15. Civic Engagement

Real-world learning experiences come in a variety of flavors. In this episode, Allison Rank, a political scientist at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how she has built a course in which students organize and run a non-partisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaign. This project combines many of the best features of service learning and simulation.

Show Notes


Rebecca: Real-world learning experiences come in a variety of flavors. In this episode, we’ll explore ways to combine the best features of simulation and service learning to increase learning in a campus-wide voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaign.

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist,

John: and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Today, our guest is Dr. Allison Rank, an assistant professor of political science at SUNY Oswego. Allison is an expert in the role American youth play in the electorate and the founder of voter registration initiative called Vote Oswego. Welcome, Allison.

John: Welcome.

Allison: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

John: Yorkshire gold.

Allison: I don’t drink tea.

Rebecca: It’s an epidemic…. like… this is the third one, John.

John: I know, three in a row

Rebecca: Three strikes you’re out. No more non-tea drinkers… All right… I’m drinking English Afternoon despite the fact that it’s still morning… because I need it.

John: Just barely morning, though.

Rebecca: Good, okay.

John: So, what is Vote Oswego?

Allison: Vote Oswego is a student-run, nonpartisan voter registration and voter mobilization drive on the SUNY Oswego campus in the Fall of 2016.

Rebecca: What led you to start Vote Oswego?

Allison: So, prior to earning my PhD in Political Science, I actually spent three years working as a political organizer. I’d worked for a presidential campaign in the state of Ohio and then had spent a couple of years working with college students on a variety of non-partisan campaigns. One of the things I learned from doing that work on college campuses, is that when students have an interest in doing political work, there’s a lot of skills that they can get out of doing that work but that they don’t necessarily think about. And so once I was here…. I was here first in the Fall of 2014… and saw what the voter registration drive looked like, it was clear that students were doing some volunteering for it, and some students were really excited about it, but I didn’t think they were really getting any organizing skills out of doing it. They were sort of more just sitting at tables and sitting out with voter registration forms the same way they would sit out with cupcakes at a bake sale… it wasn’t really about organizing skills. And so I wanted to start a course or something here where the voter registration drive would become more about students learning to organize rather than just being treated as widgets to be organized by other people.

John: Did you do this as part of a class or was it a set of classes or a separate activity?

Allison: I actually was able to get permission to run it as a special topics class in Political Science. I’ve since gotten it approved as an official course, but initially I actually just pitched it as a practical political skills class where the students would come in and learn about grassroots organizing techniques and then get to implement those techniques through a voter registration drive.

Rebecca: I would imagine that a course like that would be particularly helpful to campuses that are more rural than urban.

Allison: Yeah… for me, after a couple of years here, I had a lot of students that wanted to get involved in politics but I’d end up in conversations with them about how hard it was to figure out transportation to Syracuse, figuring out logistics or the cost of doing it– we have so many students not only in terms of being a rural campus, but also in terms of the student population that’s also trying to juggle working and paid work that they need in order to be here. And so then, taking time out to do a political internship, especially with the schedule around an election, can be really challenging. And so being able to offer that opportunity on campus, and also around something that can give them course credit or internship credit without leaving the campus, and for something that the campus is already gonna put energy and attention towards, I think, is really helpful.

Rebecca: Is running something like this as a class common on other campuses?

Allison: I don’t know of other places where a full grassroots campaign has been run out of a class. It’s fairly common in Political Science to have some type of activity based around voter registration, right? So, for us in Political Science, coming up with civic engagement projects where you can avoid partisanship and partisan issues, is a really big deal. And so non-partisan voter registration drives around elections are a great place to do that, but often it’s asking students to go out and volunteer as poll workers, or do exit polls, or maybe helping set up a campus debate with a couple of candidates rather than really digging into an on-campus, full-fledged grassroots mobilization campaign.

John: Was it easy to keep it non-partisan in the classroom?

