Political Web Writing with the Stephen Colbert Super PAC
In the fall of 2012, as a professor of political science at an undergraduate liberal arts college, I plunged my students—and myself—into the world of web writing centered around a campus-based, self-protesting Super PAC (Political Action Committee). The public writing that resulted reflected my growing interest in changing technologies in both the political world and the political science classroom. Super PACs after Citizens United v FEC have changed election dynamics, and web media have become a key means of political action.
Web writing should be part of any political science curriculum. Our graduates aspire to careers in politics, advocacy, and journalism—all fields where writing competency is valued. Writing encourages students to process ideas, transcending the limits of learning by rote and periodic examination. In particular, Christopher Lawrence and Michelle Dion note that regular blogging is an effective learning mechanism especially well suited for political commentary:
The unique features of blogging have lent themselves particularly well to political commentary. Political blogs tend to combine links to, and excerpts from, mass-media accounts of daily political events with political commentary by their authors, links to other blogs with commentary on these events, and (often, but not always) a comment forum associated with each post for visitors to contribute their own commentary and debate with other visitors or the post’s author. They foster dialogue between bloggers and their audience, provide for the summarization and dissemination of political news and events, and help readers to conceptualize the political world.
I found blogging particularly interesting for its positive correlation with higher levels of offline civic engagement. I had already planned to incorporate civic engagement activities in my classes, recognizing that students who participate in elections become more familiar with the electoral processes and tend to remain engaged throughout their lives. I considered blogging an effective supplement, enhancing the value of civic assignments.
In comparison to a traditional website built with static pages, blogs have a fluid, conversational nature that helps demonstrate the iterative nature of writing. Blogs, however, also encourage “quicker and more haphazard thinking, simpler (and even simplistic) analyses, and more ill-advised dudgeon” rendering them less efficacious for more polished research and essays. Consequently, I assigned my students, as a public service, to adapt conventional research assignments for our class site, We Just Want Stephen Colbert To Come To Our College SuperPAC. The major departure from my past teaching was that students were now required to involve themselves in the political laboratory of the community and were encouraged to write for a public audience rather than strictly for their professor. Students were assigned online writing for my fall 2012 classes—Political Science 100: Introduction to Politics; Political Science 348: Parties and Elections; and Political Science 303: Law, Courts and Judges—and also my spring 2014 Political Science 201: American Politics class.
Background: We Just Want Stephen Colbert To Come To Our College SuperPAC
In March of 2012, political satirist Stephen Colbert offered his viewers, especially college students, an opportunity to purchase his Super Fun Pack that included instructions on starting their own Super PACs. As an enticement, Colbert also offered owners of Fun Packs the opportunity to enter his Treasure Hunt where, if they found Colbert’s silver turtle hidden somewhere in the USA, they would win a visit by Colbert to their campus. The more attractive idea was that they could join with Colbert’s “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow Super PAC” in a spontaneous campus-based protest of Super PACs and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. At the time, I was planning my upcoming fall classes around the election and was thinking in terms of creating a classroom environment conducive to civic engagement and web writing as a new pedagogical focus. So, I jumped at the chance to center my classes on the greater Colbert campus-based Super PAC happening. I hoped to encourage students to act and write in terms of the audience of their peers, the demographic that watches The Colbert Report. We were one of about twenty Colbert Super PACs in 2012 and may be the sole survivor.
Having filed the requisite papers with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), I was caught off guard by media keeping track of new PAC registrations. Politico, recognizing the ambiguity in our Super PAC’s name—slighting Colbert’s Treasure Hunt, wanting just the prize—opined we might be “the most honest Super Pac ever” The Huffington Post and the New York Observer also made inquiries. I responded with a press release, desiring to maintain an ambiguous stance toward Colbert and resorting to occasional humor, although I am not a professional satirist. The press release made a second joke of Colbert’s Treasure Hunt, noting I already had a turtle collection and teasing that my Super PAC’s motto was “Treasure None but Your Vote.” The ambiguity seemed to work, my college president recognizing it as “political satire on political satire.”
