Largest class taught in Vanderbilt history draws national attention

Size and scope of U.S. Elections class allows for ex-presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as guest lecturer. Meanwhile, one of the class’ multiple-choice questions lands on Fox News.

Student+on+her+computer

Emery Little

Student works on an assignment on her laptop. (Hustler Multimedia/Emery Little)

Charlotte Mauger and Brendan O'Reilly

The U.S. Elections course, PSCI 1150, makes Vanderbilt history this semester as the largest class ever taught at the university, bringing with it both opportunities and unprecedented challenges. 

The class, intended to give students insight into the world of presidential elections, is taught by political science professors Jon Meacham, Eunji Kim, Joshua Clinton and Dean John Geer. The four professors, with the help of four teaching assistants (TAs), lead nearly 850 students in the all-virtual class, utilizing Zoom’s webinar feature and Brightspace’s discussion boards to facilitate the record-breaking number of students. 

Dean Geer recently shared his thoughts on the goals of the class and the record enrollment number, commenting on the power of such a large class.

“A class of 800—you just think about the collective firepower of that. It’s pretty impressive because all Vandy students are smart, they are, and you know, that’s kind of the one level obvious. But here’s a group of them thinking all roughly about the same kinds of problems at once,” Geer said. 

For several students, one of the main draws of the class was the expertise of the faculty involved.

Clinton is a senior election analyst at NBC News and the 2020 chairman of the task force on the performance of pre-election polls for the American Association of Public Opinion. Kim specializes in public opinion and political psychology. Geer serves as a Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) and specializes in presidential politics and elections. Meacham is a 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner and journalist with expertise in presidential biographies.

Coursework

Teaching Assistant and Political Science Ph.D. candidate Mellissa Meisels commented on how the professors are able to work off of one another. She said that Kim and Clinton speak about their research interests and specialties, while Meacham and Geer are able to provide historical context for the 2020 election and draw comparisons from previous elections.

Meisels also noted that this course is unique in that it does not have a set curriculum or syllabus, but is rather adaptable. 

“The professors are trying to make this class as relevant and interesting as possible for the students. That is the overarching goal,” Meisels said. “If something popped up in this election that’s clearly ongoing right now, they want to be able to create a lesson around that and talk about that, so that [students] can have super relevant and current information.”

While students acknowledge the uniqueness of the course both academically and logistically, they are also cognizant of the various challenges and limitations of the webinar format. 

First-year Grace Phillips registered for the class on a whim. Phillips stated that the class has offered her new perspectives with which to consider the 2020 election. While Philips said she is enjoying the class, she believes the rather vague syllabus lends itself to a certain degree of ambiguity. Clinton further acknowledges that the amenable curriculum has also been a unique challenge to the professors. 

“It’s a bit unsettling, as someone who likes to know deadlines and organize and go by data, but hopefully it’s an interesting journey we can take collectively, both the professors and the students, so that we end up, at the end of the day, with a really great experience,” Clinton said.

Quiz question lands on Fox News

The grading of the class has also been a topic of discussion amongst students looking for more structure. Meisels stated that the grading system is something the professors are still working on. Clinton agreed that, much like the curriculum of the course, the exact details of grading are still being figured out. 

He notes that while the simplest thing to do would be to provide all multiple-choice questions, the content of the class is too nuanced to lend itself well to that platform. In fact, a recent multiple choice quiz question has sparked national controversy. 

As part of a true or false online quiz taken on what day, students were asked if the Constitution was “designed to perpetuate white supremacy and protect the institution of slavery.” According to a Fox News article, students who did not select “true” were initially deducted points, which left some students unhappy. The quiz was in conjunction with an asynchronous lecture from Professor Meacham in which he addressed the topics on the quiz. 

“The constitutional structure undoubtedly was designed and ratified and has endured with structural advantages that perpetuated white supremacy, and until just a century ago, white male supremacy,” Meachem stated in the lecture posted for students on Sept. 1.

Both Clinton and Geer spoke of software issues and claimed the quiz was not supposed to mark the question wrong when students answered “false.” They stated that the question was not intended to penalize students for either answer as the question was designed to allow students to think critically and express their own opinions. 

“We told them in the outset that we’re sometimes going to ask them questions that prompt them to think, but that they won’t be penalized for it,” Clinton said. “I think there was some confusion in the report that said that students were penalized for their answer on that question. That’s categorically wrong.”  

The official university statement reported to Fox News reiterated what Clinton had said. 

“No student was rewarded or penalized for their answer. The question was posed to stimulate discussion,” a spokesperson from the university said in an email statement to The Hustler.

Guest Appearance from Ex-Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg

The size and scope of the class and the unique virtual format has also allowed for high-profile guest lectures, such as Pete Buttigieg’s surprise appearance on Sept. 3.

Pete Buttigieg joins the US Elections class over Zoom
Former Mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg joins the US Elections course over Zoom on Sept. 3. (Hustler Staff/Charlotte Mauger)

Phillips felt the experience to be beneficial in gaining personal insight into the 2020 Election and felt it was a nice complement to the professor’s history-based lectures.

While the virtual format provides for experiences such as this one, Clinton noted it also makes for more organizational problems the professors are working hard to iron out.

Chat feature on Zoom presents challenges

One such organizational problem arises from the use of the chat feature on Zoom and the open discussion boards on Brightspace.

Junior Anna Qian, a History major and Engineering Management minor, has been an active member of class discussion boards. She said she is a former member of Vanderbilt College Republicans (VCR) and was told by the organization that her comments in the U.S Elections class were excessively extreme and inflammatory.

She issued an apology on the class Brightspace board after receiving some pushback from other students that her comments in the Zoom chat were disrespectful. One such comment criticized Meacham’s involvement with Trump’s impeachment proceedings.

“I said that I just disagreed that Professor Meacham was helping out so much with the Democrats’ impeachment effort,” Qian said. “People found that to be very insulting and very disrespectful of the professor.”

Qian said she has recently been working on a campaign for Ken Stickney, who is currently running as a Republican in Boulder, Colorado for State House District 10, and that her active participation in the class comes from her strong beliefs and interest in politics.

“I’m probably the only person in the class being so expressly political just because I feel really strongly,” Qian said.

Clinton commented on the issue of the chat, acknowledging that he knows it can be distracting and there is potential for someone to say something that can send the class in an unintended direction. However, he feels it is one of the only ways students can voice their opinions and participate; for that reason, it will remain open to the students.

Clinton acknowledges that with such a large enrollment number and unique format for the class, there are going to be issues. However, he still believes in the utility of the course.

“I want them all to be empowered, to be able to consume what they’re seeing critically and think about it, and come to their own decisions about what they think about the world,” Clinton said.