Allison: Oddly, it really was. The very first day of class, I ran an non-partisanship training with the students. So what does it mean to behave in a non-partisan fashion? What does it mean to keep your social media non-partisan through this event? What are the conditions under which you need to be non-partisan, right? Students signed up for this class because they’re people who care about politics, right? So many of them, I am certain, had very deep feelings about what they wanted to happen in this election. They weren’t allowed to talk about them if they were at a Vote Oswego event. I think there was a guideline around however many Vote Oswego students were hanging out together, that they could be recognized as a group of Vote Oswego students. If they were wearing their Vote Oswego t-shirt, they could not both talk about something partisan and have any reference to Vote Oswego in, for instance, a online social media “about themselves” section. And I would actually, essentially, run pop quizzes with them where I would try to get them to do something partisan, right? I would come up to them and say some incredibly partisan statement and they would actually have to practice what the non-partisan response would be.

John: That’s a useful skill, today.

Allison: Yeah!

Rebecca: Probably one th at a lot of faculty could use some training on, too, because politics come up a lot in classes. Can you give us an example of something that you would do?

Allison: Sure. So one of the things that is often defined as partisanship is if you endorse an issue that is so clearly identified with one political party over another…

John: …like science….

Allison: …even if you don’t, we would use things like building the wall, right? If you say something like “you should register to vote because it’s really important that we build the wall,” that would be considered a partisan statement from the last election, regardless of not mentioning a candidate or a political party. And you would get individuals coming up to the table who wanted to register that would say things like, “it’s really important to me that I register because I really care about maintaining woman’s right to choose” or “I really care about building the wall…” something that you could clearly align. And so I would do that to students, and they essentially had a set of responses they were allowed to give. So things like, “I’m happy to hear that you’re excited about what’s happening in this election, it’s really important that you get registered to vote” or they’re allowed to not and say, “I acknowledge that that’s something that you’re really passionate about.” Vote Oswego is non-partisan, we just care that you’re able to express whatever you care about, right? It’s sort of acknowledging that that individual has something that they really care about, but not endorsing it yourself.

John: How did they do in those pop quizzes?

Allison: They generally did really well. The first day, they would get really awkward and nervous and not know what to do, but after sort of half an hour of drills, they got incredibly good at it. It also helped that it was in the syllabus and they signed a contract with me that if I caught you violating the non-partisan mandate after one warning, you automatically got fired from the campaign, which meant you failed the course. So they took it seriously.

John: So it was somewhat high-stakes.

Allison: Yes.

Rebecca: A little arm-twisting there?

Allison: Yes. But they did really well, and actually after the election, a student made a comment in class where he basically said it’s really weird to me…. I feel like I know people in this class so well and we’re really good friends and we’ve worked so hard and I have no idea how anyone in here voted and I said, “that’s great, that’s exactly what should have happened, please don’t talk about it.”

Rebecca: Can you talk about some of the other results that you saw in your class?

Allison: Sure. There’s sort of two different sets of results, right? We talked about the students as having two identities in this class. They were both students and they were staffers and they needed to be concerned about themselves in both of those roles. So as staffers, they had fantastic success. The campaign registered over a thousand students on the SUNY Oswego campus, they helped over 1500 students request absentee ballots, they came up with some really great campaign strategies in terms of helping students with absentee ballots… get those mailed in… get those stamped… helping students get to the polls… building a great coalition with other folks on campus. As students, I think what was great is that because the students were out in the field and they were known as Vote Oswego students on campus. Their friends all knew that they were doing it, they were in those t-shirts all the time, they were visible. They took a real ownership over this project, in a way that I have a hard time envisioning getting students to do about short-term volunteer work, or sort of asking them to go volunteer with another campaign, or even the type of simulations that political science professors can get really good results with, in terms of learning outcomes, the type of ownership that these students felt and how seriously they took it, I’d be hard-pressed to get that result in another way. Because they took it so seriously, and because they took such ownership of it, I think their critical thinking and analytical skills really, really improved. You could sort of watch as we went through the campaign, students go from looking to me and looking to the couple of interns that we had in leadership roles of the campaign, to figure out sort of like “all this thing happened and what am I supposed to do” and “please answer this question for me,” to like, “well, this thing happened while I was standing at a table and here’s what I did,” and I would hear about it three or four days later as opposed to getting a sort of frantic, “help me figure it out.”

