This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum* Engaged Scholarship Series. If you are interested in writing about local elections in the places you live or study, contact Andrea Benjamin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Emily Farris (TCU)
As a political scientist trained in American Politics with a focus on urban politics, Introduction to American Politics is not usually my favorite class to teach. It’s not the students, it’s not Trump… it is the material. Intro textbooks rarely cover local politics, and I grow tired of talking about Congress or the Presidency, as if they are the only politics that matter. So, this semester I approached my Introduction to American Politics class differently, thanks to the timing of our local election in Fort Worth and a small honors section of the course.
Fort Worth elects a non-partisan Mayor and City Council every two years in off year elections in the spring. While the timing is bad for voter turnout (and Fort Worth’s turnout is particularly bad, as my student Hannah and I discussed in an op-ed), it aligned well with the spring 2019 semester: candidates filed to run in late February and elections were held in early May.
To focus more on local politics, I revised my syllabus to add a day on state and local politics early in the semester (which is itself unusual, as most textbooks lump state and local government in a chapter about federalism). My students’ major assignment for the semester was the creation of a voter guide, and I invited the mayoral candidates to participate in what turned out to be the only mayoral forum with all three candidates. My class hosted the TCU Mayoral Forum the week before the election, and nearly 400 in attendance heard the candidates answer questions that the students wrote.
After crowdsourcing ideas and previous examples through Twitter, I divided the Voter Guide into three sections for students to accomplish. The first part, the Basics, asked the students to explain what Fort Worth voter’s needed to know in order to cast a ballot in the upcoming election. They covered information about eligibility, how to register, and different ways to vote. The second assignment, the Office and Candidates, assigned each student to a race (or two, as we had two incumbents without challengers) and had them describe the position, the district, and information on the candidates. For the Final Project, students revised their parts one and two of the voter guide, updated information about the races they followed, and wrote a reflection paper on what they learned by creating the voter guide and connecting it to class material. I compiled the information into a guide that I shared publicly through social media.
If I were to do this assignment again, a few lessons learned: 1) standardize the format students submit information, 2) assign the local paper for students to read, 3) consider developing a survey with students for them to field to candidates, 4) seek help designing a website to publicly share information (this summer, my student Taylor and I are working on a website), and 5) consider how your department should value this form of community engagement and public scholarship. I firmly believe knowledge should not be hoarded in the academy.
Students’ reflections were uniformly positive. My student Zoe gave me permission to share her concluding paragraph in her reflection, as it summed up the goals of the assignment so well: “I have developed a deeper appreciation of the nuances of local politics… I feel inspired to become more knowledgeable about elections in my hometown, and I now know how to effectively research candidates, voting procedures, and issues facing the public. But more than that, creating my voter guide has had a profound effect on how I view elections on every level. After examining bias, institutional power, voter turnout, and a multitude of other factors, I am confident that I will be well-informed and prepared for my city election, for the 2020 presidential election, and for any future situation (political or not) where I find myself faced with a single decision that can make a tremendous difference.”
Photo provided by Emily Farris.
Emily Farris is an associate professor of political science and comparative race and ethnic studies at TCU, where she studies and teaches classes in American politics. Twitter: @emayfarris
*The Urban Affairs Forum is presented by Urban Affairs Review, a a peer-reviewed, bi-monthly journal focused on questions of politics, governance, and public policy specifically as they relate to cities and/or their regions.