Dordt College News

Teachable moments

January 11, 2009

Election years always provide good learning opportunities. This fall’s election dramatically captured the attention of people across the United States and will likely go down in history books.

Many Dordt professors took the opportunity to relate their coursework to events and issues related to the election as a way to help students become more engaged with what they were learning.

Do students learn more during such times? Yes, in some ways, and especially in some majors. In political studies classes, for example, following political campaigns helps students see more clearly the effects of specific policies, and, for recently come-of-age voters, it helps them think about how they will make their decisions as they vote for the first time. They not only had to think about whom they would vote for but also figure out the logistics of voting for the first time.

Political Studies

“It was the first time many students really thought about what voting involves,” says Political Studies Professor Donald King, who encouraged his students to get the information they needed in time to vote by absentee ballot or register to vote in Iowa.

“Most of the time people don’t pay close attention to details of policymaking,” says King. By studying in Iowa this year, Dordt students got to see and hear John McCain right on campus. Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee came to Sioux Center, and Barak Obama came to Le Mars, twenty minutes south.

“It sometimes takes more than a talking professor to spark interest,” says King. “Listening to and talking with people who are making policy helps professors and students put legs on ideas-which is what education is all about.” Students whose interest is piqued often want to learn more and begin asking “Who are these people? “What do they stand for?” and “How will they affect my future?”

King’s goal is to have his students think through the issues, basing their opinions and decisions on knowledge of the issues. Even though he acknowledges that neither he nor his students can leave their political learnings behind, he urges his students not to think first of all from a partisan position. Instead, he wants them to think first as Christians trying to understand how to deal with the challenges of governing and policymaking.

In that spirit, King assigned each of the students in his American National Politics class a specific national congressional race to follow throughout the campaign and then analyze the different results after the election. Because many races were close, doing the research was interesting. Students reported to the class, summarizing their findings in a written report emphasizing the key elements that contributed to the final outcome. Students looked for voting patterns and tried to understand what those patterns meant for voter attitudes. As they kept current on the issues in the campaigns, they came to see that how people voted was based on a complex variety of factors and that the issues themselves were more complex than they first thought.

King also had his students follow referenda that appeared on the ballots in several states, including the California same-sex marriage and the Colorado live begins at conception initiatives. This assignment, too, challenged students to understand why people voted as they did. As they studied they learned, for example, that part of the reason some citizens in Colorado did not vote “yes” was because of the complexity of the initiative’s implications: that calling a fertilized egg a person had implications for political representation, for freezing embryos, for fertility issues, for criminal laws involving pregnant women, and more.

“They learned that sometimes technology moves faster than the law,” says King. And they learned that setting policy means taking into account a complex set of implications. Despite losing on a particular vote, those advocating justice for the unborn can learn and benefit from such referenda as they take their next step in shaping policy.

“It is difficult to think beyond partisan politics in the United States,” says King. And most of his students are reluctant to even think about a multi-party system, which King believes would offer citizens King believes would offer citizens, including Christians, more choices.

“Increasing numbers of evangelical Christians believe that they need to be thinking about biblical responsibility to the poor and the environment as well as abortion and same-sex marriage,” King notes. As citizens they want to have more choices than what has developed in a polarized two-party system. He urges his students to carefully discern how their faith shapes their ideas, learn to biblically defend their positions, and then look for a candidate that comes closest to those ideals.

To help them do this King had his students read a new book by Wheaton College Professor Amy Black titled Beyond Left and Right: Helping Christians make Sense of American Politics. Black takes up topics such as “Can Christians Honestly disagree?” “Beyond the Ballot Box: Other ways faith can inform politics,” “Is liberal a Bad Word? Understanding Political labels,” and “Are all Christians Republicans? Separating Truth from Myth.”

King encourages students to listen to a variety of voices, pointing them to Christian magazines, major newspapers, and online analyses. He also encourages them to read more than one newspaper or online news source and watch more than one television news program as they learn about political issues. Only then, he believes, will they be able to articulate and defend their own views.