John: they started taking more responsibility–

Allison: Exactly.

John: –and making more of the decisions then just reporting back.

Allison: Exactly. And then also being able to constructively critique each other’s decisions once we– we called classroom meetings campaign meetings, right? So in campaign meetings, being able to say, “Hey, I know this is what happened last week, actually I think we need to fix it in X, Y, & Z ways.” Which, for those of us who have tried to get students to give critical constructive feedback on each other’s papers, it’s really hard to get them to engage each other that way, and the students really took to that sort of analytical and critical work with each other in really constructive ways by the end of the campaign.

Rebecca: So in addition to students finding that kind of personal ownership over the experience, what are some of the other factors that you think made this particular project, in this particular situation, really successful?

Allison: I think there are a couple of things that made this project work really well. I think that, one, is that a non-partisan voter registration drive is something that students can get excited about, even if they’re really uncomfortable with the idea of the conflict around politics. So students that are interested in politics, but don’t really want to be in the debates around politics, can latch on to this as a project that they can get excited about. So, for instance, we had a number of students from PR who took this class because they saw it as that they didn’t really want to get into politics, but they want to know how to run something big, and so this provides that type of opportunity. The second thing is that the calendar just works. So I think it can be really hard to get students excited on a project if they can’t actually take it through the finish line. And what works about a non-partisan voter registration and voter mobilization drive is that in most states, the voter registration deadline is around four to six weeks after school starts, and then you get about another four to six weeks before the election itself, and then you’ve still got another four to six weeks before the end of the semester. And so it perfectly stages itself, provided that the faculty or some other set of students have done some of the set-up, for students to come in learn a set of skills, build skills, execute, get a couple of do-overs, and then still have time to reflect on the project before the semester is out.

Rebecca: I think that’s one thing that’s really unique about the timeline, is that a lot of kind of activity-based learning or community based learning projects, they go straight to the end of this semester and it really is hard to build in that reflection piece, so it’s nice to have substantial time to do that, and really think through that, and do post mortems and plan for the next time around so that the next set of students can learn from the previous set.

Allison: Yeah, it worked really well. I think that space allowed for a couple of assignments, both in terms of a post-mortem and having them really think critically about what they would have done differently in what advice they want to give the next group, but also for those students who want to go into this type of work, a lot of it is contract consulting work. So you’d run a campaign, and then that campaigns over, and then, what do you do next? And so one of the assignments for the class was actually to apply… mock apply for many of them. Though, a few students who are graduating did really apply for different types of political jobs. And so actually learning how to translate this real experience into a cover letter, and into a resume, and being able to pitch that what they had done was not just work for a class, but was actually work for a campaign.

John: Excellent. Did any of them end up working on campaigns?

Allison: A number of them have had internships. Someone received an internship, I believe, in Senator Schumer’s office off of the experience in her application, for that was actually what she submitted for the final project in that class.

John: Excellent. How did students, in general, respond to it? What sort of feedback have you had from students?

Allison: From the student population on campus or from…?

John: Or… well, actually from both within the class and also more broadly.

Allison: So students within the class thought that it was an immense amount of work, but also seemed very satisfied with the experience themselves. The sort of anonymous feedback sheets that I did with students over the course of the semester, students repeatedly talked about how much they were getting out of the experience in terms of learning what went on, quote unquote, behind the scenes of campaigns and how much harder it is then it looks like it is on television, comments like that. For this student population more broadly, it’s been interesting. There were definitely a set of students for whom having the voter registration and voter mobilization drive become something bigger on campus. I think it felt a little bit intrusive, though I’d argue that that’s what grassroots campaigning look like, you’re just gonna get asked if you’re registered to vote four times a day, in the days leading up to the voter registration deadline, and not for… even the students in my class who said, “I think we’re bothering people.” I said, “you are bothering people, you want them to register to vote.” So there was a little bit of that. On the other hand, students were really excited and I’ve actually had a number of students ask me if I’m running the class again, when the class is running again. Sort of having seen it happen, are really interested in getting that experience.

John: Very good. If someone were to stop in on your classroom, what would it look like?

