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SMU Meadows Faculty Members Make A Mark On Election Year Politics And Take Students Along For The Experience

by Melanie Jarrett

Hilltop on the Hill

Established in 1996 by Dr. Kirk, who also serves as the director of the Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility, and made possible by a gift from Doug Bauer ’97, “Hilltop on the Hill” is an annual event exposing students to what it’s actually like to work in the political communications industry. But election years are when the action really heats up.

“Hilltop on the Hill is certainly flashier during election years,” Kirk says. In an election year, students who enroll in the one-hour political communications class associated with the program choose whether to attend the Republican or Democratic national convention. They also have the opportunity to attend the inauguration in January.

“We urge the students to consider their political beliefs and what it is they want to do with their careers before choosing which event they attend,” Kirk says. “They do everything from working formal balls like Black Tie & Boots to serving as pit volunteers.” In non-election years, students travel to Washington, D.C., where they meet with figures ranging from political leaders and members of the media to White House speechwriters, nonprofit executives and communication professionals in Congress.

The one constant from year to year?

“Probably naiveté,” says Kirk with a laugh. “There are a lot of people who are fascinated with politics and think they’d like to work in the field. But when they go on these experiences or they start working on Capitol Hill, they drop out very quickly. A career like that is your whole life, and if you don’t breathe it, it’s probably not the right choice for you.”

But many students also leave with what Kirk fondly refers to as “the fever”– the desire to work in Washington and be a full-time part of the political conversation. Such students leave Hilltop on the Hill empowered by testing the waters at the highest level.

“You can see them walk away with a new kind of moxie, and I think that’s one of the most important parts of the whole program,” says Kirk. “They come back to the classroom different, and they’re now doing research not because they have to, but because they recognize that they need it to gain an edge. It reduces the ‘I could never do that’ to more of an ‘I’ve got this.’”

This year, 10 students chose to attend the Republican National Convention, while another eight students went to the Democratic National Convention. Students did a variety of tasks as runners for CNN, from escorting on-air guests through security to assisting on-air talent and producers as they prepared and executed live newscasts.

Despite the frenzied days and late nights, both professors continue to run the program with passion and a tireless commitment to the student experience – Kirk for more than 22 years now, and Schill since his arrival at Meadows in 2006. In conversations, their rock-solid belief in the value of the program is overwhelmingly evident.

“There’s so much cynicism about our institutions in general, whether it’s school systems or political institutions or whatever – but I think these students walk away from the experience believing in our political system, and believing in people who are trying to advance their cause,” Kirk says.

Charting Voter Reaction

On the other side of the dial – in this case, quite literally – is the work Schill and Kirk have been doing for CNN. Beginning with the 2008 election, the duo pioneered live dial testing during televised political debates, gauging audience reaction to candidates and providing results through a real-time graph seen at the bottom of viewers’ television screens. Selected audience members use handheld “perception analyzers” equipped with dials that they continuously move right or left, registering their immediate positive and negative responses to debate comments.

Dial testing has been used since the 1940s to determine how audiences respond to commercials, ads and political messages. Schill, who was introduced to the method during his doctoral work at the University of Kansas, found a willing partner in Dr. Kirk to help bring the system to news coverage of politics.

“It’s real-time, instant polling,” Schill explains. “It allows us to get a randomly selected group of people together to watch a debate, or a speech, or really any piece of media, and research their live, moment-tomoment reaction to what they’re watching.”

Their groundbreaking work has continued through this year’s election, including dial testing the candidate and vice presidential speeches at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, with plans to cover the televised debates. The goal of their work is quite simple: to get voter voices back into the political conversation.

“It’s important to get the voter’s voice back into the mix so that we don’t forget what the democratic process is all about: informing and engaging the citizenry so they can make a decision,” Schill says. “If all you do is watch TV and allow media pundits to dictate who these ‘leaders’ are, you can lose sight of that. Any time we get voters – especially undecided ones – on the air to voice their opinions, we see that as a victory.”

Schill and Kirk also publish their findings from their dial testing studies in academic journals and books. One paper published in American Behavioral Scientist demonstrated that televised focus groups increase citizen engagement in the political process.

Another hallmark of the duo’s work is their willingness to involve undergraduate students as research assistants. This election season included the 18 students at the conventions plus eight others who worked with them during primary election coverage last spring.

“There is a lot of pressure on us as research assistants because professors Kirk and Schill demand excellence, and by nature you want to give it to them,” says Savannah Stevens (B.A. Communication Studies, ’14), who has been assisting on dial testing projects since her freshman year. “Kirk and Schill want to be able to deliver the best product they can to CNN, and they also want to have great information they can later turn into research.”

Students who participated in the professors’ research this year crisscrossed the country during primary season, making stops in Florida, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Rhode Island to test audience reaction to both victory and concession speeches. They learned most aspects of the dial testing process, from calling participants to using the skills necessary to effectively moderate a focus group to analyzing data.

“There are no other universities that take undergraduate students along to do this type of thing,” Schill says. “It is a remarkable chance to get hands-on research experience with a major media organization, and it’s really one of the unique aspects of the communication studies program here at SMU.”

The experience has left a deep impression on the current students and alumni who have been fortunate enough to participate. Many of those alumni were busy this election season as press secretaries or communication directors for heavy-hitting politicians, or lobbying in Washington, D.C., or even helping run the respective party conventions.

“You go to college and you think you’re just going to learn textbook stuff and not really have it apply to what you see out in the open, beyond the SMU bubble,” says Stevens, who aspires to work on political campaigns in D.C. after graduation. “But we’re actually able to say, ‘We just talked about this 72 hours ago in class. Now we are watching victory speeches or concession speeches we had forecasted days before.’ There was this huge direct correlation with what we were learning and what we were seeing in the real world.”

Undergraduate communication studies majors just might have hit the jackpot in 2012: from dial testing to trips to Washington to interning at political conventions to seeing their work live on CNN, it’s a significant year for the students who spend their time in Umphrey Lee. Where they go and what they do next will be shaped by this election – not by who wins it, but by the role the students played in the entire process.

“We are helping to elevate the argument and the quality of discourse in this country,” says Kirk, whose former students now dot the U.S. political landscape. “We’re a part of the conversation, a part of using technology to help us understand our fellow citizens better.”

Stevens, who says she wandered into a communication studies class her freshman year, believes not only her time at Meadows but her career will be influenced by Kirk and Schill’s commitment to their work and their students.

“I feel like I won the lottery when it comes to finding a major,” she says. “It’s everything you want out of the college experience: finding these really cool mentors who help you understand where you want to go in life and how you can get there. They’ve done such amazing things in their careers, but the best thing is that they teach you to believe that you can do amazing things, too.”

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