I wanted the class setting to encourage direct engagement with the political process and to be interesting as well as fun. I felt it important, however, to continue an approach to Colbert that was neither adulation nor condemnation in order to leave room for a variety of student viewpoints. For example, The Colbert Report occasionally features a “Better Know a District” segment where a Congressional guest becomes the “straight man” of Colbert’s pointed humor. As a foil to Colbert’s faux interviews, we instituted “A Better Way to Know a District” where students registered voters throughout Maryland’s Fifth Congressional District, holding two dozen voter registration events at seventeen locations.
Introducing Web Writing into My Course Design
I first considered having students build a website for the SuperPAC, but inquiries to colleagues, discussions with college IT staff, and my own summer experiments with various templates and text editors soon dissuaded me. I did not want mastering website development to substitute for learning political science in my classes. The web writing and civic engagement assignments were to be integral course components and not mere add-ons. To facilitate this, I themed each of my 2012 classes. “Intro to Politics” became “Democratic Participation,” and “Parties & Elections” became “Money and Votes.” The challenge was “Law, Courts, & Judges,” a junior-level course on the judicial process. Highlighting a contentious race for a local judgeship and the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case reinforced the theme given this course: This is an election year; who cares about courts and judges? The question came with one answer: Al Gore certainly did in 2000, making the point that courts do matter in electoral politics.
The syllabi for these themed classes included writing regular blog posts, generally three per week, and commenting on other students’ posts. Students were expected to demonstrate knowledge of course material and their ability to communicate that knowledge effectively. Students in the Parties & Elections course were assigned additional group research papers adapted to the web as static pages of the Super PAC website. I adjusted my grade-weighting scheme to make blogging a meaningful part of students’ grades, 15-20% for 2012. These changes also left room for civic engagement activities, accounting for another 15% of final grades. In 2014, I transformed assignments traditionally completed in paper form into blog spots and web content on the Super PAC site, and therefore increased the weight for web writing to 50% of the final course grade.
As part of their civic engagement responsibilities, students trained to become voter registrars and took part in off-campus voter registration and “Get Out the Vote” (GOTV) events. Students in the Parties and Elections course were expected to serve as election judges in local precincts. Those unable or ineligible to do so were allowed options to volunteer as precinct “greeters” for candidates or parties, drive a shuttle to transport student voters to the polls, staff the Super PAC-sponsored Election Command Center and Hotline on campus, or observe the official canvass of provisional and absentee ballots.
For research assignments, students choose from placeholders on the Super PAC’s homepage related to the theme of their class and the Super PAC’s overall election and voting concerns. Among other assignments, my students in 2012 formed groups and created website content for “SuperPACs,” “Gerrymandering,” and “Voter Suppression.” Course syllabi are available on my pedagogy blog.
There are numerous options for publishing student writing on the web, and interested readers may refer to platforms and hosting services I considered. Because of FEC regulations concerned about the sources and uses of political campaign funds, I was compelled to secure external hosting for the Super PAC, which is a political committee unaffiliated with any college. (The Super PAC raises funds for its pro-voter agenda and uses some funds to provide resources to college students.) I chose Hostgator as my hosting provider. With a low-level reseller account, I can host as many as 1,000 students as if each was a client purchasing hosting services from the Super PAC—only the Super PAC provides student accounts at no cost.
Each student is provided her own WordPress web-blog. There is a trade-off between letting students have total control over the design of their sites or compelling them to use a standard design and format. To provide group thematic cohesiveness, to emphasize writing over design, and to minimize technical distractions, I generally restrict students to using the same free default theme and header image. The 2014 WordPress default theme is my current choice. Students are otherwise granted substantial leeway to customize their sites.
Overall, setting up WordPress sites for students in advance has worked well because students can focus on content from day one rather than learning how to set up a blog account. Within the first two weeks, students easily become accustomed to WordPress. During this period, some class time is dedicated to technical aspects of WordPress—some preferably in a computer lab. It helps to provide simple how-to guides for a few basic tasks, which I publish on my blog as how-to stickies.