Luke De Koster, who teaches a course in basic newswriting, believes that a good journalist needs to be an informed citizen. To cover news journalists need to what is going on in the world. De Koster had his students read articles on patriotism, investigate rumors that came up during the campaign, and read background articles on candidates to better understand the complexity of factors that drive them.

“It’s important to me that students think about the bigger world and not just about what they believe or were raised to believe,” says De Koster. “I challenge them to back up what they believe; if our faith pushes us to say something we need to be able to back it up,” he says, adding that a good journalist  needs to enjoy ideas and try to understand how God’s Word speaks to the news they are writing about.

“The world writes off stereotypical Christian answers,” he says. And just throwing in Bible verses as a piece of evidence doesn’t speak to non-Christians.

“We need to be creative communicators of the gospel in politics as well as in movies and other parts of life,” he says. He urges his students to use words in ways people don’t expect and in ways that help them think differently.


English Professor Leah Zuidema regularly tries to engage her students in what is going on around them and often selects current articles that will get their attention.

“The political season offers such good opportunities to hear well-crafted speeches,” she says. She wanted students to analyze the way language is and can be used effectively. Zuidema had her students study speeches by both presidential candidates to understand the techniques they used to communicate their ideas: cohesion of thought, repetition and symmetry of words, main emphases.

Zuidema and her students found that Obama arranged words skillfully, using many of the techniques they had learned for effective communication. They used a software program called WORDLE that downloads the words in a document to create a word picture based on which words were used and how often they were used. (

“It quickly became clear that Obama’s words were more content heavy. Scanning the top twenty-five words gave us a good sense of his message,” says Zuidema. McCain, on the other hand, more often used words aimed to connect with his audience. His word pictures did not give a strong sense of the content of his ideas but of trying to relate to his listeners.

The goal of these assignments was not to evaluate the speeches-although reading them helped students become more informed about the candidates’ positions, but to discover which style was easier to follow and which had a greater impact.

“Grammar is not stuffy,” says Zuidema, who uses pieces from magazines like Newsweek as well as textbook and online sources. “You can learn a lot from writers and speakers.” Her goal is for students to apply the techniques they learn from others in their own writing and speaking. She presents them with a variety of pieces to analyze, and even though the class conversations don’t focus on evaluating the content, students become more informed as they read.

Like King and De Koster, she too wants her students to know how others are thinking about issues as they form and argue for their own options.


Business Professor Dale Zevenbergen found election polls to be a gold mine for teaching research and statistical methods for marketing.

“Students at first find it hard to believe that a survey of 1100 people can give a reliable result for the whole population,” he says. Daily monitoring of the polls, especially those by Gallup, helped make the process real and not just theoretical. The online sites give a wealth of data and describe in detail the process used. And students could see how different polls focus on different information.

“Because polls were in the news daily, it was a perfect time to learn,” says Zevenbergen, who points to spikes and drops the presidential polls after events like the announcement of Sarah Palin for vice president and the fall of Lehman Brothers.

Zevenbergen wasn’t primarily trying to teach his students how to do surveys but how to use the information that can be obtained from them. Ultimately his students put what they had learned about polls and surveys to work for them in a class project on setting up a new restaurant.

Social Work

The day after the election, Social Work Professor Erin Olson was teaching her students about setting goals with clients. To help them apply the concept, she had them divide in groups to help President-elect Obama write some goals for his first term in office. Students had to follow ten principles, including such things as being realistic, flexible, and timely.

“Some were excited by the challenge, others groaned ‘More politics?’” said Olson. But the exercise helped students see the difficulty and importance of setting good goals, whether they would be working primarily with the people’s interpersonal relationships or developing public policy.


Future teachers had an opportunity to participate in a live-stream moderated debate between education experts in the McCain and Obama campaigns. Linda Darling-Hammond and Lisa Graham Keegan debated issues such as school choice and No Child Left Behind.

“It was good to see student interest in these issues,” says Professor Tim Van Soelen. Although education policy affects all schools, it will especially affect those who go on to teach in public schools across the country.

“It’s helpful when events are of such magnitude that it’s impossible not to be aware of and captured by them,” says King. Although he and his colleagues know that there are always plenty of things to relate their coursework to, tying to such major events makes it easier for students to see the concrete relevance of what they are learning."


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