Political science professor Dr. Stephen Aylward won an award from Portland Trails Association for leadership in helping to bring teams of people together to build trails for the nonprofit group. He says political scientists now consider the efforts of community groups foundational to a healthy democracy, because people learn skills of persuasion, organization and compromise in these groups – all skills that are also necessary to influence politicians and political systems.
If you think political science is just about red states and blue
states, you might be surprised. In fact, political science professor
Stephen Aylward says he hasn’t found just one definition of the
field that captures its breadth.
No matter how it’s defined, the relatively new political science
major on campus is drawing a cadre of motivated students who
like the idea of shaping a better world. Seminar-style discussions
and class simulations of Congressional actions paired with service
learning and internships help them learn about power relationships,
collective choice and how value systems filter through society –
all of which form the center of political science.
And then there are the campaigns - or, more accurately, the thrill of campaigns. Josh Bell '08 reports of his campaign for Vermont's state legislature, "Once you get bitten, it's hard to go back." A graduate student at Suffolk University at the time he ran as an Independent, he came in second and intends to run for office again in the future.
History professor Dr. Michael Connolly pushed to have a political science major established. In the introductory course, students simulate Congressional budgeting by becoming elected officials who must address the needs of their districts without busting the budget.
Bell came to Saint Joseph’s knowing he wanted to be involved
with politics. In 2006 when he was a sophomore, the political science
major was established, and he was able to complete a double major in
classics and political science with a minor in history in time to graduate.
He went on to earn a master’s in professional politics at Suffolk,
and is now a graduate student at Providence College. He eventually
plans to earn his doctorate in political science.
Chiara Ferrante ’10 agrees that the excitement and camaraderie of
a gubernatorial campaign she joined was what ultimately drew her
into politics. She now has a job as a staff assistant to Senator Susan
Collins of Maine (see below).
But just beneath the headline-grabbing elections, political
scientists look at all kinds of questions that easily cross-fertilize
with sociology, history and economics. They want to know about
society’s attitudes toward government, the role of citizen input in
public policy, skills needed to influence political systems, factors
that encourage people to vote, and even what type of statistics should
be used to evaluate outcomes of policy decisions. In this era of globalization,
they also look keenly at what makes nations cooperate.
Dr. Andrea Vianello, who grew up in Italy, says his International Relations class and Comparative Politics class have proved popular, and he enjoys bringing a European perspective to his teaching.
Though not large in number, many political science majors at
Saint Joseph’s tend to be activists by nature. History professor
Michael Connolly, who advocated for the major’s establishment, says,
“We get really interested students, and the 2008 presidential election
really got students cranked up.”
After that election, an active Political Science Club formed,
combining the former Democratic and Republican clubs on campus.
The club’s co-president, Ashley Walukevich ’12 of Kingston, N.H.,
was an officer on the student council in high school and spent a week
touring federal institutions in Washington, D.C., with the National
Youth Leadership Conference. From then on she was sold. While at
Saint Joseph’s, she was influenced by attending a conference at the
United Nations and completing two internships with Senator Susan
Collins’ office, where she answered countless calls about the economic
stimulus bill and, later, the health care reform bill.
During her internship, she said she could see what she was
learning in class being played out in the office.
“I like being involved and aware. I like reading the news and
being informed,” she says. Her future plans include running for
office or working for the federal government.
Courtney Hoffses ’12 of Presque Isle, Maine, was a Senate page
in Washington, D.C., at age 16. Although she didn’t witness the legislative
work done in committees, she was inspired by what she saw in
the overall Senate. It made her want to get involved and accomplish
more, both personally and politically. She is now the other co-president
of the Political Science Club and hopes to join the Peace Corps’
Master’s International program, which combines international service
and graduate school.
The political science faculty – Aylward, Connolly and historian
Dr. Andrea Vianello – cover the four core areas of American government,
including local, state, federal; comparative politics (which
typically has a broadening effect because Americans don’t get exposed
to many societies, partly because of geography); international
relations, which covers diplomacy, strategy, and collective security;
and political philosophy.
