Thursday, 19 September 2013

American voices: seeking opinions on key questions

I wrote last week that I'm looking for some Americans with opinions to take part in preparing the content for a course I'm teaching at the University of Reading  this year (it's pronounced 'Redding' - it's not a pretentious book-based learning establishment!). As I plough on preparing my lectures and seminars for the American Government course , the issues I'd like some American Voice comments on are emerging. At a high level, the immediate ones are:

Congress:

  • How do you regard Congress?
  •  Does it represent your aims?
  •  How effective is it in delivering on its power of oversight?
  •  Is the balance right between Congress and the President?

The Presidency

  • Are you comfortable with the way the President uses his powers?
  • How would you score the current presidency out of 10 - and why?
  • Who is/was the USA's greatest president - and why?
  • Who's at the bottom of the Presidential poll for you - and why|
  • Do you believe presidential power is in decline? Why/why not?
  • Who will be the white House's next incumbent and why?
The Supreme Court

  • Do you believe Americans understand the role that the Supreme Court plays in government today?
  • Is the Court doing a good job? Why/why not?
  • Inverting Alexander Hamilton, some commentators regard the Supreme Court as the most dangerous and least democratic aspect of US government today. Is that a fair assessment? Why/why not?
Political Parties and elections

  • How effective do you feel the two party system is in US politics?
  • In your opinion, what unites and what divides each of the US' two main parties?
  • What do the Republicans need to do to regain the White House?
  • What do the Democrats need to do to retain the White House?
  • Why is there so often a disconnect between voting patterns at local/State/Congressional and presidential levels?
  • Can one party ever dominate across the US political spectrum?
Issues

  • What effect has sequestration had on your views on the current US political situation?
  • Do you believe the wrangling over healthcare reform has enhanced or damaged both the President and Congressional opponents?
  • What impact is Syria having on the standing of the President and Congress?
  • Have recent debates around gay marriage and also voting rights affected your view of the Supreme Court?
Federalism

  • Why are so many Americans often so critical of 'big government'?
Media
  • What role does the media play in US politics today?
  • Do you feel the media is a power for good in US politics? Why/why not?
  • Is social media affecting today's political scene - and if so, how?
Capital punishment

  • What's your view on the death penalty - is it right that the US retains the right to execute wrongdoers?
Gun control

  • What's your view on gun control?
  • Why is it such a contentious issue in US politics?
  • Will events such as Aurora, Newtown or the Navy Yard shootings have any effect politically?
Lobbying

  • Which interest groups have the greatest impact on US politics, and why?
  • Do interest groups enhance or detract from the US political scene - why and how?
Civil rights
  • Do you believe the US is now a fair and equitable society for all? Why/why not?
Religion
  • How much power and influence does religion have in US politics?
  • Is that power on the rise or decline?
  • Does its rise or decline matter?
America and the World
  • What effect, if any, do you feel that current US politics has on the standing of the nation in the world?
  • Does the rest of the world's view of the US actually matter? Why/why not?
Would you be willing to answer these questions and share your views with a bunch of Reading University second year undergrads?

No responses need to be attributed fully - I'm looking at something like 'Fred, a store owner from Florida said...' - just enough to give the students a sense of whose opinion they're hearing.

I'm very happy to take written responses to all or any of the questions - or, for the more daring, sound or even movie files.

Interested? If you'd like to find out more or are even tentatively interested in taking part, email me at m.j.shanahan@reading.ac.uk and I can fill you in on the details


Wednesday, 11 September 2013

In search of American Voices

It is, perhaps, fitting that on this 9/11 anniversary I've been planning content for my up-coming American Government course. I'll be teaching the L2 undergrad course at Reading University from next month, covering the usual bases - the separation of powers; who does what and how; the Constitution; parties and elections; 'big government'; States' Rights; interest groups; the media; capital punishment; civil rights; social policy and religion.

I have 66 eager undergrads signed up for the course. Most are British; the rest Continental European and very few have spent any time at all in the US.