Allison: I suspect it would initially look like chaos. [laughter]
The campaign classroom, I think, is a very different feel than a lot of other classrooms. After the first couple of weeks, I basically demoted myself to note-taker. I was technically the campaign manager, but I was really there to act as a check if I thought they were straying into something that potentially– this never happened, but I essentially was there to see do we stray into something that potentially smacks of a real problem, right? …in terms of their regularly… like election law regulations or guidelines for the campus, keeping track of the money that we still had, and what we could spend money on in the overall campaign calendar. But I would most frequently in that classroom, whoever was in charge of running a particular campaign team that was working on a strategy, would be running the meeting and I’d be at the front of the room essentially taking notes on the giant whiteboard in order to track the conversation and basically remind people of what decisions needed to be made before we left that campaign meeting. There’d also be a number of classes where you would have come to the classroom and no one would have been in it because there were either students out phone-banking, students were running a voter education program in one of our dorms, students were out running a training for other volunteers… sort of really being out in the field as much as possible and I was just running around trying to see what was happening in all of those locations and troubleshooting when it was needed.

John: So how many volunteers did they bring in from outside their class?

Allison: We ended up having over 250 unique volunteers from outside of the class that did work with Vote Oswego.

John: That’s impressive.

Rebecca: So you mentioned money and finances and so I think, I think that’s usually a big question for any sort of community project, campus project, etc. So how did you work the money side of things?

Allison: I think, one of the real benefits of the voter registration drive, is not only does it match the calendar, but it matches a place where campuses are already inclined to spend some money. So, I was able to put together money from a couple different places. One was actually from our Student Association. The student government here at SUNY Oswego put in it, ended up being close to $2,000, ultimately, that helped cover– it initially helped cover a bulk of the t-shirts actually, in visibility materials. I also put together money from our Community Services office, which is who had been coordinating the voter registration drive before. So instead of the money that they had spent running their own project, they were willing to put it towards this project. Which again, giving students access over how those dollars are spent I think was really important. I also was able to get resources from a couple different places as a faculty member, so I pitched Vote Oswego originally at a faculty academic affairs retreat at the start of a year and received $1000. The idea was voted as a best new innovation for teaching and learning at SUNY Oswego’s campus. And then I also received a Curriculum Innovation Grant here at SUNY Oswego that helped cover for me traveling to grassroots organizing training with the new voters project, to essentially get a refresher. It had been… let’s just say I was not text messaging…. that did not exist when I was last organizing… so getting a nice refresher on what sort of the the modern techniques were and best practices was really helpful.

Rebecca: How can others get involved like this particular project on this campus or run similar projects?

Allison: Yeah, so on this campus, faculty or students or staff that are interested should just shoot me an email. Definitely trying as soon as possible to start ramping up the plans for the 2018 midterm version and really starting to lay the groundwork for something big in 2020. Folks on other campuses that are interested in figuring out how this project worked, I actually just had a co-authored piece come out in the Journal of Political Science Education, it’s available as of yesterday online entitled “Vote Oswego: Developing and Assessing the Campaign-as-Course Model” that does quite a bit to outline how this project can run, where it fits pedagogically in sort of that space of taking some of the best parts of both simulations and service-learning. That article actually includes quite a bit from the course calendar, assessment strategies, as well as some student outcomes. And I want to point out that that piece was co-authored with Angela Tylock, who was one of the lead interns for the project. She graduated from SUNY Oswego in Spring of 2017.

John: Very good. We’ll include a link to that reference in the show notes.
What specific guidance might you give to other campuses trying to do similar projects?

Allison: I would just really encourage faculty and campuses generally, even if you don’t want to run it as a credit bearing course, to figure out how students can take the lead as organizers. I think, too often, students become the volunteers, right? There’s sort of a whole apparatus with lots of different nonprofits that are doing really good work to get students to vote and that’s really important, but I think on campuses, we’re missing really big opportunities if we treat elections as an opportunity to get students to vote, but not as an opportunity to get students the skills that they are gonna want and need for a whole variety of things. If you want to go work in a non-profit, you’ve got to know how to build a coalition. If you want to work for your kids’ PTA and make sure that they’re getting the resources they need, the ability to run a meeting and get petition signatures, is actually really important. And all of those types of civic skills are things that students can and, I think, should be getting by volunteering or helping to run one of these drives.

