Congratulations to the 2015 Jennings Prize Winner!

ethan levinton

Ethan Levinton is the 2015 winner of the William Jennings Bryan Prize in Government, awarded annually in recognition of the department’s top honors thesis or theses. Ethan, who also earned a certificate in Core Texts and Ideas, represented the university at the 23rd Annual National Conference for Student Research in Political Science at Illinois State University, where he won a Pi Sigma Alpha Prize for one of the conference’s best papers. He is the sixth Texas student since 2007 to win this prize at the conference — a record unmatched across the country.

Levinton’s thesis began under Jeffrey Tulis’ tutelage in the honors seminar, “Regime Perspectives on American Politics,” where he began wrestling with the work of Alexis de Tocqueville. According to Tocqueville, U.S. political controversies tend to become judicial disputes, and this enables the American system to counteract predictable pathologies of democracy. Probing this assertion, Ethan asked: might it be the case that the legalization of politics in America exacerbates rather than counteracts democratic pathologies?

To test this idea, Ethan’s thesis looks at four case studies of legislative deliberation around the establishment and destruction of the national bank in the 19th century and financial reform in the 20th. Levinton concludes that the record is mixed. Tocqueville is indeed correct sometimes, but not always, and his thesis proceeds to illustrate the ways legalization can be a virtue or a vice in modern democracy.

Congrats to our 2015 Dean’s Distinguished Graduates!

Alex D’Jamoos

alex djamoos

A 2015 Dean’s Distinguished Graduate, Alex D’Jamoos is not your typical student. His summers have been spent climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (twice) and volunteering in Russia for Happy Families International Center, Inc., a nonprofit that helps children needing medical care. Born in Russia without legs and raised in an orphanage, D’Jamoos came to the United State for orthopedic surgery at 16 and was adopted by his host family.

Supervised by Rob Moser, D’Jamoos defended a government honors thesis, “Propaganda? The Current State of Russian News Media.” As part of his research, Alex spent the 2014 summer in Moscow interning at the Russian newspaper, Kommersant. D’Jamoos concluded that the Russian media is structured to produce propaganda — primarily government ownership of the media in combination with a social environment of crisis and emotional vulnerability. Alex notes that the Russian media has transitioned from a mode of censorship to one of making sure certain information gets disseminated.

D’Jamoos has deferred his admission to the Boston University School of Law and will spend next year teaching Russian Language at Phillips Academy Andover.

More on Alex:
Alcalde Feature
UGS Interview

Kori Rady

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It makes sense that a government major would rise to Student Body President, which is exactly what Kori Rady did. A 2015 Honorable Mention for Dean’s Distinguished Graduate and winner of the University Union’s J.J. “Jake” Pickle Citizenship Award, Rady worked tirelessly during his time on the 40 Acres. He also found time to gain valuable experience off campus, taking advantage of two notable internship opportunities, with the Office of the Governor and the Office of then-U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Regarding his experience as student body president and its interactions with his studies as a government major, Kory says, “It was certainly on the mind, something I would think about, seeing how presidents and Congress do their job, how they build relationships.” He also says that his studies helped give him a “greater context to what (he) was doing — will a change here be better than this other thing?” When asked if his time in leadership gave him a new or different appreciation for what public leaders do, he said, “I imagine there are a lot of hard-working public servants who do not get recognition for the work they do. It is a lot of work building relationships to get small things done – I can only imagine what that is like on a national and international scale.”

After graduating, Kori will attend law school at SMU. He is also writing a book about higher education based on what he learned on the frontlines, and is launching a start-up that promises to revolutionize how people interact with television.

More on Kori: Life & Letters Interview

Department Alumnus Key Player in Upending How We Run Political Campaigns

The world of political campaigning is nothing like what it used to be. And the change is not just about social media and the emergence of new technologies. These are critical parts of the story, but only when combined with the reliable data that campaigns can use to get the right message to the right people.

We have learned a lot in recent years about election campaigns. As Distinguished Teaching Professor and Regents Outstanding Teacher Daron Shaw explains in this video, political scientists have increasingly turned to experimental data to determine the effectiveness of campaigns. And as Sasha Issenberg discussed in this Texas Politics Speaker Series Video, and in his book, The Victory Lab, there has been a scientific revolution in campaigns based on these field experiments, combined with commercial marketing tools providing individual-level data that campaigns use to statistically model voting behavior.

Now, a Department of Government alumnus is helping this revolution continue and evolve. Simultaneously, philanthropic donations to the department are providing students new opportunities to forge a career path at the intersection of technology and political communication.

Jeff Mason graduated from the Department of Government in 2003. Inspired by his classes with professors such as Daron Shaw, Jeff entered the world of political consulting. From 2006-2008, he was the director of targeting and voter contact at the Republican National Committee, and he is now senior director of data structure and targeting at Targeted Victory, a digital advertising agency.

