This semester, Assistant Professor of Government Logan Dancey is teaching two courses, GOVT 238: American Political Parties and GOVT 373: Congressional Reform. Even though he has made his students promise not to make any more “political party” jokes, his classes still take a spirited approach to complex issues. Dancey sat down with The Argus to discuss the process of teaching politics, the role of public opinion in society, and bobblehead dolls.
The Argus: What’s on your bookshelf?
Logan Dancey: Political science books are on my bookshelf! Right now, what I’ve been reading has mostly been for classes. One [class] is [American] Political Parties, and that was a literature I only knew the outskirts of. I knew “parties and Congress” and “parties and public opinion,” but I didn’t know so much of the literature about, “what is a party?” and about how parties change and adapt. I spent a lot of the summer reading up on that to prepare for the course and have been reading some of the stuff for the first time. I always enjoy that. Then, the other course I’m teaching is a congressional reform class, and so I’ve been reading a mix of academic books on congressional reform (which are typically pretty dense, historical accounts of how Congress has changed over time) and some more popular books. Lawrence Lessig at Harvard has a book, “Republic, Lost,” on campaign finance and corruption, so we just recently read that in that class. That class is fun because it’s a mix of academic and more popular readings.
A: I’m looking at your bookshelf now. Could you tell me the story of the bobblehead collection?
LD: I think sometime in college my sister got me a bobblehead doll of Richard Nixon and then kept giving me bobblehead dolls of different presidents for Christmas. My first set was Nixon and Kennedy, and now over time I have started to fill it out, so I have Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Truman, Nixon, Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton. And the Republican mascot. I’ve found that Wild Bill’s Nostalgia Store is actually a great place to get presidential bobbleheads.
A: What is your first political memory?
LD: I have this memory—and I don’t know if it’s true or not—from when I was in first grade in 1988. They paired kindergarteners and first graders with the fifth and sixth graders. And I remember that I had just been sitting watching the news the other night with my parents and there was something about how Kitty Dukakis, the wife of Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts who ran for president in 1988, was running the anti-drug campaign. And for some reason, I remember saying to my sixth-grade buddy when I was in first grade that “Kitty Dukakis is running an anti-drug campaign.” And I remember him looking at the teacher, not knowing what to say. But honestly, I don’t know if this is a story I’ve invented in my head to convince myself that I was destined to be a political scientist or if it’s something that actually happened.
A: Do you think this story destined you to be a political scientist?
LD: I think it’s a sign, perhaps. At least, that I was interested in politics. But no, I don’t necessarily think so. It wasn’t really until college that I decided political science was what I wanted to do.
A: What made you decide it was something you wanted to do?
LD: I really liked the classes and I really liked the readings. Going to my government classes as an undergrad was fun. And I thought, well, if it’s fun and I like it, maybe this suggests that this is something I want to do. And I had some really good professors, and I really thought they were cool. And I thought, wow, they seem like they have a great job. And, maybe it looks a little better from the outside than when you’re actually in it, but I’m happy that it’s what I’m doing.
A: I know a lot of your work focuses on Congress. What pulled you that direction?
LD: My work now is on both Congress and public opinion, which isn’t where I started when I went into graduate school. I just really liked American politics and political science in general. And then I started working with a professor at the University of Minnesota, and his main focus was Congress, so I got pulled in that direction. I would like to say that it was this love of Congress, but I really just got pulled in that direction, and then I really started to enjoy the work there.
But I think one thing that interested me, and still does, is people’s disdain for Congress. When I was getting my Ph.D. in political science, people would always say to me, “Oh, are you going to go clean up Washington?” And I always said, “No, that’s not what I’m going to do.” But it intrigued me that this was everyone’s view. So, the literature I initially got drawn to was public opinion about Congress and people’s opinions about the institution. I felt there wasn’t a lot of work on how Congress tries to reform itself in response to public opinion. The general assumption I was seeing in the literature was that Congress did not really respond to these attitudes and the level of satisfaction, though they might nod to it during elections. I wanted to see if candidates who ran as outsiders actually behaved any differently when they got to Congress, and that’s how I started. So my interest in Congress has largely formed from outsiders’ views of it, and I wanted to see how that played into how members behaved, and then that started my broader interest in what motivates Congressional behavior.
