• DebateWatch 2012

    Final presidential debate becomes an opportunity for students and staff to engage in political discourse

By Rhianna Wisniewski
Photos by Jim Svehla

As the two presidential candidates faced off for the last time on Monday, Oct. 22, most Americans tuned in to watch the sparks fly. But for 23 groups of University of Chicago students who viewed the debate, it was an opportunity to engage in good old-fashioned political discourse.

More than 200 students gathered into small groups as part of DebateWatch, a national voter education program by the Commission on Presidential Debates aimed at getting American voters talking about the candidates and the issues. The event on campus was sponsored by Student Government, Campus and Student Life, and the Institute of Politics.

"We wanted to provide students an opportunity to watch the foreign policy debate together and have a thoughtful discussion immediately afterwards without having their views affected by the television pundits," said Darren Reisberg, Executive Director of the Institute of Politics. "This interactive event was the perfect bookend to our 2012 debate programming."

Students participating in DebateWatch on campus did so from 23 separate locations, 22 Houses within the University House system and the Hallowed Grounds Coffee Shop in the Reynolds Club.

Hallowed Grounds was where Kathryn Hagerman, a member of the Student Government Cabinet, graduate liaison for the board of trustees, and event co-facilitator, was stationed. She was excited to see such productive discussion. For many students, she said, “this event provided a way to take a break, stop studying and have a little fun.”

As participants in DebateWatch, each location adhered to commission guidelines, which included watching a live broadcast of the debate, turning the TV on right before the debate begins and off when the debate ends, participating in facilitated small group discussions after the debate, and having note-takers record the post-debate discussion.

Shengxiao Yu, programming and marketing coordinator for the Institute of Politics, will consolidate responses and photos from each location, and prepare a report for the IOP to send to the commission. She watched the debate in Reynolds Club and the discussion at her former house, Halperin House in South Campus, and was surprised at how much was covered in the discussion, including the structure of the debate, how well the candidates behaved, the comprehensiveness of the topics covered and what the candidates said.

Ana Campos, Interim Director for the Office of Undergraduate Student Housing, felt the event was very rewarding for both residents and staff.

“The structured format allowed the event to remain neutral, and gave the communities a chance to watch the debate and do a deep dive into the issues. It was really rewarding,” said Ana Campos, Interim Director for the Office of Undergraduate Student Housing. “Staff said they talk with their students all of the time, but this event allowed them to have a different kind of conversation with their students that they really enjoyed”

A total of 22 out of the University’s 38 Houses participated in the event. One of those was Booth House, the new College House in International House, where Resident Heads Tom and Laura Ancona hosted 20 students in their apartment.

“For the students, it is an opportunity to engage with other students who have differing viewpoints from them and learn a lot from one another,” Tom Ancona said. “Our House is 60 percent first-year students and this was an opportunity for them to take what they’ve learned about engagement and the exchange of ideas process and put these into real life action.”

Students, staff and faculty have the option to come together during the evening on November 6, to watch the election results as a campus community. Election results viewing will take place in the School of Social Administration from 8 p.m. – midnight, and in the Reynolds Club, beginning at 6 p.m. SSA will have a neutral broadcast, while three separate broadcasts will take place in separate rooms of the Reynolds Club, on neutral, right and left-leaning channels. 

The Institute of Politics will be live tweeting the election results. Students can join in by tweeting result reactions with the hashtag #Informed2012 and @uchipolitics.