John: So it’s very much an active learning exercise…

Allison: Absolutely, absolutely.

John: …where students played an important role in building it.

Rebecca: How did you get students to take that active role? I mean, it’s easy to assign tasks and be the leader, but how did that feel?

Allison: There was… definitely, I had to be fine with a level of loss of control that I am often not fine with in my classes. What I did is actually work to set up the first two weeks of the semester, I had the calendar planned out, so I had worked ahead of time to set up tables and events that were happening for orientation, had coordinated with faculty around campus to have individuals come in and give announcements and register students in that first 10 minutes that really, the first week of school, you can almost always, the first day of class, give up 10 minutes, after you review the syllabus, to get some students registered to vote. After that first two weeks, the students who were enrolled in the course, had had an opportunity to be trained in those skills, to get their feet wet in the skills, to get feedback on the skills and then I didn’t plan anything else. I basically said, “now it’s up to you, what are we gonna do?” And goals have been set for the campaign so the students knew, “here’s where we want to get, here are what we think our rates are gonna be. So if we want to register 500 people from tabling, here’s how many table hours we need scheduled, how are we gonna make that happen?” And I think two things then happened. One, I stepped back and basically told students, “you’re the expert on where students on this campus are.” I come here, I go to work, sometimes I go to events, and then I go home. I don’t actually know what dining halls are packed on what days. Turns out chicken sandwiches, big deal, chicken sandwich day at late night, right? There are all of these things that happen on campus that, as a faculty member, I don’t know about. So students basically learned that I wasn’t gonna tell them not to register students at 11 p.m. at night if that’s where they thought students were, they ran with it. The other thing that happened is they realized that I would let things fail. If students scheduled events and those events went poorly, they went poorly. And I wasn’t gonna fix those events for them– with the exception of confirming that registration forms were filled out correctly. We had an entire process for making sure that voter registration forms were correctly done. But in terms of the grassroots apparatus around that, if students didn’t plan well, they didn’t plan well, and they were the ones that had to stand there while the event went poorly. And I think between those two things, the students really became engaged around sort of their responsibility and taking ownership over the campaign.

Rebecca: Was most of the learning then taking place by “let’s try this, let’s fail, let’s try again,” an iteration rather than like doing readings or other kinds of … ?

Allison: Yes, there were minimal readings while the campaign was actually happening. There was quite a bit of reading and reflecting once election day happened, but prior to that, it was much more “these are the tried-and-true tactics, what do you want to get out and do? How do you think these tactics will best adjust to the environment that you’re in and the student population were working with?”

John: And students learn a lot more by making mistakes and recovering from them, and it sounds like you set up a mechanism where there was lots of feedback from each other.

Allison: Yes.

John: That’s excellent.

Rebecca: So, usually we wrap up these conversations by asking what are you gonna do next?

Allison: Next for Vote Oswego is an effort to improve the connections between the voter registration drive as a grassroots campaign to the voter registration drive as an overall campaign that involves lots of different components. So actually, Rebecca, had a class that worked on the website for Vote Oswego, it was a project for one of her classes we’re hoping to do, I think, much more of that for the 2016 campaign as well as trying to figure out what other faculty or other classes could also use a voter registration drive… benefit from that timing… benefit from the fact that it can be student driven and student owned in a lot of ways, to really get their classes involved with this as a project.

John: Very good.

Rebecca: Thanks for taking the time out and sharing your project. I think it probably has encouraged a lot of people to start thinking about those midterm elections and how they might be able to get students tapped into it.

John: And will you be doing this every other year now?

Allison: The goal is to do it every other year. I haven’t done it for a midterm yet, I think that will be different. I think there will be more actual campaign literature there just because it will be difficult to get it sort of as ramped up as a presidential election, but the goal is to do it every other year.

John: Very good. Okay, well thank you.

Allison: Thank you.

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.