To understand this story, you’ve got to have a clear idea of what 14 percent means:
Fourteen percent of an eight-piece pizza translates into a little more than one slice.
In an elementary school classroom with 30 students, 14 percent of the class is 4.2 kids.
And for the roughly 30,000 undergraduate students at U-M, 14 percent means just 4,200 students.
That’s about how many students voted during the last midterm election: 14 percent.
“Young people vote at much lower rates than older people,” says Edie Goldenberg, professor of political science, professor of public policy in the Ford School, and the former dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. “Young people have very strong views and concerns about issues, but they’re not necessarily connecting the dots between these concerns and the ways that local and state officeholders affect them.”
Goldenberg wanted to do something about the low voting rates among students. She recruited two instructors—Ford School and LSA political science Professor Emeritus John Chamberlin and LSA Lecturer Oliver Thornton—to help build a class whose mission is to deliver more student voters on Election Day.
The team met a few times over the summer to bounce around ideas for the syllabus. Then, in August, Goldenberg organized a workshop in Boston funded by the Mellon Foundation that focused on research about college-age voters. Papers delivered at the workshop became part of the course reading material for the class, which was offered in the fall term. Since September, students in the class have been researching, planning, shooting, and distributing videos to get U-M students both to register and to actually vote on November 6. And then, afterwards, they will evaluate how effective their efforts were.
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Here’s how the class works: Students are divided into four teams. The first team collects research on the voting behavior of college students and on what kinds of public service announcements (PSAs) are effective. Then a second team—consisting mostly of students from LSA’s Department of Film, Television, and Media—films, edits, and publishes three PSAs over the course of the semester. A third team distributes the videos, putting them in front of as many students’ eyes as possible, while a fourth team measures the impact and reports out their assessment.
Research points to peer-to-peer communications as critical to getting college-age voters to the polls, Goldenberg says. For the class, that means creating PSAs that highlight students voting with their friends, showing students encouraging other students to vote, and making Election Day seem fun. But it was important not to overplan the whole thing.
“This couldn’t be a top down thing,” Goldenberg says. “This really had to be a student-generated set of messages. That’s why we wanted to do this project as a class, so that we could really empower students to develop those messages in ways that they felt would be effective.”
“It’s been fun to see the level of visual acuity in the students,” says Chamberlin. “With me, when a commercial comes on, I hit the mute button and go back to reading a book. But these students pay very close attention. They have a real sense of why something didn’t quite hit the mark or how to get somebody to pay attention to a 30- or 90-second spot.”
The environment in the class is active on all sides, says Chamberlin, with students bringing their full selves to the mission and challenges of the class.
“I think someone dropping in would probably be able to guess who the film students were,” says Chamberlin, “but it’s not the case that on some topics some students sit back and let the other students do it. Everyone feels very free to chime in with ideas.”
“Students on one team pitch in and help the other teams achieve their goals,” says Goldenberg. “All of them learn about the steps in the process.”
The class offers especially important career skills to students from the Department of Film, Television, and Media, says Thornton, giving them a glimpse of real-world conditions while also providing a safe space in which to experiment, fail, and learn.
“For production people, you always want to have more time than you get,” says Thornton, who has worked extensively on PSAs for Detroit Public Television. “But that’s how it is doing PSA work. You’ve got multiple spots to do and a month to do all of them. You’ve got to work well with marketing people, social media people, and analytics people. You have to listen to feedback from clients and focus groups. There’s a real need for this kind of practical experience from the point of view of myself and the department.”
Real deadlines provided a natural structure for the class, Thornton says. October 9 was the deadline to register to vote in Michigan and a number of other states. November 6 is Election Day. And then there is the end of the semester. They had three deadlines to make three videos. That meant getting to work quickly.
“The students have really impressed me because, for production classes, we usually don’t start filming until late October,” Thornton says. “Here, our first PSA was due on October 3, so there was no real time to get to know each other and feel things out. And they did it. They produced a great spot, and they hit all their deadlines.”
All of the instructors are thrilled with the students’ engagement and output, and they’re optimistic about how many students will turn out on November 6, even if it won’t be easy to suss out all of the results from the class’s PSAs. Other communications campaigns from university administrators, regional efforts like the Big Ten Voting Challenge, and national projects such as Rock the Vote are all working to accomplish similar goals. This class, Goldenberg says, is part of a larger movement.
“We’re hoping that these messages will motivate people who might not otherwise have gotten moving,” Goldenberg says. “We hope that students get registered, get educated, and turn out and vote.”
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