New Mason Debates Course to Analyze Presidential Candidates

Posted: May 21, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Lynn Burke

Using this year’s presidential election, David Kuebrich, associate professor of English, will present a new course, UNIV 342 George Mason Debates in Current Affairs, this fall to teach students news media literacy and research skills they can use to study current issues.

The genesis of the Mason Debates was a course description and syllabus Kuebrich submitted several years ago in response to a request from the provost for proposals for the new general education curriculum. “Under this general title, a professor might teach any issue she or he prefers,” Kuebrich says. “The common factor in the course, regardless of the topic, would be that students examine an ideological range of news and information sources.”

Kuebrich says much of the pedagogy underlying the course is well summed up in a statement by the 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill: “The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this.”

Last spring, Marilyn Mobley McKenzie, associate provost for educational programs, who oversees the general education curriculum, asked Kuebrich to offer the course. Together they came up with the topic of the presidential election.

“The course will be a debate in two senses,” says Kuebrich. “It will examine the national debate over who should be our next president, and it will include a number of guest speakers who will present differing perspectives on issues foregrounded in the news coverage of the Bush and Kerry campaigns.” At this point, Kuebrich is thinking of emphasizing the candidates’ views on three topics: the war in Iraq, health care, and free trade.

In addition to having two or three speakers present opposing positions on each of the issues, the course will involve students regularly reading a range of news sources, probably a conservative newsweekly such as the Weekly Standard, a liberal newsweekly such as the Nation, and a major commercial newspaper such as the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times. Students will also read many other popular and scholarly publications and web sites on the subjects.

“In the not-so-distant past, it was quite time-consuming and somewhat expensive to search out a range of opinions about a social issue,” says Kuebrich. “The Internet has changed that, giving us easy access to commercial and alternative news sources, the web sites of government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, and hundreds of scholarly databases. Students in a Mason Debates course will be doing a lot of Internet research.” At the end of the semester, students will present their own views in a research paper and oral report.

“I don’t want the students to divide along ideological lines or engage in cheerleading for a particular candidate,” says Kuebrich. “Instead, I hope they will view the campaign as providing interesting subject matter for sharpening their critical reading, research, thinking, and writing skills.” He also hopes that the course will help students become informed and active citizens. “And, of course, I hope it will encourage them to cast informed votes this November.”

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