Public opinion has always been a controversial topic, and teaching a college course on the subject has never been easy.
“Public opinion can be described as the dominating opinion which compels compliance of attitudes and behavior in that it threatens the dissenting individual with isolation, the politician with loss of popular support,” wrote political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in the Journal of Communications (CommGap).
Noelle-Neumann, who died in March, 2010, would probably agree that sentiments such as these, although profound and practically indisputable, might be challenging for some (not all) 18-year olds to wrap their minds around. The language of public opinion, as used by academicians, sociologists and theorists, ranges from excessively dry and threaded with statistics to jargon-heavy and complicated.
However, in light of the power currently wielded by public opinion polls in the media, the subject needs to be taught with the greatest of care, along with a hearty dose of creativity. We are in uncharted territory here, in many respects. A new teacher, faced with the task of teaching public opinion for the first time, will do well to look beyond the textbooks, thorough as they are, in order to bring the realities of the subject into the hearts and minds of today’s students.
Step 1: Define public opinion
The first step in teaching public opinion is to accurately define it. This is not always easy, because every textbook seems to have a different description. According to American Public Opinion by Robert S. Erikson and Kent L.Tedin, public opinion is defined as “the preferences of the adult population on matters of relevance to government” (pg. 8). This simple explanation seems to be a good starting point to approach the topic in any college Public Opinion course, where students, understandably, want a clear description for their own use and for test purposes.
But a textbook definition, however accurate, is not enough to convey the enormous complexity and power of public opinion in the 21st Century. Thus, on the first day of the Public Opinion class I taught recently at a medium-sized university, I sent students out to conduct their own public opinion polls. The poll consisted of two questions:
1. What is the most important issue facing the American public today?
2. What is the most important issue facing your generation (Generation Y) today?
These questions not only allowed students to participate in the process of gathering opinions, but it enabled them to become aware of the differences that demographics (i.e.: in this case, the age differential) might make in the answers to the questions. Since the students were required to get opinions from an equal number of faculty and staff versus students for question 1, the range of opinions was compelling.
The second day of class the students presented their results orally to the rest of their classmates. Involving the students orally as well as physically in the practice of collecting and analyzing public opinion was, to me, paramount in teaching the course. I agree with Brian Croxall, who writes in TheChronicle of Higher Education, “As is the case in all disciplines, class is not just about knowledge acquisition but is instead about learning a process…To my mind, one learns to do this by doing it yourself and watching others (classmates and the instructor) and getting feedback” (Croxall).
Step 2: Convey a sense of the importance of public opinion
“[The] importance of public opinion is the effect of increased public participation in the media,” reports Buzzle.com, Intelligent Life on the Web. Nobody can argue that the public’s voice is heard more and more these days not only in response to news items, but as part of the news items themselves (Buzzle.com). News, these days, is interactive, which means that what the public is thinking becomes part of what is being reported as events. Any contemporary course in public opinion must convey this sense of the unprecedented interaction between public opinion and the unfolding events in today’s society.
Has public opinion always been this way? Evidently not. “Modern public opinion polls have changed the character of public opinion from an assertion to a response,” wrote the authors of American Public Opinion (Erikson & Tedin, pg. 15). It seems that before the advent of polls, the citizenry voiced opinions on subjects of its own choosing—after polls, the topics were selected by those who made up the polls. So today’s “citizen journalism”-created topics are a 360-degree circle back to pre-polling days, in some instances. Thus, the need in any public opinion course for a look at the history of this complex subject. Try to keep it lively!
Step 3: Impart the history and methods of gathering public opinion
A history of public opinion must include discussion of such figures as Walter Lippman, the most significant American critic of the phenomenon of public opinion, and George Gallop, founder of the Gallop Poll (Erikson & Tedin). A thorough history should examine straw polls and mail questionnaires, in-person interviews and quotas, among a wide range of other topics, found in any comprehensive public opinion textbook. Historical perspectives and the methodology of gathering public opinion are good material for quizzes and tests and allow students to see the development of what is now an industry in the forefront of the public consciousness.