Courtney Hoffses ’12, Democrat, and Ashley Walukevich ’12, Republican, are co-presidents of the
Political Science Club.
The majors often take electives in law and public policy, making
strong use of service learning and internships in the court system,
or for elected officials and nonprofit organizations.
“It’s been rewarding to see it develop,” Connolly says of the
major, with its seminar-style classes and mix of motivated, active
students, some of whom actually double major in history or major
in history and minor in political science.
Two of the major’s professors are historians, and traditionally a
happy companionship between the two fields exists. “We need the
historical approach and the theoretical approach,” says Vianello.
“In some ways, we are trapped by the past and still paying for the
mistakes of the past.”
Then he adds, “I try not to transmit pessimism .…We need
optimism in order to change things.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of political science is called
network analysis, which can be used to understand everything from
international terrorist circuitry to why Youngstown, Ohio, chronically
struggled to rebuild from the Rust Belt economic collapse of the 1970s.
Network analysis came about because of the 9/11 attacks
on the United States. Its practical approach looks at how organized
groups (such as terrorist cells) interact. One component, especially
relevant to terrorism, is tracking the money trails within networks.
However, network analysis can also be used to analyze how government
and community groups operate. For instance, when a community
group tries to bring new industries to town, it can not only
show (with complex wiring diagrams!) how movements and organizations
transmit information and engage each other within a wider
community network, it can also predict how much and what kind of
engagement results in forward progress toward a goal. Perhaps one
of the most interesting books about this is called Why the Garden Club
Couldn’t Save Youngstown.
Another interesting concept in terms of looking at community
structures is called “civic society,” popularized by Robert Putnam in
his 2001 book, Bowling Alone, which found the health of a democracy
depends on how well its component parts bond together as communities.
More importantly, he found that community organizations
help citizens learn the skills of persuasion, negotiation and leadership
needed in the public sector.
In other words, political systems need citizen inputs and citizens
can learn skills that accomplish a common goal or sway a political
system through joining community organizations. “We need to learn
to compromise, run a committee, keep the work flow going, organize
volunteers and so on,” says political science professor Stephen Aylward.
In Bowling Alone, Putnam says many community organizations that
cultivated those skills have declined over the last 40 years (think bowling
leagues, Boy Scouts, sewing circles), probably because of video games
and other hi-tech entertainment. He states that without local civic
engagement, the entire government in an area can wither, as shown
in his research of regions in Italy. Putnam’s new book, Better Together,
discusses groups that have done well in building civic society and also
looks at the social and political influences of a whole new aspect of
political science – Facebook and social media.
Chiara Ferrante ’10 is now a staff assistant for U.S. Senator Susan Collins.
Chiara Ferrante ’10 started at St. Joe’s as a biology major more interested in theater than politics, but ended up as a history major minoring in political science. Her senior year, she interned in U.S. Senator Susan Collins’ office in Portland. After that, she joined the primary campaign for gubernatorial candidate Steve Abbott, and through campaign contacts, learned of a job opening in the Senator’s office in Lewiston. She was hired in August.
Her work often involves meeting with constituents to resolve issues with federal agencies, such as Veterans Affairs or the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (Many new minorities in Lewiston are from Africa and the Middle East.) She also checks regional media outlets for stories of potential interest to the Senator.
Outgoing and friendly, Ferrante says she loves helping constituents. She describes herself as more service-oriented than political and states Collins’ regional offices are nonpartisan. But Ferrante admits she loved the thrill of the Abbott campaign and working up to 60 hours per week working for something she believed in.
Ferrante says history professor Michelle Laughran encouraged her to attend a leadership conference for women at the University of Maine, which proved pivotal in her academic journey. She came back much more interested in how our government works, how Congress has changed, and how social movements take place.
“I had a real understanding of what I would do in my life as a result of Saint Joseph’s,” she says.