The University of Connecticut looks quite different than it did last summer when former President Susan Herbst left on sabbatical. Now she is back, teaching for the first time in years, in a pandemic.
Herbst spent her sabbatical reading and researching for her newest book.
“It comes back to you like riding a bike,” Herbst remarked on her re-acclimation into her field during an interview with The Daily Campus.
She said being President of a university doesn’t lend itself enough time to keep up with the scholarly work of her peers. She instead used her time away to get current on the recent happenings in the realm of political science. More specifically, in her field of expertise – public opinion.
Herbst also helped sociologist Jeff Manza in a sociology class at New York University during her sabbatical. She said she did this in order to get back inside of a classroom setting as well as spend some time studying the current climate of political polarization in government.
“It was a very normal professor kind of sabbatical – nothing special,” Herbst said.
She is now teaching a remote upper level political science seminar class on public opinion on this election at the Stamford campus.
Her class is heavily focused on collaboration and discussion during its two and a half hour run time where she asks students to keep their cameras on to avoid painfully awkward Zoom silences.
“My teaching style is extremely collaborative with the students,” Herbst said. “…I feel about the seminars as I’ve always felt in all my decades of teaching – that if the students don’t participate with vigor, the class is not gonna be a success. So, I just tried to foster that feeling of ownership in the class so that everybody feels they’re going to get as much out of it what they put into it.”
She said one silver lining of distance learning is that it enables her and other professors to have more frequent guests in class – at a much less costly price than it would typically take to get an in-person guest. Universities typically have to pay fees for speakers, as well as travel and lodging costs if they’re coming from far away.
In the public opinion class she is teaching, her students read a book written by Dr. Lawrence Lessig of Harvard law. During a discussion on disputed elections one class, a student pondered what Lessig would think of the conversation they were having. So, Herbst wrote to him, and he offered to join their class.
He visited a few weeks ago, she said, and talked to them about the discussion question as well as his views on a disputed election.
“I’m not a constitutional scholar and most political scientists are not,” Hersbst said of Lessig’s visit. “And so, it’s been a real struggle because I think every person teaching American politics right now would love to have a law professor in teaching with them.”
“My teaching style is extremely collaborative with the students…I just tried to foster that feeling of ownership in the class so that everybody feels they’re going to get as much out of it what they put into it.”
Herbst said she will be teaching a course on American politics in film during the spring semester, open to students at all campuses since it’s going to be remote. The class is listed as POLS 3246 and it runs from 3:35 to 6:05 p.m. on Wednesdays.
Herbst also researched for and wrote a book during her time away from UConn. This is her fifth book overall and fourth about public opinion. This one, titled “A Troubled Birth: the 1930s and American Public Opinion,” explores the dynamic of politics and public opinion measures during the Great Depression and compares it to how polling and the like fit into today’s political climate.
“Opinion polling, the way we see it now, was really born in the 1930s,” Herbst said. “It was people like George Gallup and Elmo Roper …who actually started the industry in the 30s.”
She said there are chapters on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and how immigrants were portrayed on 1930s radio. The book focuses heavily on the history portion since there’s quite a few people covering present day polling.
The book is currently undergoing a blind review process before it is due to be published next summer by the University of Chicago Press.