Step 4: Present public opinion polls in class
As you continue to lecture on the importance, history and methods of gathering public opinion, found in detail, as I’ve mentioned, in any good textbook, I suggest that you also continue sending your students out to administer their own public opinion polls. In my opinion this is the best way to keep them involved in what can be a very dry subject.
The students should report their findings back to you in two-page summaries, which include the following:
1: The questions being asked
2: Names and demographics of those people being polled
3: Analysis of the results
(Be sure your students present their results in percentages, i.e.: “Twenty-two percent (22%) of those polled think the economy is the most important issue facing America today”, etc. The students should also try to summarize their findings in a two or three sentence paragraph that shows they understand the significance of their polls.)
Again, I suggest that whenever possible, students present their polls orally to the class, either individually or in groups. If you are blessed with teaching Public Opinion in a computer classroom, polling results might be presented via Facebook or Twitter to simulate realistic usage. I was not teaching the course in a computer-equipped classroom, so I relied heavily on class participation to ensure that students understood what they were saying, meaning: I asked questions, and allowed other students in the class to ask questions.
A word might be in order here about grading class participation. There are many ways to do it. Brian Croxall suggests grading student participation across the whole semester (Croxall), and certainly I believe that this is crucial in a public opinion class. However, I also made notes as the students presented their analyses, looking, I suppose for a particularly brilliant remark or summary of the public opinion being assessed. And because I was looking I often found it. Then I started having a little fun.
Step 5: Have fun with Public Opinion!
Toward the end of the course I began staging “Town Hall” meetings in class. (It was these meetings, I believe, that ultimately caused such a favorable response to the course on student evaluations.) Using my notes from the oral presentation, I selected three students each to act as President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (that is, three Baracks, three Hillarys, and three Nancys). Three students each were picked to act as Republican Party Chair Michael Steele, former governor Sarah Palin, and former presidential candidate John McCain. (You could substitute Tea Party-goer Glenn Beck for a more explosive Town Hall.) Then I chose three students each to portray “thinkers” such as Cornel West, and others to portray media superstars such as Oprah Winfrey and John Stewart. The remaining students were divided into groups representing “labor”, “students”, “the media”, “Main Street” and so forth. Of course, for every Town Hall meeting the participants were switched: a student might find himself/herself portraying President Obama at one meeting and the following session he/she would be a member of “labor”. (At the very end of the semester, I did away with gender specificity—that is, male students could portray Secretary Clinton, female students could be Obama. Needless to say, the females were completely comfortable acting as President.)
The point of the exercise was for the students to present, not their own opinions, but the opinions of the groups and individuals they were representing. After 12 weeks of campus polling, most thought they had a pretty good idea of this, but the Town Hall meetings also required that students keep up with the news. I was pleasantly surprised, even touched, at times, by the amount of passion the Town Hall meetings generated on the issues of the day.
Unorthodox—maybe. Relevant—I think so. As stated, in gathering and assessing public opinion, it is important that students know the tremendous impact this practice plays in all of our lives. While it is important—even crucial—to maintain objectivity in the formation of queries for public opinion polls (certainly one of the True-False test questions on anyone’s final exam), it is equally important for students to formulate thoughtful opinions based not on prejudice but on evaluating the range of ideas offered. Teaching public opinion in a way that involves the passions of students will ensure that they will, at least, understand what the concept is all about, and why they should take it very, very seriously.
Buzzle.com, Intelligent Life on the Web, “What is the importance of public opinion in media?”. Retrieved October 4, 2010 from http://www.buzzle.com/articles/what-is-the-importance-of-public-opinion-in-media.html
CommGap, “People, Spaces, Deliberation”, Retrieved October 4, 2010 from http://blogs.worldbank.org/publicsphere/quote-week-76
Croxall, Brian, The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How to grade students’ class participation”. Retrieved October 7, 2010 from http://chronicle.com
Erikson, Robert S. & Tedin, Kent L., American Public Opinion, 8th Ed. (2011, 2007, 2005), Boston, MA: Longman Publishing co.