In the Classroom
Because I had not specified particular questions to be answered or issues to be addressed, blog content varied considerably during 2012. A few students confined themselves to reporting political news with little commentary. Most students went well beyond that minimal effort. Some students took advantage of blogging’s creative strengths, as in Jonathan Holtzman’s “Ben Cardin: Senator, Second Banana, Invisible-Man?” and Matt Carney’s, “The American Political Media: Why Bipartisanship is Going Extinct.”
Using new tools and methods in my classes reminded me that students will rise to expectations when given motivation and encouragement. To improve students’ abilities “to summarize the story, to get to the heart, to the point, to sum up quickly and concisely,” I now teach the Inverted Pyramid Style of journalism adapted for the web. Successful blogs often display the inverted structure in response to people quickly scanning web-content while looking for something interesting to read. Such posts often begin with compact and enticing “headlines and blurbs” that conclude the post up front, branching out into detail from there.
My American Politics students have always prepared “thought questions” and “news reports” for each class. Five years ago, to improve the quality of the exercise, I began requiring students to email their “thought questions” to me before class. Now these assignments have been adapted to blogging. For each class, students write headlines, blurbs, and short posts with cited references or external links for a news item.
I also presently require a weekly web-essay of 500 words plus blurb that is to be more polished than the typical blog post. I expect essays to evidence class material and current events, indicating that students have researched the issue a bit. Many weeks have scheduled web-essay topics. Others are student choice. Since 2014, I have required students to prepare well-researched content designed for a static page of the website. This individual assignment of 2000 – 3000 words is turned in well before the semester ends in order to leave time for editing.
A great deal of time is invested in writing effective posts and finding one’s topical style. As a class project, web writing taxes both students and professor. Overall, I do not assign students more work than before, but it is more visible and they take it more seriously as a result. I find it is good practice to give students regular feedback by grading their work every couple of weeks using rubrics available to them on my pedagogy blog.
Student Responses: The Results of the Experiment
As students in my 2012 Introduction to Politics course wrestled with issues such as the difference between a nation and a state and why socialism seems to be a dirty word, I saw that they were learning the language of political science and the kinds of questions the field addresses. In some blogs, I identified interests not evident in the classroom as students more willingly personalized the theories and abstract materials we covered in their readings into “soapbox” opinion pieces, as is typical of bloggers, which became a pedagogical advantage. Students in the Parties and Elections course also experimented with the form. Two enterprising members of the Parties & Elections course went so far as to live blog one of the 2012 presidential debates. Prior to the debate, they tested several live-blogging plugins and got one up and running on their sites.
Many students used their blogs to reflect on their 2012 civic engagement activities: the demographics of people they registered, what kinds of questions they were asked, how hard it was to muffle their political views during registration and GOTV events, and the adventures they had as election judges. There was an interesting spill-over effect from the class activities. I had launched a Facebook page for the Super PAC, and in response to some students comments, I granted them “content manager” privileges to post as the Super PAC.
I made some changes for 2014. I try to grade blogs more often—every two to three weeks, providing comments. I convey higher expectations and structure blogging requirements more. I have added additional instructions and readings on web writing and plan to make a habit of inviting experienced bloggers to speak to the class. Class lectures now leave more time for critiques—first of external political blogs and then of student work. The expected class-then-blog relationship is often flipped to blog-then-class. A thread picked up from blog posts and comments can serve as the entrée into a subsequent class discussion. This reversal underpins blogging’s integral role in the course.
Throughout the 2012 election, the pattern of our Super PAC-related course activities replicated patterns found in election campaigns. Until the election, the students (and I) had to balance limited hours, course objectives, on-going projects, and blogging. . . all within the fixed constraint of election timing, including the mid-October close of voter registration, the deadline for requesting absentee ballots, and the election itself. Following the big buildup to Election Day in early November there was a sudden release of tension and the question arose, “Now what?” We then shifted our focus from one kind of community outreach to another kind of publicness via more emphasis on the blogs. The nature of the blog writing thus changed during the post-election season after most had gotten in a few good comments on the outcome. Posts became more reflective, as in Emma Kaufman’s, “What is the Point of Political Activism?”
