September 21, 2007

Honors class explores Obama's candidacy

by Eric Welch

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama rose from a relatively little-known Illinois legislator to a prominent national figure in just a few short years, and a select group of honors students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is exploring how he did it.

This fall the University Honors program at SIUC is offering a social science course entitled, "Barack Obama and Presidential Politics," which examines both the structure of a presidential campaign as well as Illinois' junior senator.

Like all honors courses, it goes beyond the typical classroom experience to give honors students the chance to participate in a small classroom setting, work closely with faculty and explore topics in greater detail. The University Honors Program gives talented and motivated students a private-school experience by offering breakfast seminars with distinguished lecturers, access to graduate classes, extended library benefits, and transcript recognition in addition to advanced undergraduate courses.

"You can teach the history and the process, but Barack Obama and what's going on with his campaign brings that process to life," said Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute and co-instructor for the class.

Lawrence and former SIUC Chancellor John Jackson blend their experience and expertise to provide their class of 14 honors students with top-notch instruction. Lawrence, who was also former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar's press secretary and adviser, said that co-instructing puts an interesting spin on how they teach the class.

"John is a scholar, and he brings the perspective of a scholar into the classroom. I bring the perspective of a practitioner," Lawrence said. "I've covered campaigns as a journalist, been to eight national conventions and been a senior adviser in two campaigns for governor of Illinois. I think that's a good balance in the class."

The course will highlight caucuses, primaries, the role of the media, public opinion polling, major players in a campaign and other challenges in becoming president. Obama's campaign will essentially serve as a case study for the students to watch those topics play out on a national stage.

"I want them to understand the history of presidential campaigns, the major elements of those campaigns, and the challenges that candidates face," Lawrence said. "I want them to understand the theory and the reality of presidential campaigns."

Jackson, professor emeritus in political science, said he finds Obama to be an intriguing figure considering his personal background lets him relate to a bigger world.

"He's lived overseas, grew up partially in Indonesia and Hawaii, which is a diverse and multiethnic society, and he understands the bigger world in a very immediate way that many America politicians don't," Jackson said.

In addition to their veteran instructors, students will also have the opportunity to hear from several respected guest lecturers throughout the semester.

"We had David Yepsen, who is the top political columnist in the state of Iowa – he is the expert for the Iowa caucuses," Jackson said. "He spoke to our class, and then at 5:30 that night, he was the lead story on 'ABC World News' being interviewed by Charlie Gibson.

"I'd like to see young people take note of how serious this is and informing themselves and voting," Jackson said. "That, I think is important: being aware of the context and having some idea of how it all came about. I'm big on people getting involved and paying attention, particularly young people learning that this is important."