: Bracewell teaches at the University of Nebraska, Kearney. She says she used to start her semester with readings that were critical of democracy because she wanted to challenge student's assumptions that democracy is always a good thing. But now...

BRACEWELL: I'm now starting with a book that is a kind of sympathetic historical recounting of how Athenians practiced democracy.

SANDERS: Yeah. Bracewell's job now is selling the very idea of democracy to American students - 2016. Even political scientists are seeing things differently this year. In fact, a lot of them are eating crow. At Penn State, Michael Berkman admits that he got Trump all wrong.

MICHAEL BERKMAN: You know, I went through two full semesters telling my students he would never win the nomination. So I would have to say that I was surprised by it.

SANDERS: Berkman says some basic theories on American politics have been challenged this year. Example, the idea that a party has control over who gets the nomination, and that endorsements from political elites are a sign of that control.

BERKMAN: He clearly challenged the idea that the party could control the nomination process. This is not what they would have wanted, and the endorsements were an indicator of that.

SANDERS: And Todd Shaw from South Carolina, he says Trump challenges the idea that party nominees always moderate their message after the primaries.

SHAW: You're at least somewhat cautious as to what you do in the primary election because you know it could be used against you in the general election, if you turn off voters who might cross over or if you turn off independents.

SANDERS: So how do you teach Political Science now? At Penn State, one of the first things Michael Berkman did was admit to some blind spots.

BERKMAN: I mean, one thing that occurred to me - and I don't think I'm alone on this in political science - is the extent to which we missed it. I think we might have been more attuned to what was going on on the left in American politics than we were to what was going on in the right.

SANDERS: He's course-correcting with a new class this semester...

BERKMAN: Solely on the Trump campaign and candidacy.

SANDERS: And he's got some help. Berkman recruited professors from all across his school to help him teach it.

BERKMAN: History, Sociology, Women's Studies, African-American Studies, Political Science, Media Studies.

SANDERS: Maybe the only way to teach politics this year is to know you can't do it alone. Sam Sanders, NPR News Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.