Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Communication Studies
"Political Communication" is a survey course that introduces students to key concepts and theories regarding politics and the media. The course covers the historical development of American news, recent media trends, theories of attitude formation and change, the nature of news, the role of sources in the construction of the news, the economics of news production and consumption, the ways in which the news shapes the public’s perceptions of the political world, campaign communication, and the general role of the mass media in the democratic process.
The course is a broad overview that serves as a core class for the Communication Studies Department’s Political and Legal Communication subfield. It tends to attract students from both the Communication Studies and Political Science departments. Enrollments range from 75-130 students (almost exclusively juniors and seniors).
Syllabus & course website: https://classes.sscnet.ucla.edu/course/view/11F-COMMST160-1
Course Innovations (Technology and Techniques)
Communication Studies 160 is one of my favorite courses-mostly because of the subject matter, which is near and dear to my heart-but also because of the work my students do for the class. Below, I discuss a couple of the assignments I’ve developed that help make the course far more interesting for my students, as well as for me.
Political Advertising Project
I believe that students learn best when they are actively engaged in their own education, and are challenged to apply what they have learned. To help students better understand the production and persuasive impact of television, in 2002 I began requiring Political Communication students to make commercials for fictitious presidential campaigns.
For the assignment, students divide into groups of three students apiece and are given several hours of raw footage for two hypothetical presidential nominees (last time we had Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) vs. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT)). The groups research the candidates and decide which side to support, review the footage (which they are required to include for at least 1/4 of each commercial), and then submit storyboards to me for one 30-second commercial supporting their candidate, and one 30-second commercial attacking the opposing candidate.
I then train the entire class on basic video editing using Apple’s iMovie (which is installed on every loan-able computer on campus provided by our libraries), although groups can elect to use whatever video editing software they prefer. Students then work on refining and editing their commercials for about a month, and then turn in their final projects to the course website. I then compile the commercials-identified only by the group’s number and their preferred candidate-into a DVD, which we then watch as a group in class in a “film festival.” Students then take copies of the DVD home and submit peer evaluations of their fellow students’ videos, providing general feedback and an evaluation of whether each commercial made them marginally more or less likely to vote for each candidate. Students also vote for their choice as the top two videos in a variety of categories, including best negative, best positive, most creative, most technically proficient, best soundtrack, and most persuasive.
While a majority of the students’ grades come from my evaluation of the commercials, I also base some of their score on how much each commercial succeeded in moving their peers to vote for the preferred candidate. The winning videos in each of the award categories also receive a “bonus” on top of their base score. On the last day of class, we then have a Hollywood-style ceremony that highlights the award-winning videos, and discuss how the project has affected their thinking about political communication.
As a measure of how seriously students take the project, when they realized that the peer evaluations would affect their grade in the class, groups began requesting to do audience research. Eventually, I consolidated these and began offering the groups the ability to craft no more than four questions for an audience research survey. While I would provide students with a breakdown of the aggregate class ideology, party ID, candidate likes/dislikes, and most-important issues, the results for each group’s own set of questions would be seen only by them.
The project is a daunting one for both me and my students, but has gotten somewhat easier with time because of improvements in technology (when I started the project, editing digital video was possible only in a specialized, high-tech lab; now students can edit high-quality video on a cell phone) and to the structure of the assignment (three-person groups, for example, allow two members to punish free riding by the third student by voting him/her out of the group, making making the ostracized student have to do the project solo). But many of my former students report that it made Political Communication one of the most memorable and influential courses they took while at UCLA.
Check out some of the videos made by students in the course:
Example 1: Positive Ad (note that it will take a few minutes before it will play)
Example 2: Negative Ad
Start of Quarter Survey (Split Ballot Framing Experiment)
A far less daunting project in the class involves a bit of deception on my part. At the start of each quarter, I ask the students to fill out a survey to help me get to know them better as a class. I do this in all of my classes in one form or another, and have found it to be a valuable tool to “get a sense of the room” and provide data and examples from students’ own lives to better understand or relate to national surveys. For example, I’ve been asking students about their media consumption patterns since 2002, and can show current students how their TV watching and time online compare with prior Political Communication Students.
However, unbeknownst to students, I’m also using the survey as a split ballot experiment. To demonstrate the power of framing, I randomly split the students between two surveys that ask for student feedback about grading scales. In one case, students are asked whether they’d support a grading scale in which 80% of the students received a grade of C- or above. In the other, they’re asked whether they’d support a scale in which 20% receive a D or lower (note: there are no D+ grades). Despite the students’ intense preferences and high levels of information regarding grading, the students’ expressed preference for or against the grading scheme shift dramatically depending on the wording, providing great fodder for discussion when we discuss framing later in the quarter.
Recipient, Brian P. Copenhaver Award for Teaching with Technology
Co-PI, NSF Cyber-enabled Discovery and Innovation Grant
Apple Distinguished Educator
UCLA Communication Studies Departmental Teaching Award
Two-time nominee for UCLA Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award