Professors, Youth Voters, and Election Day

11/17/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

For me the second-worst part of Wednesday night's Obama-McCain debate was realizing that my guy was never going to tear into his opponent, never even going to break a sweat as he explained good policy after good policy. Ok, I figured, he and his campaign must know what they're doing, since it sure seems to be working so far. I may find the debates disappointing, but what voters think matters more than what I want. Fair enough.

The worst part came in the post-debate commentary, when pundit after pundit described Obama as "professorial," by which they meant wonkish, unemotional, dry, long-winded, and dull. A snore. Ouch! Look, I know that describes some professors, maybe even a lot of us, but if my classroom demeanor resembled Barack Obama's Wednesday night, I would have been bounced from academia in my first couple of years. Most of us aren't protecting leads in the classroom, waiting for our students to burst out with nutty assertions, such as "ACORN is perpetuating one of the great electoral frauds in American history." (What about voter suppression under Jim Crow, or the shenanigans of political machines in Chicago, New York City, and Long Island, just to pick a few famous examples?)

We cannot count on our students' interest, so we do everything we can think of to engage them. We get them talking and writing; we use their own experiences to get them to think about people in the past; we get in their faces and make them uncomfortable and show them how their ideas matter. We can't afford dispassionate analysis. Students need to see passion and excitement and engagement from their professors -- otherwise why should they care about the subject?

But the story I really want to tell came in my First Year Seminar yesterday, a class at the University of Hartford devoted to the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Students wanted to talk about whether we were having class on Election Day -- the first time in my 20-year teaching career the question has come up. So I asked about their plans for voting. And here's what I found.

Fifteen of the sixteen students are registered. (One is too young.) Five already had received their absentee ballots. Every single one of the others had already made plans to go home (to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, or Connecticut), or to vote in Hartford. Every one. In the five previous presidential elections, that number has only once (in 2004) gone higher than 50%. I'm going way out on a limb, and predict a youth vote tsunami.

As the import of what they were telling me began to sink in, I was at first speechless; then moved almost to tears. I told them they had given me a great gift. I was getting to see social change happen right before my eyes, in my little corner of the educational universe. And I was deeply grateful. Not "professorial."