Jeff’s current story begins with a 2014 “Off the Grid National Survey” sponsored by Targeted Victory, Google, Public Opinion Strategies, Global Strategy Group, and Well & Lighthouse. The survey demonstrates the decreasing effectiveness of reaching key voters through live TV advertising and the increasing importance of streaming, smartphone and tablet viewing, as well as viewing recorded TV through TiVO or DVR, which allows viewers to skip through commercials (obviously bypassing political ads in the process).

Jeff’s work involves deploying technology that can win elections in this new campaign environment. A central component is a more scientific approach to reaching the target audience, and driving down the cost of doing so. Targeted Victory’s audience-based television makes it possible for small-budget campaigns to run their operations with the sophistication of the big media buyers, and their new advertising platform makes it possible to coordinate media buys across all platforms with a few clicks of the mouse. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Borrowing lessons and personnel from Silicon Valley, political operatives are figuring out how to harness big batches of data to upend the multi-billion dollar business of American politics.”

On campus, the recently endowed Applied Political Strategies Scholarship is giving students an opportunity to get involved in this fast-evolving world. Traditionally, department internship programs have focused on legislative or executive branch opportunities. This new scholarship opens doors for students whose primary interest is in running and winning election campaigns.

“The APS Scholarship allows UT students the opportunity to develop and apply their theoretical and analytical knowledge in real campaigns,” says Professor Shaw. “Listening to professors and reading the research is one thing, but trying to understand the connection between voters and candidates in a live election is an invaluable experience for anyone interested in democratic politics.”

Teaching World War I, 100 Years Later

August 28, 1914. On the western front, the Germans capture Fort Manoviller. September 6, 1914, the Battle of the Marne begins. October 5, British naval brigades reach Antwerp. This year marks the centennial of World War I, and this semester students in Scott Wolford’s course, “World War I in Real Time,” will be doing just that, following the events of the First World War as they happened 100 years ago.

A big goal of the course: to impart in students that history is a product of people’s choices. As Wolford wrote on his blog while prepping the course over the summer, “With plans wrecked, opponents adjusting, and the strategic picture in remarkable flux, what will the generals, the soldiers, the statesmen, and the home fronts do in response?“

A key objective is for students to grasp theoretical concepts to apply to everything they learn as the war proceeds. Wolford applies a game-theoretic model to the unfolding war, often resulting in a canvas on which is painted a picture of combatants facing tragic incentives with few good choices. This is found to be particularly true regarding World War I’s horrifying images of attrition and trench warfare.

Through their study, students will gain insight into the dilemmas of strategic behavior and interaction. In the case of trench warfare, Wolford finds that while horribly tragic, if one side were to let up, the other side truly would have been able to break through, and therefore, militarily, it was the best response.

The course, being taught for the first time, seeks to give students a broad view of politics through the lens of one big, important case. As students read the history, Wolford will put forth puzzles for why something happened, setting up simple, game-theoretic models for what happened, with an eye toward presenting a unified theory of politics – theoretical tools that can be used to simultaneously explain military decisions in the field and domestic labor bargains being struck at home.

Ultimately, the study of the war is a device to teach students about numerous aspects of international relations and theories of politics, all while gifting a deeper appreciation for history and a more organized method of sorting and framing historical facts. Three written exams will test students’ understanding of the theories under investigation.

But, one might ask, can we really use the seemingly most unique historical event to teach students general theories of politics? Wolford insists the answer is yes. He points out, for example, that the war began with an assassination by cross-border militants, and in that sense is disturbingly modern.

“World War I is an outlier with extreme values, but at its core, it is not much different from the rest of politics; the forces at work are the same,” he says. “Ultimately,” he continues, “I want students to break with one way they maybe think about history. Nothing about war is inevitable. Nothing about politics is inevitable. History is contingent. Outcomes are always a product of choice. And it is harder to judge what people have done as a mistake or malevolent if you look seriously at the options they had.”

The class meets Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and was born out of discussion among colleagues following the Department of Government’s monthly international relations workshop, where faculty and graduate students present working papers. Wolford’s book, The Politics of Military Coalitions, is under contract with Cambridge University Press.

Department Launches Live, Online Foreign Policy Course

To say it is not the traditional classroom is a bit of an understatement. There are bright lights. There is makeup. Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan are playing over the speakers as the professors and crew finalize preparations to go live. Behind the scenes there are nearly 20 monitors and a mix of professional staff and student trainees providing chat, tech, audio and visual support, and just making sure that the more than 800 students logged in and watching are actually receiving the course material through the other end of cyberspace. It is a production, and an impressive one, to say the least.

But make no mistake. There is serious teaching going on, and it is not what might immediately jump to mind when you think “online course.” The course is Government 312L, United States Foreign Policy, fulfilling the second half of the two-course sequence in American and Texas government required of all Texas college students. Perhaps the most noteworthy facet of this specific class is the team-teaching format, and the breadth of expertise covered by this particular team.

