College of Business & Public Administration
UND political scientist encourages in-class debate among students as a way to understand current state of politics and varying ideologies of others.
Robert “Bo” Wood runs his Political Science 405 class like an interactive town hall debate, and the highly engaged UND students in it are more than happy to oblige him.
The class name alone, “Political Behavior,” suggests it might provide ample fodder for a spirited collision course of ideologies. But when the white-hot poker of a presidential election season at its apex is thrown in, the discourse can jump a notch.
“This class is all about the current election cycle,” said Wood, an associate professor of political science who’s a go-to guy among regional media for his insights on local and national trends.
With a year in politics like this one, the course textbook merely provides background material to guide class discussions on current events. The discussions drive the learning.
Wood purposely stoked the fires a bit at the beginning of the semester by slicing his classroom up by students’ political ideologies. It forced each to self-reflect on whether they considered themselves a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, an economic conservative versus a social conservative or even a foreign policy conservative. They also considered their stances on issues such as the environment, guns and public education.
“There’s an interesting mix in this class, but what’s cool is that they get to know each other and realize that they agree with each other on many things and disagree on other things,” Wood said.
Hannah Hasbargan, an accounting and political science double major from Wheaton, Minn., said Wood’s discussion-based class helps students understand the relevancy of current political happenings instead of solely focusing on historical perspectives. The interaction among students and Wood serves as a living textbook on what’s taking place today, she said.
“Our class is small, but quite diverse. We cover all ranges from conservative to liberal,” Hasbargan said. “We are from rural communities and cities, we hail from the Midwest and also the coasts, so to have all different perspectives and life experiences is a major part of the discussion; and that can’t be learned from a textbook.”
Students in UND’s Political Science 405 class share information and opinions on national polling trends and for the general election that will come be decided on Nov. 8. Photo by Shawna Schill.
Wood’s classes are a free-flow form of discussion, with him serving as a facilitator who isn’t shy about playing the role of Devil’s Advocate, regardless of topic or personal ideology.
“I can argue pretty much any side of any issue,” Wood said. “I will always take the other side if I don’t feel one side is being represented or fully articulated.”
During a particular class last week, Wood was poised to talk about the political parties’ nominating processes, how they came to be, what’s wrong with them and how they might be fixed, based on where they were on the course syllabus. But Wood didn’t get around to the intended lecture until the 40-minute point of the hour-and-15-minute class.
The preceding time was dominated by open discussions on the evolution of political polling, media bias in the current election cycle, whether the upcoming general election will be rigged and flashbacks to the aftermath of Bush-Gore in 2000, and the feeling that radical political operatives might resort to anarchy if election results aren’t to their liking.
Students in the class offered up friendly arguments representing varying ideologies for each of the topics. It began in a polite fashion but as the discussion progressed and evolved, the back-and-forth resembled more of a spirited political debate. Through it all, Wood kept the discussion on track while his students displayed an impressive grasp of historical influences that have led to the state of current politics.
Wood, later reflecting how the class went, said that’s just how engaged UND students are.
“These are our people; they are good,” Wood said. “They are the next generation of North Dakota leaders.”
Wood said, usually, when it comes to politics people tend to have knee-jerk reactions to others with whom they disagree. They immediately dismiss others as being “stupid” or crazy.”
“And that’s just because you don’t understand how they got to where they are,” Wood says.
He said he uses his Political Behavior class to help his students transcend those knee-jerk tendencies by surrounding them with others who are highly intelligent but ideologically foreign.
“I try to encourage enough diversity of thought and enough variety of viewpoints that, by the end of the class, (the students) come to realize that people who disagree with them politically just see the world in a different way, and that if their life experiences had been similar, they may well have reached the same conclusions,” Wood said.
Dodds, David L., "Model Behavior" (2016). UND News Archive. 1391.