Students talk politics, but not at programs
Despite an unprecedented level of political programming from groups around campus, informal discussion remains the most common form of political engagement by students. Such students often want to participate in the election, but are pressed for time.
More than $60,000 were set aside for political programming this year, with the largest contribution coming from Student Union and supplemented by funding from the Office of Student Activities and the Gephardt Institute.
Though that money has gone to fund speakers, panel discussions, art installations and other new events, attendance has not substantially increased from that of previous years.
“Students are clearly involved in the political process this year, and the programming that various groups have put on has really added to it,” sophomore Jordan Aibel, program assistant for the Gephardt Institute and a coordinator of political discussion series Controversy N’ Coffee, said. “But at the same time I think that the excitement for the political process this year hasn’t necessarily translated into increased attendance.”
Even as groups like the Political Science Students Association (PSSA), Coffee N’ Controversy and the College Democrats and Republicans have increased their programming, the primary method for political involvement for most students has remained informal. Students still prefer political conversations with friends.
“There’s a lot more talking going on—especially when the vice presidential debate was going on,” Tim Shaw, a junior and political science major, said. “Even the people who are apathetic are talking about why they’re apathetic.”
Though event organizers were pleased to see more conversations happening around campus, they continue to see a niche for structured programming—specifically exposing students to a wide array of opinions and viewpoints.
“At this time of political polarization, we should have a scholarly background for the politics happening,” junior Mark Dudley, organizer of PSSA, said. “It’s important to have these programs in place to educate these students because of the punditry.”
Dudley and others have revived the PSSA this year as a place for academic discussion of political issues; the organization is meant to cater to students from all disciplines, not just political science.
Though at times the PSSA has drawn nearly 75 students to an event, most events have attracted several dozen at a time.
Students do benefit greatly from increased discussion, according to Aibel. But he also noted that relying exclusively on those discussions prevents students from being exposed to a full range of political ideas.
“The fact that students just want to talk about this with their friends when they could be talking about anything else shows me that they care, and that is great,” Aibel said. “But, on the other hand, the fact that students are oftentimes only talking to their friends means that they might not be exposed to ideas and opinions that are different than the ones that they have.”
Going forward, student groups are looking to capitalize on students’ willingness to have discussions by highlighting student discourse in their programming.
“We’re trying to highlight the informal nature of our event,” Aibel said. “Our central focus is getting students to engage the panelists, the professors, in dialogue.”
As groups continue to prepare events in advance of the election, administrators of the election programming fund are satisfied with the way the money has been used so far because it allows for many fewer limitations on political events.
“Continuing to fund events with social and political focus is beneficial to our campus,” senior Brittany Perez, Student Union president, said. “I hope by November we have an informed student body that can make educated decisions.”
According to Perez, the fund is continuing to be used in the time leading up to the election at the same—if not a greater—rate than was seen before the vice presidential debate.
“It’s only been a week since then, and we’ve had the same number of appeals, if not more,” said Perez. “I think student interest is only going to increase in the next couple of weeks.”
With additional reporting by David Song