by Geoff Larcom, Published January 04, 2013
YPSILANTI – On the first day of class this past semester, Eastern Michigan University Professor Jeffrey Bernstein spoke of the harsh realities of presidential election politics. He cited the border between North Carolina, a swing state, and South Carolina, which is solidly red.
"If you live a mile north of that border, you are one of the most valuable votes in this year's presidential election," he said. "A mile south and nobody cares about you."
Thus began an interesting odyssey for political science students at two schools in very different parts of the country, as Bernstein and a colleague at Western Carolina University (WCU), Christopher Cooper, teamed up to help teach each other's classes, instructing students in the separate realities of their states as the campaign unfolded.
Many students at EMU know of only their Midwestern context, where unions still have political clout. That's certainly not the case in North Carolina.
"The class really makes visible to (the students) what had been invisible," Bernstein says. "You learn a lot about your state by comparing it to something else."
Bernstein and Cooper would lecture to each other's classes on Skype, and the students worked in cross-institutional teams on election-related projects. "They learned to appreciate the uniqueness of their own state by studying the unique aspects of another state," Bernstein says.
The class partnership came about after Bernstein, who recently visited WCU as an external reviewer for its political science program, and Cooper realized they were planning to teach similar courses on elections this fall.
"Eastern Michigan and Western Carolina students are demographically and academically similar, but they have very different cultural understandings of politics," says Cooper, who is head of the political science department at WCU
EMU students spoke of the new perspectives they gained through the class.
Senior Brian Walsh noted differences such as the military lobbying in North Carolina, of which Michigan has little.
"It's been interesting to work with the (WCU) students," he said. "They are very funny and creative. The two I worked with had a much different criteria for evaluating the candidates. Issues important to them were completely different than mine."
Hedser de Boer, an exchange student from the Netherlands, said that, "Even though the system might seem strange to many Europeans, it actually makes sense when you study it closely."
Senior Andrew Abad said that one of the most valuable insights he got from Professor Cooper was the role that redistricting played, creating more Republican districts and reflecting a nationwide effect.
"While this effect is also apparent in Michigan, this played a much bigger role in a battleground state where every vote has the potential to decide the election," Abad said.
Senior Samantha Knaak recalled how the class discussed the importance of demographics.
"Many minority groups are growing rapidly in numbers in the U.S, and about 80 percent of them support the Democratic party over the Republican party," she said, noting some of the changes between now and when George W. Bush was elected.
She also noted how the goal of a party's platform is to win elections, not necessarily educate the people. "They satisfice by giving the best answer with limited information on topics such as health care or the economy, which in turns sways a person to vote for a particular party with limited information," Knaak noted.
As the semester went on, the two professors facilitated a bet between between the classes on which could do a better job of predicting the vote in their state. Professor Bernstein's class won, so Professor Cooper donned the feathers of Big Bird to teach his class and Skype into Professor Bernstein's class on the room's video display screen.
Speaking as Big Bird, who became a central figure in this year's campaign, Professor Cooper asked a variety of intriguing questions:
Above all, students came to understand the role states play as individual electoral environments.
"We have learned the extent to which presidential elections are really state-by-state contests," Bernstein said. "This is where candidates put their resources and attention and where they travel."