An innovative new political science course engages UChicago undergraduates with students around the world

By Sarah Fister Gale

Susan Stokes’s new Democratic Erosion course in the Department of Political Science is part of a groundbreaking new experiment in higher education. Originally developed by a team at Brown University, the class is a cross-university collaboration designed to allow students to critically and systematically evaluate the risks to democracy, both here and abroad, through the lens of theory, history, and social science.

“It gives the students an opportunity to read, discuss, and learn the language of comparative politics and political theory,” Stokes, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor, says. The curriculum addresses important questions including ‘What is democracy?’ ‘Is American democracy really under threat?’ And ‘If it is what can we do about it?’

Students read everything from traditional texts on democratic theory and civil society, to recent papers about the impact of fake news and op-eds on bigotry’s role in the 2016 election. “The objective is to challenge students to think about current issues in new ways,” Stokes says.

In addition to the compelling content, the format of the course makes Democratic Erosion unique.

Faculty from universities including UChicago, Columbia, Brown, Duke, Georgetown, Rutgers and others, teach elements from the same syllabus at the same time. As of 2018-19, the course is being taught in 35 universities, most in the U.S. but also in other countries (including the U.K. and Philippines). This allows students from across campuses to collaborate on select assignments, and to engage not only with their own classmates, but with students at other universities as well. To bring them together, every student is required to write three blogs on topics covered in the course, which they post on a collaborative platform, and they are expected to critique each other’s blogs as part of the work.

“It’s a different kind of learning experience,” says Annika Hildebrandt, a second year undergraduate studying political science. “It combines the more traditional theoretical approach with current events.”

Blogs vs research papers

Students in Democratic Erosion write a final term paper. But they also do more non-traditional writing, especially their blog posts and critiques of posts by students at other universities. This is the first year Stokes has taught the class, and she has found that writing the blogs is one of the biggest challenges for students. “They are more accustomed to academic writing for a smaller and more controlled audience,” she says. “Blog writing is a very different skill set.”

For the first assignment, many of her 50 students received feedback that their “blogs” were more like miniature academic papers. So she brought in two grad students to teach them about blog writing, and how to write for a broader audience while still using their analytical skills.  “The second set of blogs showed a lot of improvement.”

Hildebrandt has enjoyed the blog writing process, though she admits that it is a little challenging. “We have to integrate our theoretical knowledge with what’s happening in the news.”  She has been reviewing op-eds and other academic blogs to help her shape her writing style for this format.

Students are also expected to attend a political event in the area, and to write a country case study, which will be included in a database shared with USAID, the United States State Department, and a consortium of NGOs working on democratic promotion. “It’s a chance for the students to contribute to the public discourse,” Stokes says. It also means anything they write will be shared for public consumption, and potentially help to influence future policy.

Along with developing writing skills, the course teaches students to discuss hot button topics without bringing partisan politics to bear. The goal of the course is to examine the threat of democratic erosion as an empirical question, rather than a political one, Stokes says. “We make room for all voices, because a diversity of opinion leads to better discussions.”

She encourages any students interested in current political events to consider taking the course. “These are matters of pressing concern to our nation,” she says. “This class gives students the tools to think about how democracy should work.”

Hildebrandt agrees. She’s already recommended the class to many of her friends. “This course has pushed me to look at all local and international news where democratic erosion is relevant,” she says. “If you are interested in current events, it is a great choice.”

 

The Chicago Center on Democracy: Uncovering advance warning signs of authoritarian leaders

When one visualizes how democratic governments fall, one likely pictures tanks in the streets, military takeover of the press, and other overt signs of a coup d’état. However, in recent decades, democracies die far more commonly from the slow and steady erosion of democratic institutions by elected leaders themselves.

Are there signs of these leaders’ authoritarian tendencies before they come to power? What distinguishes the campaign-trail language of such would-be strongmen from their more traditional opponents? In order to tackle such questions, the Chicago Center on Democracy has embarked on a research project to analyze the rhetoric of populists and democracy disruptors.

The center is gathering speeches of a variety of political leaders and candidates, and is using cutting-edge text-as-data techniques to analyze them. The project looks at, for example, politicians’ use of terms of unity and division, ideas about the identities of "the people" and their enemies, and the distinctive emotional cues the speakers try to elicit, from anger and fear to enthusiasm to optimism.

Those who are interested in following along on the Chicago Center on Democracy’s journey to understand such topics can join the center’s mailing list at democracy.uchicago.edu.