20 December 2016: Students discuss US politics in American Politics and 2016 Presidential Election course

By Yasunari Watanabe | Image by Haroun Chahed

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The 2016 presidential election in the United States proved to be tumultuous, unpredictable and relevant for people around the world.

Over the past semester, 18 students from Yale-NUS took a course on American Politics and the 2016 Presidential Election, taught by Dr Catherine Sanger, Lecturer, Social Sciences (Global Affairs) and Vice Rector of Cendana Residential College.

The course provided students with a broad overview of the institutions and ideologies of the American political system, in the context of the presidential election.

“My challenge in developing this course was to create one that would have the breadth of an introductory survey course, but enough depth that a student interested in American politics could get a deeper toehold into the field,” said Dr Sanger. The first half of the course focused on the founding ideology and primary institutions. The second half examined the presidency, particularly the elections. Students learned how parties have become polarised to understand the contentious nature of this year’s election.

Lionel Kuek (Class of 2019) decided to take the course following a Yale Summer Session in Washington, D.C. After visiting the Smithsonian museums and attending a courtroom lecture in the Supreme Court, Lionel was motivated to learn about the American political system in depth. “When this course became available, I was really excited,” he said.

The real-time nature of the election posed some challenges for Dr Sanger in designing the course. “The syllabus was developed before we knew who the candidates would be,” she said, adding that the class had to be flexible and adaptive to the election news. She added that students were expected to stay up to date with the news in their own time. “Students really had to take a lot of ownership and initiative to educate themselves about the election,” she said.

The course was centred on discussions of the readings and election news. Regina Marie Lee (Class of 2018) noted that many of the students did not have enough knowledge at the beginning of the course to apply the information, but by half-term, the class had covered the main details, and discussions were a lot more productive.

The international array of voices in the class meant that students had their unique takes on the course, based on the politics of the student’s home country. “When you have a classroom filled with people from different political systems, it’s going to fundamentally enrich your understanding of the material,” said Dr Sanger.

For example, Regina recalled interesting perspectives from her British classmates who compared Britain’s parliamentary democracy with the American presidential democracy, as well as related topics like Brexit. “The insights that the participants brought were quite varied,” she said.

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During the presidential and vice presidential debate screenings, as well as the final election viewing on 9 November, the sharing of perspectives was even more interesting. Led by Helena Auerswald (Class of 2019), the course participants were responsible for organising these screenings which attracted a wide spectrum of students and faculty, across different nationalities and background. “It speaks to how consequential the decisions that the American people make for their leadership are for the rest of the world,” said Dr Sanger. “It also speaks well to the global engagement we have here at Yale-NUS.”

Throughout the semester, students maintained a blog, which they populated with both original analysis and links to scholarly and non-scholarly sources. “The role of the media was a consistent theme throughout the course,” said Dr Sanger, who emphasised the importance of not just understanding the events, but also “how the sources we use influence the way we think”.

Regina said the course taught her the importance of institutional design. She found that the Singaporean political system emphasises education and encourages qualified individuals to go into public service and become politicians. American politics, however, have a system of checking power against power. “It’s not about who goes into these institutions, but once they go into these institutions, they have curbs on how they can exercise their power,” she said.

“Our students are curious and attentive and feel invested in the state of the world,” said Dr Sanger. “We aim to equip them with the skills, knowledge and compassion to do something about it.”