Beyond the opinion
About an hour before he was set to appear live on international news program DW, Christopher Devine pulled out a pair of clippers.
“Home haircut before TV interview probably isn’t a great idea,” he tweeted. “Let’s hope for the best.”
Luckily, Devine, assistant professor of political science, has a steady hand — and an unwavering knowledge of politics, notably the influence (or lack thereof) of vice presidential candidates.
Outside the classroom, Devine has had a nonstop year. He’s been quoted about the Veepstakes by The Washington Post, NPR, PBS, NBC News, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, USA Today, FiveThirtyEight, Vox and many other popular media outlets, and he is co-author of Do Running Mates Matter? The Influence of Vice Presidential Candidates in Presidential Elections.
Inside the classroom, he’s just as busy — adjusting his courses for life under COVID-19.
Devine — a self-proclaimed “presidential nut” who names his children after past commanders-in-chief (Hayes, Wilson, Madison, McKinley) — might want to spend entire class periods talking about Election 2020. Instead, he focuses on the core lessons he wants students to take away from their time with him: learning to challenge their own assumptions and be critical consumers of information.
“One of the biggest problems in society
is that people are so dug into what they already believe and they’re not really interested in putting their assumptions to the test,” he said.
“I want to help my students be able to recognize the truth, or a flaw in their argument, when they hear it, and adapt,” he said. “If we send students into the world only ready to go to battle and defend their turf, we’ve failed them. I want them to be quick to listen to others and have constructive dialogue that contributes to the common good rather than just helps their team win.”
“If we send students into the world only ready to go to battle and defend their turf, we’ve failed them.”
In his American Presidency class, they practice by answering the question: What makes a president great?
Instead of just sharing opinions, Devine makes it an exercise in social science — students develop an original, weighted system to rate a president based on categories they choose, such as foreign policy acumen, integrity or communication skills. First, they practice as a class by rating former President William Howard Taft, and they visit his former home in Cincinnati alongside his great-grandson, former Ohio governor and current UD professor Bob Taft.
“Every president gets shrunken down to one fact that everyone knows about them,” Devine said. “For Taft, it’s that he got stuck in a bathtub. And that wasn’t even true. What if someone tried to reduce us to a bumper sticker? It’s always more complicated.”
The core lesson on the value of evidence relates to his own research on vice presidents, as well.
“I can’t just say, ‘I feel like running mates have this indirect effect on voters,’” he said. “Someone who doesn’t share that opinion isn’t going to be persuaded. But if I can say ‘here’s my method and the evidence it gives me,’ and then they have to prove my analysis is flawed, that’s a much higher bar.
“It’s not just your opinion anymore.”