In 2012 I had approached web writing as a supplement to civic engagement, as a set of tools. In that sense, the semester was highly successful. Students did write—most of them a lot—about politics. They were more involved and invested in their writing and engaged a broader range of topics and concerns than they would have in traditional, narrow-themed academic papers guided by the Chicago Manual of Style. In addition, blog commenting can circumvent the dyadic nature of classroom discussions between students and their instructor as demonstrated by Nico Moore’s post, “The Respect of the President.”
Today, web writing has become less a supplement and more another civic engagement activity in its own right. But, I believe it takes a critical mass to make the transition. Sparse external comments can discourage students. It has helped to have a visible website and exemplar work of previous students available for current students’ reviews and class discussions, things which were not available to me before. Googling “gerrymandering” in class now returns our page twice on the first page of results. Searching “college student election judges” returns posts written by our own students. By the end of March 2014, Matthew Riedel’s two-month old blog topped 37,000 page views not counting bots (class average is 13,000). While earning stats is not the goal, such realizations can help students visualize themselves as taking part in something larger than just doing homework, and most respond.
On the civic engagement side, I have witnessed some truly outstanding commitment by my students. Some awoke at 8 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday to register voters. Others spent 15 hours at the polls serving as election judges. (This duty was not without its rewards, as Jonathan Holtzman’s post revealed.) Another pair of students who were ineligible to serve as election judges spent Election Day out in the cold volunteering for local candidates and greeting voters on their way into polling locations.
Our Election Day efforts were recognized locally. Three of the students who served as Election Judges were interviewed by the local newspaper, and the Chief Election Judge at our local precinct emailed the day after Election Day, noting a marked increase in voter turnout for her precinct and attributed that to our efforts.
Political scientists so far have focused mainly on the benefits and drawbacks of blogging in regard to their own scholarship and writing. John Sides, an author of the award-winning blog The Monkey-Cage, described how blogging could better position the political scientist in seeking tenure and advancement, in large part by inculcating better writing and research habits. Robert Farley, an author of the less-structured Lawyers, Guns & Money, countered Sides, charging him in complicity with a “tenure and promotion system …built around an obsolete social and technological foundation, with career success built around posting a few articles in a few journals subscribed to by a few libraries and read by few people.” Farley called instead for new incentives to reward academics who write blogs that “concentrate less on the transmission of academic research into the policy sphere and more on the direct application of research knowledge and skills to political and policy questions.” I find both these views value too much the political scientist as political or policy wonk and steer the focus of web writing too far away from its potential in the classroom. I agree with Juan Cole, author of the blog Informed Comment, that the issue of web writing and academic careers is misplaced. Cole says the question is “shameful.” My own focus is on applying both Sides and Farley’s better premises to web writing pedagogy, which means I spend my free time administering student accounts, preparing web writing class materials in response to student progress in writing political commentary and research for the web, advising them personally as needed, and mostly reading their work. This leaves no time for me to routinely blog or write in the dedicated fashion of Sides, Farley, and Cole. However, my students are very familiar with these and other prominent political bloggers and read them more widely and in more depth than before, including analyzing writing styles and communicative effectiveness—from the students’ own web writing experience base.
I plan to continue the civic engagement/public writing model in my political science courses. Plans for fall 2014 include civic engagement and web writing for a second Parties and Elections class, and I will launch The Maryland Poll as a project distinct from but with a similar pedagogical deployment as the Super PACs. I have been awarded two Mellon Grants for Service Learning to cover the expense of civic engagement assignments in both fall classes, which also have been approved as Experiencing Liberal Arts in the World (ELAW) courses, satisfying a general College requirement.
Finally, I should note that Stephen Colbert has not come to our college. After agreeing to sell our t-shirts (with no profit to me or the Super PAC), my campus bookstore encouraged me to print a brochure that addresses the question, “Will Stephen Colbert Come To Our College?”. I stated that I would prefer if Colbert came for what we had accomplished, implying I wouldn’t want him to come too soon, not just because we have a catchy name and have adopted an adorable clown for a mascot. Also, I thought it impractical for Colbert to visit us back then out of fairness to the winner of his Treasure Hunt and the many other Colbertesque campus-based Super PACs. After all, the idea of a visit may be more civically engaging than the event. But in considering what on earth else we might have to accomplish to earn a freebie visit from His Grace, I must say, it does appear Stephen Colbert has set high expectations.