That’s why I like this class I’m teaching on Congressional reform, because it allows me talk with smart students about how Congress should function, why people dislike Congress, what reforms should be instituted, and what the consequences would be of these reforms. It’s a fun class.
A: What do you think is your greatest challenge teaching government?
LD: It’s different at Wesleyan than at the other places I have taught, to be honest. The challenges I don’t face at Wesleyan are getting students motivated and interested, and that’s really nice. It would be so much worse to walk into the room and not have the students be as interested—that can be challenging. For the most part, at the other places I have taught, the students were interested, but at Wesleyan, the students are really motivated to learn about the topics and really enjoy debating and discussing things.
One difficulty can be getting students to think about politics in a different way. Because politics is something people often already have preset views about, to try to challenge those assumptions and push people on them can be challenging. The other difficulty is, on a campus where there are a lot of liberal students, pushing them to think through commonly held beliefs and sparking debate. One of the things I worry about is that there will be a presumed consensus within the class on how we should think about politics and how we should think about the national debates that are going on. I would like to push students so they think that there is not just a consensus view out there on how things should be. I try to foster a debate where people can recognize different sides and respect differences in opinion and still hold their views. When I’m teaching my intro class, if anything keeps me up at night, that would probably be it: trying to figure out a way to teach a class that’s conducive to honest but productive conversation about contemporary issues.
A: If students learn nothing else, what’s one thing you want them to take away from your classes?
LD: If they learn nothing else? From a government perspective, what I want them to take away is a recognition of the diversity of politics and the extent to which notions of how to solve problems in our society are highly contested. Also, that though it plays out in the democratic process in a way that might seem messy at times, it is also productive.
From an academic perspective, I want my students to be able to read and comprehend but at the same time challenge what they’re reading and think about alternative explanations and ideas, and use the readings not just as information gathering but also as sparking new ideas that students can pursue and research. If someone came out of my classes and felt that this is what they gained, that would be pretty rewarding.
A: What topics do students seem to have the most fun with in your classes?
LD: Students always seem interested in campaign finance because there are so many rules. Because things have really changed over time, it’s a topic that students have some sense of but don’t understand completely. Whenever I talk about it, students seem to have a lot of interest in the system—why it evolved the way it did.
I also really think students at Wesleyan really like delving into theoretical arguments. They don’t just want me to come in and talk about the politics of the day—or maybe they do, but that’s not what they’re getting!—but they’re really interested in broader theoretical explanations for the politics. This is what most political scientists are interested in, so it’s good that I feel like I can come into class and students want to talk about it.
A: What are you working on now?
LD: I’m working on a few main things right now. I’m still working on this longer-term project that I alluded to, about congressional behavior and the extent to which outsider candidates, if they run on a platform of changing Congress, the extent to which they engage in behaviors aimed at reforming Congress in some way; and I’m looking how Congress responds to variations in public attitudes towards it. Though in the general public, attitudes tend to be negative, there is some variation over time. That’s part of a broader interest in Congressional change and Congressional responsiveness to dissatisfaction with the institution.
I’ve also been doing some work on constituent knowledge of the positions that their elected officials take, in particular senators, and looking at how polarization affects the levels of knowledge in the constituency. I’m particularly looking at when candidates stake out more extreme positions, whether constituents are better able to pick up where their politicians stand and what that means for accountability. On the one hand, we want constituents to know their elected officials’ positions in order to be able to hold them accountable; but on the other hand, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with candidates moving to the ideological extremes. So, it can provide this good of clarifying positions for constituents, but at the same time making it so there is less common ground.
The last thing I’m working on…is about judicial confirmation hearings in the Senate. A couple of coworkers and I have collected transcripts of a bunch of these hearings and looked at questions that nominees get asked during these hearings, and what predicts the questions that nominees get asked, and whether the types of questions they get asked predict their eventual confirmation. For the most part, we’ve found very little evidence that the hearings are really about information gathering by senators. Instead, the predictors about what nominees get asked tend to be big factors. For example, is it divided government, is it a presidential election year? If so, they get harder questions, or rather, more ideologically charged questions. And then we found pretty minimal evidence that the intensiveness of the hearing, once you account for other factors, is all that important for whether the nominee actually gets confirmed or not. So it’s questioning, what is the purpose of the hearings? What role do they serve? What information if any are senators taking from these hearings?