Pat McDonald is an expert in international relations. He focuses on international political economy and international security, and especially the relationship between capitalism and peace between states. Rob Moser is a student of comparative politics, and especially Russia and the former Soviet Union, and issues of democratization and electoral systems more broadly. Given that so much of US Foreign Policy involves the establishment or collapse of capitalist democracies across the world, McDonald and Moser are a forceful pair to tackle the many issues at hand, each able to add unique perspectives and strengths to course material and debate.

This live, online version of GOV 312L is designed very much with the purpose outlined by President Bill Powers in his August 2013 comments on technology-enhanced education, in which he states, “the purpose of investing our creative effort and resources in this work is clear: to transform our students’ lives, inspire their intellectual excitement, and prepare them as leaders.”

Working in their team format, the professors are presenting lecture material in 5-10 minute segments and then engaging each other in conversation and debating the material (McDonald received degrees from OSU and Minnesota, Moser from Nebraska and Wisconsin, so they are naturally prone to arguing with each other). And there will be live interviews with experts interspersed throughout. During all of this, students can interact with the professors and six teaching assistants through chat applications that allow them to post questions and comments.

One of the course goals is to push students away from thinking about politics in strictly partisan terms and instead gain a better understanding of the complexity shaping many important policy decisions that leaders face, while simultaneously fostering a healthy skepticism and willingness to challenge what elected politicians and opinion leaders say in the news. Another course goal is to confront ethical dilemmas facing American foreign policy.

To do this, one of the big questions the professors will take on is, what role, if any, should morality and ethics play in American foreign policy? This will involve examining specific initiatives, such as democracy promotion, but also ethical debates about balancing demands of security and liberty with potentially effective counter-terrorism tools such as torture and surveillance. The professors will also engage debates about economic and trade policy and global income inequality, and the tension between environmental policies and questions of ethical responsibilities to future generations. And these are only a handful of the topics to be explored.

Amidst this innovative, live, online, team format, there are still plenty of “must-dos” for the students. First, there are 24 seats available in the recording studio, and students can make advance plans to attend the lecture live. Second, there are two in-person exams that students must actually take on campus, at a testing center. There are online quizzes, and students must be logged in during the prescribed lecture time to take them or earn a “zero” for the assignment, and there is a take-home essay, to be submitted online. And if they want to review, recorded lectures are available online for students to watch as many times as they please.

To gain a taste of what this course is like check out the first few minutes of the course’s first live, online lecture.

The University of Texas Government Department is taking the lead in the fast-changing landscape of online undergraduate education. By the look of things, they have started off on the right foot.

Applied Political Strategies Scholarship

Are you interested in political campaigns and elections? Do you want to learn more about cutting-edge data analysis and technology in campaigns? Do you want to jumpstart your career in this exciting field? The Department of Government is pleased to announce the inaugural competition for the Applied Political Strategies Scholarship.

Established in 2013, the Applied Political Strategies Scholarship provides scholarship support to students interested in the study of federal and statewide campaigns and elections. The scholarship encourages and subsidizes targeted internships with campaign-oriented organizations.

Scholarship recipients receive funds that may be used to offset living expenses associated with an unpaid internship, tuition and other fees, and other academic related expenses. Recipients also receive assistance being placed in a relevant internship. Internships will be targeted when related to digital campaigns and/or data analysis related to campaigns and elections.

Apply online through the scholarship portal: http://links.utexas.edu/cedgrk

The application is currently open and set to close March 28, 2014.

Emily Van Duyn: 2013 Jennings Prize Winner

Emily Van Duyn’s thesis, “Media Framing and Democracy: A Model of Descriptive Media and the Power of Affected Voice,” has won the 2013 William Jennings Bryan Prize in Government, given annually to the department’s top Honors thesis or theses. Established in 1898 with $250, the Jennings Prize is the university’s very first endowment.

Nick Lovitt: Plan II Model Thesis

James Nicholas Lovitt’s Honors thesis, “Displacement by Dispossession: Foreign Investments in African Land Acquisitions and Why They Fail,” has been selected by the Plan II program as a Plan II model thesis, chosen to serve as an example for future generations of thesis writers. This thesis was described as an “outstanding example of true scholarship that is both intellectually compelling and beautifully conceived.”

Hooking the Debt

Two government students, Hamid Poorsafar and Philip Wiseman, are among the leaders of a group on campus participating in “Up to Us,” a nationwide competition to educate and engage campus communities on the issue of the federal government’s long-term debt.The University of Texas at Austin was selected as one of twelve universities to compete. The competition is being sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative, Net Impact, and the Petersen Foundation.

The UT-Austin team has a Causes webpage. You can sign up and join the Causes page at the website: http://www.causes.com/hookthedebt

You can also like and follow the team through Facebook, and Twitter to keep up to date about events and giveaways.