About the author: Susan Grogan teaches political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a public honors college.
How to cite:
Susan Grogan, “Civic Engagement: Political Web Writing with the Stephen Colbert Super PAC,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/grogan.
See an earlier version of this essay with open peer review comments.
- Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 130 S. Ct 876 (Supreme Court 2010). ↵
- Christopher N. Lawrence and Michelle L. Dion, “Blogging in the Political Science Classroom,” PS: Political Science & Politics 43:1 (2010): 152. ↵
- Kenneth W. Moffett and Laurie L. Rice, “College Students and Blogging Activity during the 2008 and 2012 Elections,” presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (2013): 3. ↵
- Robin Smith, “Embedding Engagement in a Political Science Course: Community College and University Students and the Help America Vote College Poll Worker Program,” Journal for Civic Commitment 19 (2012): 6-15. ↵
- John Sides, “The Political Scientist as Blogger,” PS: Political Science & Politics 44:2 (2011): 268. ↵
- Susan Grogan, "We Just Want Stephen Colbert To Come to Our College SuperPAC" parent website for political science classes, St. Mary's College, Maryland, 2012-14, http://wejustwantstephencolberttocometoourcollegesuperpac.org/. ↵
- Anne Palmer and Dave Levinthal, "Chesapeake Playing Both Sides in Clean Air Debate," Politico, June 13, 2012, http://www.politico.com/politicoinfluence/0612/politicoinfluence282.html. ↵
- Tyler Kingkade, "St. Mary's College Professor Starts Super PAC, Inspired By Stephen Colbert," The Huffington Post, June 14, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/14/college-super-pac-stephen-colbert-st-marys-college-of-maryland_n_1597624.html; Colin Campbell and Hunter Walker, "Meet The Turtle-Collecting Professor Who Formed The 'We Just Want Stephen Colbert To Come To Our College Super PAC'", Politicker, June 14, 2012, http://politicker.com/2012/06/meet-the-turtle-collecting-professor-who-formed-the-we-just-want-stephen-colbert-to-come-to-our-college-super-pac/. ↵
- Susan Grogan, course parent website pages on SuperPACs, http://wejustwantstephencolberttocometoourcollegesuperpac.org/super_pacs.html; Gerrymandering http://goo.gl/ZNxq2Y; and Voter Suppression http://goo.gl/67YloI. ↵
- Susan Grogan, “Syllabi of Courses with Web-Writing Components,” Web-Writing in the Political Science Classroom, April 26, 2014, http://profgrogan.wejustwantstephencolberttocometoourcollegesuperpac.org/syllabi-of-courses-with-web-writing-components/. ↵
- Grogan, “Platform and Hosting Options I Considered for Student Web-Writing,” Web-Writing in the Political Science Classroom, April 7, 2014, http://profgrogan.wejustwantstephencolberttocometoourcollegesuperpac.org/platform-and-hosting-options-i-considered-for-student-web-writing/. ↵
- Grogan, “How To Set Up and And Use A Hostgator Reseller Account for Student Web-Writing,” Web-Writing in the Political Science Classroom, April 7, 2014, http://wp.me/p4bWdW-2b. ↵
- Grogan, “Notes on Using WordPress for Student Web-Writing,” Web-Writing in the Political Science Classroom, April 10, 2014, http://wp.me/p4bWdW-2e. ↵
- These and subsequent student posts on the parent course blog are cited with short-links to save space: Holtzman, http://goo.gl/i1N1MT and Carney, http://goo.gl/TCTj88. ↵
- Chip Scanlan, “Writing from the Top Down: Pros and Cons of the Inverted Pyramid,” Poynter, March 2, 2011, http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/newsgathering-storytelling/chip-on-your-shoulder/12754/writing-from-the-top-down-pros-and-cons-of-the-inverted-pyramid/. ↵
