Teaching Spotlight: John Dinan

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Why did you decide to become a political science professor and why did you choose Wake Forest?

I followed political developments quite closely growing up in Northern Virginia – it is hard not to take a keen interest in politics while living in the Washington, DC area – and was naturally drawn to study government and politics when I attended the University of Virginia for my undergraduate and graduate degrees.  Becoming a political science professor was particularly attractive because it offers an opportunity to continue learning about and making sense of American politics and at the same time help students, the general public, and other scholars better understand the American political system.  And Wake Forest was especially attractive because it combines a supportive research environment with a liberal arts focus in a way that is highly unusual among U.S. colleges and universities.

 You teach several courses that intersect with current political developments.  How do you draw on current political developments in your classes?  And to what extent does drawing on current political developments enhance the classroom experience?

I regularly teach an introductory course in American Government and Politics and upper-level courses in Congress and Policymaking, as well as State Politics, and also Parties, Voters, and Elections.  These classes offer numerous opportunities to connect course material with current political developments, whether in regard to class discussions, exercises, or assignments.  In the Congress class, for instance, a week-long simulation gives students a chance to take the part of congressmembers and debate legislation currently before Congress, and in doing so to better appreciate the challenges of building majority coalitions that cross party and geographic lines.  In the Elections class, assignments are designed to allow students to apply scholarly lessons about congressional elections by analyzing ongoing Senate elections.  The subject matter of these and other courses in the politics and international affairs department lends naturally to exercises and assignments that present an opportunity to apply and test academic theories in the context of current developments.  To some extent, these exercises and assignments help students better understand academic theories; but they also offer an opportunity to put to the test and raise questions about the persuasiveness of scholarly explanations and models.

 In semesters where you are teaching courses related to elections or other current political developments, how does your teaching style adapt to continually evolving events? 

Political events and developments that arise in the course of a semester present excellent opportunities to pose questions and draw lessons about American political institutions and processes.  The 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte provides an opportunity to engage in a discussion in an Elections course about the changing role and continuing purpose of party nominating conventions in an era when the presidential nomination is decided well before the convention.  Additionally, Senate negotiations after the 2012 election about changes to the filibuster rule that requires three-fifths support for opening and closing debate offer a fine opportunity in a Congress course to investigate the filibuster’s origin, to ask why it is allowed in the Senate but not in the House, and to consider prior occasions when the filibuster has been reformed and how these reforms were implemented.  Meanwhile, news reports throughout 2012 regarding governors’ decisions about whether or not to set up a state insurance exchange or agree to expand Medicaid coverage pursuant to the Affordable Care Act offer an opportunity in a State Politics course to highlight the various ways state governments play a critical role in implementing federal programs.

 You are currently teaching a senior seminar course on “The 2012 elections.”  What are the objectives of this course and what sorts of research projects do students complete as part of this course?

All politics and international affairs majors have the opportunity to write a major research paper as part of a required senior seminar course, and in the Fall 2012 semester I offered a seminar on “The 2012 Elections” that focused particularly on electoral institutions and processes, ranging from the electoral college to the presidential nominating process to congressional redistricting mechanisms to campaign finance regulations to voter eligibility rules.  One purpose is to introduce students to scholarly debates about the role and performance of electoral institutions and processes and to do so in the context of the 2012 elections.  Another purpose is to equip students to write a major paper contributing to these scholarly debates by drawing on data from the 2012 elections.  For instance, several students examined the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision by collecting data regarding the behavior of corporations, labor unions, political parties and Super PACs in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections.  Other students assessed the impact on voter turnout rates in 2012 stemming from passage of early-voting laws, same-day registration procedures, and voter identification requirements.  Still other students examined the effects of newly created independent redistricting commissions to determine whether they led to more competitive elections than in states where line-drawing was handled in a traditional fashion in the political process.  In each of these cases, students are able to collect and analyze data from the 2012 elections and thereby contribute to ongoing scholarly debates and understandings about the effects of these electoral regulations and rules.

 What are you particularly interested in conveying to students in your courses?  

In part, I aim to encourage a close and ongoing engagement with American politics, not only during presidential elections when student and public interest is invariably at its peak, but also between elections, especially regarding the passage and implementation of policy at both the federal and state level.  In part also, I seek to demonstrate that political science has something to contribute as we seek answers to questions such as why elections turn out the way that they do, why the public has become more polarized in recent years, and why policy-making level has become increasingly contentious and characterized by gridlock.  On each of these key questions, as well as other similar questions, political scientists can contribute to an understanding of the American political system in a way that goes beyond the understanding that can be gained from journalistic reporting and commentary, as useful as these are.  One goal of my courses is to highlight these political science contributions.

 What are some of your research interests, and how does your research draw on and inform your courses?

My research focuses on state politics and the role of state governments in the U.S. federal system.  In various books and articles I examine the role and development of the 50 state constitutions as well as the ways state government officials secure representation of their interests in the national policymaking process.  One of the benefits of attending to state constitutions, alongside of the federal constitution, and focusing on the role of state governments, as well as federal governments, in making and administering public policy, is that a great deal of governance in the U.S. political system takes place at the state and local level.  This influences the way that I teach my courses, not only in the decision to offer a course focusing specifically on State Politics, but also in the way I give due attention in my other courses to state elections and policies.  I also make it a point to encourage students who are interested in pursuing graduate study in American politics or seeking political internships or jobs after Wake Forest to consider state government and politics as leading options.