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Current events spur interest in and understanding of U.S. Constitution

| Judy Berthiaume

Before coming to UW-Eau Claire, MaKenna Goretski hadn’t given much thought to politics.

The Mesa, Arizona, native didn’t know which political party best aligned with her beliefs and she wasn’t comfortable nor especially interested in being part of political conversations.

Four years later, Goretski — now a criminal justice major with a political science minor and a legal studies certificate — willingly engages in political discussions and is confident she can hold her own in a political debate.

Why the newly discovered interest in politics?

UW-Eau Claire faculty who make political science interesting, easy to understand and relevant to her life, says Goretski, who hopes to work with youth in the criminal justice system after she graduates in May 2020.

“I definitely feel more engaged in current events,” Goretski says of taking political science classes. “It's exciting to apply things I study in class to real life situations, especially at the federal level. This is part of why I love criminal justice and political science so much. The subjects are extremely relevant to topics covered in the news, which makes me feel connected to things that affect everyday life.

“Before taking political science classes, I stayed away from politics and steered clear of conversations about current issues because I felt without knowing all the facts, I couldn't possibly make an informed decision. Although I still don't know all the facts about every issue, I can now make informed decisions and figure out some constitutionally supported arguments.”

Given today’s political climate, many students — like Goretski — want information that will help them better understand the often-complex issues surrounding current debates and events, such as the impeachment inquiry into the president that’s now underway, says Dr. Eric Kasper, an associate professor of political science and an expert on the U.S. Constitution.

Kasper is noticing an uptick in the number of students enrolling in political science classes in general, including in the courses he teaches on the U.S. Constitution, which this semester includes “Survey of U.S. Constitutional Principles” and “U.S. Constitutional Principles - Powers of Government.”

“My constitutional law classes typically fill to the course enrollment cap,” Kasper says. “However, there are more students this semester who have requested to be enrolled in the course over the cap. I’ve granted those requests so students who want to learn more about the constitution are able to do so.”

Since impeachment is discussed in multiple articles of the U.S. Constitution, the current inquiry is a topic that is particularly relevant to both of his classes, Kasper says.

“I make use of current events in all of my classes, including my constitutional law classes, to demonstrate the relevance of course concepts to what is happening now,” Kasper says. “That’s no different with the ongoing impeachment inquiry. Current events typically provide opportunities for me to open a discussion about the relevance of the constitution, and these current events most certainly provide such an opportunity.”

Since the inquiry is happening in real time, students this semester are very engaged during class discussions about constitutional questions focusing on impeachment, and they often bring impeachment-related questions to class, Kasper says.

The constitutional principles class Kasper teaches, the first of four senior-level courses on the U.S. Constitution offered at UW-Eau Claire, deals with powers of the federal government and the states.

Its curriculum includes extensive discussions of Article I of the Constitution, which deals primarily with congress, and Article II of the Constitution, which deals primarily with the presidency, Kasper says.

“In that class, we already spend significant time discussing the powers of congress and the president, including questions related to impeachment,” Kasper says. “In past semesters, the impeachment inquiries into President Andrew Johnson, President Richard Nixon and President Bill Clinton were discussed. The current impeachment inquiry provides new material for class discussions and allows students to see these constitutional questions being raised in their lifetimes.”

Since his survey course covers all constitutional law, less time is typically devoted to questions relating to impeachment-related topics, though impeachment has been featured more prominently this semester due to current events, Kasper says.

Zach Janssen, a political science major from Green Bay, says he’s following current political events — including the impeachment inquiry and the many controversies surrounding it — with more interest and understanding because of what he’s learning in Kasper’s classroom.

“In class, there are many discussions that relate directly to modern controversies, even if the cases were decided years ago,” says Janssen, who will attend law school after he graduates in May 2020. “I definitely feel more engaged in current events because of the class. Its relevance to current events makes me more interested in the readings and even more involved in class discussions.”

Goretski agrees, saying that while it was an introduction to American politics class that first inspired her to add a political science minor, her classes focusing on the Constitution have been especially interesting given the Constitution’s central role in current political events, including the impeachment inquiry.

The “Survey of United States Constitutional Principles” course, which she took previously, also helped her recognized how relevant the Constitution is to all politics in America, Goretski says.

“Knowing court precedents, when certain political issues arise in the news, I often catch myself relating the topic to previous court cases and sometimes find myself sharing the information I've learned to others who attempt to make statements that contradict the Constitution,” Goretski says.

Having some understanding of the U.S. Constitution is helping her sort fact from fiction as she follows the many debates around the current impeachment inquiry, Goretski says.

She’s fortunate, Goretski says, to be in a class taught by Kasper, a nationally recognized expert on the U.S. Constitution and the director of UW-Eau Claire’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

“I encourage everyone to take at least one course on the U.S. Constitution, and for more excitement, I encourage students to take the courses offered by Dr. Kasper as he is very intriguing, makes class exciting and is extremely knowledgeable on the Constitution and politics,” says Goretski, who decided to pursue her certificate in legal studies after taking a class taught by Kasper.

Kasper does an excellent job of connecting class discussions to aspects of the U.S. Constitution that relate to current events, Goretski says.

For example, she says, her class discussed presidential pardon powers as a debate was underway in Washington, D.C., about whether President Trump would have the ability to pardon himself should he be charged with a crime.

“Taking courses that are centered around the Constitution helped me think differently about this issue and forced me to dig deeper into arguments for and against this hypothetical situation, which made me think more critically about current issues,” Goretski says. “In class, we also discussed the ways a president can be impeached per the Constitution. Taking courses where we discuss such matters in depth expedites my opinions on topics and keeps me better informed.”

Goretski says studying the Constitution also has helped her improve her media literacy, a skill that is valuable as she takes in information from many different sources.

“Some topics, such as impeachment inquires, presidents' pardon power and even basic civil rights, are written into the U.S. Constitution but may have gray areas,” Goretski says. “These gray areas make for some controversial topics in the news. I’ve learned that some news stations omit information while some direct the viewers’ attention away from certain facts.

“Being in classes where I dissect the Constitution, I'm able to think differently about the information presented by the media and others and have a deeper understanding of issues. Each situation is unique, and many are too complex to have black-and-white answers. With knowledge gained in these classes, I can create arguments that would be supported by the Constitution.”

LeeAnn Przybylski, a senior political science major with a legal studies emphasis, says Kasper’s class has helped her understand that the U.S. Constitution can be interpreted in multiple ways.

It also helped her recognize that over the years there has been a significant increase in the powers awarded to the executive branch of the government, she says.

“With impeachment being as rare as it is, knowing the powers delegated to each branch for the impeachment is critical to understanding the process,” says Przybylski, a Stevens Point native who plans to attend law school after she graduates in May 2020.

In her class, she studied impeachments and law suits connected to President Nixon and President Clinton, which helped her better understand the powers of the executive branch, Przybylski says.

“It’s noteworthy how there were different rulings based on different interpretations of the constitution in cases dealing with executive powers,” Przybylski says. “Given the importance of the Constitution, and that it’s had so many different interpretations, no one can be certain how events like the current impeachment inquiry will be resolved.”

Regardless of where current political events take the country, Goretski says she’s confident that UW-Eau Claire has prepared her to both better understand and debate the issues.

“With my relatively new knowledge of politics, I feel that I’m well prepared to join the conversation,” Goretski says. 

Top photo caption: Blugolds Makenna Goretski (left) and Zach Janssen (right) are studying current political events in classes that focus on the U.S. Constitution, which are taught by Dr. Eric Kasper (center).