AU students engage in journalism and politics in new experiential learning course Battleground Virginia
The course provided students a front-seat in the Virginia gubernatorial election
Editor’s Note: Eagle staff reporters Nina Heller, Skye Witley, Ben Johansen and Fariha Rahman are a part of this class. They were not involved in the reporting, writing or editing of this story.
At the conclusion of the Virginia gubernatorial race, American University students gained cutting-edge experiential learning opportunities through the School of Communication and School of Public Affairs.
Students traveled to Richmond, Virginia, on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 30 and left on election night, Tuesday, Nov. 3, as part of an experiential learning course taught by journalism professors Betsy Fischer Martin and Lynne Perri and political communications professor Molly O’Rourke.
While in the field, students split their time between taking part in journalistic activities and observing political events. On the journalism side of the field experience, students collaborated with The Washington Post to talk to voters on Election Day.
“The students ... spread out at 18 different polling locations in the greater Richmond area, and spoke to voters as they were coming out of the polls to try to get a sense from them on what issues mattered the most to them,” Fischer Martin said.
Some of these interviews were included in The Washington Post’s election coverage, along with vignettes that were typed up by students.
The course also offered students the opportunity to engage with political and campaign leaders. These engagements were with a variety of political actors, including high-level people within the campaign like strategists and former governor Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate in the race.
“I actually got to interview or ask one question to Terry McAuliffe, and that was extremely nerve-wracking,” said Elisabeth St. Onge, a graduate student in the SPA. “As a poli-sci person, I’ve never interviewed someone of that kind of stature before.”
Students also got the chance to speak with Gov. Ralph Northam prior to a canvassing kickoff event that the class observed. During the meeting, students were able to ask questions about the campaign.
Prior to the field experience, however, students went through an intensive preparation cycle. For the first few months of the course, which started in August, students engaged with a variety of sources to better understand the political landscape in Virginia, according to Fischer Martin. This included talking with the Washington Post reporter assigned to the race and speaking with Frank Atkinson, the author of “Virginia in the Vanguard,” a book on Virginia politics.
Students looked at the coverage of polling information with an emphasis on the accuracy and reliability of the reporting. This included a written analysis, which dovetailed into another assignment about the bias and accuracy of news reports on events during the election.
“I knew that I’d be able to cover why people vote and what interests different people, in addition to being able to then write on it,” St. Onge said. “Which is something that I hadn’t had that much experience with as a policy person.”
As part of the course, students also learn the ins and outs of different political and journalism tools used in the field. Since the class has students with different academic backgrounds, the professors devoted time to ensuring that students understand how to do work in the field, such as interviewing voters. This came into play later on, when students attended campaign events in the field.
“How they put on the rallies was really different. Youngkin had one in an airplane hangar with tons of … people and firefighters [surrounding him],” Lucy Hays said, a sophomore in the SPA. “I enjoyed watching those kinds of things play out.”
Once students returned from the field, they immediately began to work on the course’s final project, which spans from the end of the field experience to the conclusion of the course. Many students drew inspiration from observations they made in the field.
Hays was struck by the enthusiasm gap between the candidates’ supporters.
“I’m going to be talking to a strategist on both sides about what they did, what their strategy was going into the campaign, what they thought worked and didn’t in generating that enthusiasm,” Hays said.
Similarly, St. Onge was originally going to research the impact that education had on the election outcome but changed her project to explore the role that nationalism played in the Republican campaign strategy.
“I really want to research and discuss how we lean on nationalism and preying on white fears and anxieties,” St. Onge said. “I also want to touch on how nationalism has been used as a campaign tactic and historical elections and look towards the future.”
The course, although done several times in the past during presidential campaigns, still took a lot of work to plan, according to Fischer Martin. The planning process began in August when, according to O’Rourke, she and the other instructors began to reach out to individual people and organizations to interview and meet when the class traveled to Richmond.
“We knew that we wanted the students to have an opportunity to attend church services on Sunday morning at a traditionally Black church service, where often on the Sunday before election day, [there’s a] heavy emphasis on turning out and the importance of voting,” O’Rourke said.
The instructors reached out to pastors at churches in and around Richmond, the local chapter of the NAACP, civic engagement directors, and strategists in the Virginia Democratic Party.
They also reached out to campaign leaders and interest groups that students could talk to while in Richmond. The issue, O’Rourke said, was that many people could not guarantee that they would have the time to meet with the class due to the hectic and triage-like nature of political campaigns in the final days.
Despite these challenges, the course was a success, according to Fischer Martin. Instead of having to wait four years until the next presidential primary, dozens of students were able to take the course just one year after the last election.
“Obviously we can only offer [the] course every four years and it's always one that's really successful,” Fischer Martin said. “We thought this year we would try to do a similar format with Virginia because of the governor's race there. We knew it was going to be competitive and a lot of eyes would be on Virginia.”
The course was so successful that the three instructors, along with School of Communication and School of Public Affairs leadership, are planning to offer another course next fall. According to the dean of the SPA Vicky Wilkins, the group is looking at offering a similar course aimed at competitive races in the fall. These may include senate races, but the team has not ruled anything out yet.
“It’s a priority of SPA to bring these types of extraordinary experiences to our students,” Wilkins said. “And so if it’s an election class, great, I love working with those faculty. And maybe it’s another experience around another class. Those are the things we really want to be pushing forward and doing and making a priority.”