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No Debate About It: UNLV Enhances Curriculum

As the campus gears up to host the final presidential debate, UNLV professors are making direct connections between their course materials and this year's ground-breaking election season.

Campus News  |  Aug 19, 2016  |  By Keyonna Summers
students talk in class

National politics will be spurring conversation in the numerous UNLV courses coinciding with debate-related events this fall. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

As voters around the nation learn more about presidential candidates through a series of televised debates leading up to the final face-off on UNLV’s campus this fall, so will grade school and university students across Las Vegas.

In addition to partnering with the Clark County School District and local colleges, UNLV will offer nearly a dozen courses this fall that relate directly to issues connected with the upcoming election.

Some of the courses were newly-created to coincide with debate-related events on campus while others are longtime courses that are incorporating this year's election observations. The courses explore how various themes — ranging from gender to First Amendment issues to race — intersect with politics.

The goal, professors say, is to provide an unmatched educational opportunity for students to take part in hands-on activities that foster understanding of the election process and contribute to an informed electorate.

COLA 100LA

First Year Seminar: Presidential Debates and the U.S. Elections

Students will receive an introduction and historical overview of presidential debates in the United States, as well as study their impact on American politics and role in the electoral process. To that end, students will watch replays of this election cycle’s debates and learn as a group how to analyze candidates’ overall performance along with how effectively candidates conveyed their messages to the general public.

Misconception the course seeks to dispel: “That candidates who are better public speakers should always win debates,” said course instructor Majid Shirali. “While it is true that some individuals excel in this format as a result of being skilled debaters as opposed to the positions they have taken on issues, substance should not be ignored in favor of oratory and flowery language.”

COM 330 and 789

Special Topics in Communication Studies: Presidential Debates

Communication studies professors Jacob Thompson and David Henry will lead both an undergraduate and a graduate-level version of this class, which examines the history and criticism of televised presidential debates since 1960. Students will learn about the political contexts for debates, candidates’ strategies, and public and media reactions to debates. Five nationally-recognized scholars on the subject will visit class, which also includes a service-learning component that encourages students to volunteer or participate in events leading up to and including this election’s final debate being held Oct. 19 on UNLV campus.

Fun facts students in this course will learn: It’s not clear whether there’s always a direct relationship between winning the debates and winning the election, the instructors note. In fact, debates can be a candidate’s undoing. And male presidential candidates have had to learn to wear makeup in order to improve their appearance on television.

HIST 279.1001

The News in Historical Perspective: Race, Class, and Gender in the 2016 Election

This course will include lively weekly discussions around issues that have been at the forefront of U.S. politics and the upcoming election. Students will read articles to catch up on the week’s big news and try their hand at debating the issues themselves, arguing the various political positions of the candidates, their supporters, and their critics.

Key takeaways for students enrolled in this class: Like all his courses, said professor A.B. Wilkinson, “this one will teach students how to weed out spin issues and pundit propaganda, so they’re able to focus on facts and evidence. That way they can decide where they stand on certain policies that affect their lives and the lives of others. ..My goal is have students, through practice, realize that people can have different political views and still come together for respectful discussion.”

HIST 279.1002

The News in Historical Perspective: Issues Facing the 2016 Presidential Candidates

Each of 10 class sessions will feature a lecture or class discussion led by a different UNLV history professor offering historical perspectives on the major issues facing the 2016 presidential candidates.

What students will learn: “There’s a common misconception that history has nothing to offer election-watchers, or the candidates themselves,” said instructor Cian McMahon. “A key takeaway for students is that issues facing the presidential candidates need to be understood in their historical perspective. And that history can be relevant to our lives today.”

HIST 388.1002

Great Personalities: History of Presidential Campaigns and Elections

This class will trace changes in presidential elections — everything from how candidates are chosen to the role of the press — from George Washington’s reign to the eventual winner of the 2016 contest. Professor Michael Green will invite a slew of politicians as well as local and national media members to speak to students.

Fun facts students in this class will learn: “So many!” said Green. “Slavery determined the outcome of most presidential elections until the Civil War. Once upon a time, candidates avoided campaigning. The media always has been central to political campaigns.”

HIST 453 and 653

Women and Gender in Politics

This course explores the ways in which politics has been and continues to be shaped by gender. Professor Joanne Goodwin, who is also director of the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada, will lead discussions on the diverse strategies used by women to organize for (and against) gender equality and social justice in the United States. While addressing the changes in women’s lives in the 20th century, the course also introduces students to contemporary women who have become leaders in their communities.

Why this course is important: “People assume that equity of opportunity has been achieved but, similar to racial ideas, we still hold ideas about what women and men should do,” said Goodwin, who has led a program on college women’s leadership for 13 years but for the first time is channeling that information into a full course. It is drawing enrollment from students studying history, political sciences, and gender and sexuality studies. “Understanding gender and its impact on our views is central to understanding the history of and contemporary opportunities for women in civic life.”

SOC 776

Seminar in Political Sociology

Politics goes far beyond the endless battles between Republicans and Democrats. Political power in contemporary society entails a much more complex interplay of relations completely outside what we traditionally think of as political arenas. This course, taught by professor Barbara Brents, will explore current perspectives on the social contexts of the contemporary state and political power including machinations of class, race, gender, and sexual power.

In other areas, professors are adding a debate-focused element to already-established courses:

  • JOUR 310: Advanced Reporting
  • JOUR 490: Debate and Election Coverage
  • PSC 305: The American Presidency
  • PSC 401O: U.S. Elections and Governance
  • PSC 401G: Political Campaigns and Elections

Visit UNLV's Presidential Debate website for more information on classes and instructors.