- Douglas K. Van Dunne, James A. Landay, and Jason L. Hong, The Design of Sites: Patterns for Creating Winning Web Sites, 2nd ed. (New York: Prentice Hall, 2007): 297-302. See also Grogan, "Titles, Blurbs, and 'Inverted Pyramid' Writing Attract and Keep Readers," Web-Writing in the Political Science Classroom, January 28, 2014, http://wp.me/p4bWdW-1t. ↵
- See Jackson Ranheim’s "#TAKEBACKAMERICANPOLITICALMEDIA," http://goo.gl/rE0oOa, and Kate Brennan’s "HobbyLobby Lobs A Law Bomb," http://goo.gl/XrKztE, and a thought question in Peter Vicenzi’s "Blurring the Lines Between Campaign Work and Political Advocacy," http://goo.gl/RDFKyT and Gabby Caligiuri’s "Republican Playing Offense," http://goo.gl/Q92jO2. ↵
- See Nevin Hall’s "Political Influence of A SMDP System," http://goo.gl/ViQZzM, and Erin Chase’s "The End to Student Debt & Loans in Maryland May Be Coming Soon," http://goo.gl/agxxUH. ↵
- Grogan, "Why Use Rubrics?" Web-Writing in the Political Science Classroom, February 15, 2014, http://wp.me/p4bWdW-1P. ↵
- Kevin Wallsten, “Political Blogs: Transmission Belts, Soapboxes, Mobilizers, or Conversation Starters,” Journal of Information Technology & Politics 4:3 (2008): 19-40. For student examples, see Knakia Francis’ and Michelle Horne’s blogs http://goo.gl/iA0aJg and http://goo.gl/NtS2aI, respectively. Martin Armstrong's "Court Jesters of the Modern Era" added his habits to our readings on Colbert and the media, http://goo.gl/6PoAYV. Luke Land’s "A semester’s wrap up" assessed what he had learned from the course, http://goo.gl/LLW3Qg. ↵
- See Kevin Schwarz’s blog, http://goo.gl/K4K6vJ, and Taylor Adatia’s What’s Wrong with the Voters of the United States?, http://goo.gl/cjcs0e. ↵
- Nicole Zimmerman, "Live Blogging the Final Debate," http://goo.gl/YH7ovX. ↵
- Ame Roberts, "Getting Out the Vote," http://goo.gl/Sak6jI; Kira Schwartz, "What Shocked Me Most as an Election Judge," http://goo.gl/m1u6OD; Katina Burley, "Played a huge role in the election process, doing my civic duties," http://goo.gl/ZxAa88. ↵
- https://www.facebook.com/WeJustWantStephenColbertToComeToOurCollegeSuperPac. ↵
- Kaufman, http://goo.gl/cmZIKv. ↵
- Moore, http://goo.gl/aF35SZ. ↵
- Riedel, http://goo.gl/pjdHvf. ↵
- Holtzman, http://goo.gl/qoaotA; Allison Griffin, "Volunteering for Hoyer," http://goo.gl/VnZjqV. ↵
- "St. Mary's College Students Team up to Help at County Polls," November 2, 2012, http://www.somdnews.com/article/20121102/NEWS/711029870/1044/st-mary-s-college-students-team-up-to-help-at-county-polls&template=southernMaryland; John Warton, "Plenty to Note Before the Vote: Election Judges, Precinct Hosts Scramble Toward Nov. 6," October 19, 2012, both in Southern Maryland Newspapers Online, http://www.somdnews.com/article/20121019/NEWS/710199836/1051/plenty-to-note-before-the-vote&template=southernMaryland. ↵
- John Sides, "The Political Scientist as Blogger," PS: Political Science & Politics 44:2 (2011):267. ↵
- John Farley, “Complicating the Political Scientist as Blogger,” PS: Political Science & Politics 46:2 (2012): 384. ↵
- "Can Blogging Derail Your Career? 7 Bloggers Discuss the Case of Juan Cole," Chronicle of Higher Education: The Chronicle Review 52:47 (2006): B6. ↵
- The Maryland Poll, http://www.mpoll.org/. ↵
- http://wejustwantstephencolberttocometoourcollegesuperpac.org/PDFs/Brochure.pdf ↵
- Susan Grogan, "Creating an Environment for Student Engagement. . .," in Web Writing (Open peer review edition, Fall 2013), http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/engagement/grogan-2013/. ↵