My experience of teaching US politics over the last few years with similar groups is that they're generally quite liberal and find it easy to be antagonistic towards the US - while admiring its business ethics, much of its culture and many of its individuals. It's an odd mix that's often based on kittle understanding that US culture is quite different from ours in Europe.

I'm hoping to aid the understanding of my students a little more this year by introducing some 'American Voices' into the lectures. Beyond the usual textbook and assigned scholarly reading, I'd love students to hear from 'real' Americans who live and breathe the impacts of US political decision making every day.

I would like them to hear views on the death penalty and gun control for instance from the kinds of articulate, erudite Americans I've spoken to over the years; the kinds who've shared their views with me on both sides of the debate. I'd like my students to understand why the Constitution matters so much, given that in the UK we have no written constitution and seem to have a much more malleable view of constitutionally-based issues politicking.

I would love to know how gay marriage and Obamacare are playing in Peoria. It would be great to find out what being 'libertarian' really means to Joe from LA or Jessie from Idaho and my students would gain a great insight from understanding why and how religion matters if you're growing up in the Heartland.

I'll be putting out some feelers to my own US contacts over the next few weeks - I'd love to collect some audio files, perhaps some very basic videos or even have someone Skype direct into my class. But I'm very open to speaking to new contacts and building a range of real American Voices into my classes.

In many ways there appears to be a widening gap between the US and Europe. It can be narrowed through mutual understanding - and the best people to do the narrowing are the next generation of leaders and influencers.

So, if you're an American willing to engage with some 19-20 year old British students about one or more aspects of US politics, please get in touch. You can email me at m.j.shanahan@reading.ac.uk

Thanks in anticipation for your help

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

When writing, never stop reading

The thesis is hovering around 43,000 words at the moment. I write a bit, read it back, chop, pinch, style and rephrase. The intro, chapters three and four and part of chapter one are now there, with plans for all the other pieces of the jigsaw.

I've had good feedback on the two completed chapter drafts from the wise and exceedingly kind Dave Nichols, which will help strip out some of the chaff from the wheat (although the word count may well take a knock). In having a paper accepted for publication, I've also received good feedback from Andy Polsky at Hunter College, CUNY. Andy's editing the book I'll be published in, and sent back his comments with the advice: "Probably you will feel a little bruised and battered after you see the edits.  Ice helps, either applied directly or consumed in a stiff drink, American-style."

Actually, his editing was crisp, his cuts made sense - and other than the Americanization of some of my very British observation, we have very little to argue over. Compared to the evisceration I've seen applied to other colleagues' work by 'helpful editors', Andy's shaping of my work was relatively mild and positively beneficial.  

Anyway, while I write, I still read. At the moment, I'm working my way through Jeffrey Frank's 'Ike  and Dick' which is not bad on Nixon, but presents a rather hackneyed caricature of President Eisenhower. In fact, Frank might as well have called it 'Ike and Tina Turner' for all it contains that's new, interesting or particularly realistic about POTUS 34.

As I'm teaching an Eisenhower summer school at the moment, I'm also re-reading Dave Nichols' excellent 'A Matter of Justice'. In terms of Eisenhower, this is everything that Mr Frank's book isn't. While it's not as well known a title as Nichols' study on Ike and Suez, 'Eisenhower: 1956', it's a thoughtful, incisive and meticulously researched study that recognises that the 1950s were very different from the 1960s, and that Eisenhower's cautious steps forward towards ending racial inequality were very necessary in enabling the groundswell for change of the Kennedy/Johnson presidencies.

Having spoken at the Ike Reconsidered conference back in March, which was organised by Andy Polsky, it's perhaps not surprising that I'm also reading his 'Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War.' It's a work that those currently in the White House and Pentagon would do well to read on their holidays this summer.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The big push starts here

The good news is that last week, my PhD research was 'Confirmed'. In Brunel terms, that means it has cleared the last internal gate and the next steps are submission and my external viva. Being grilled for around 90 minutes last week by two internal examiners (plus my two supervisors chipping in on occasion) resulted in my hypothesis being seem as viable; my methodology sound, my timeline realistic and my writing to date (approaching 40,000 words) up to the expected standard.

I didn't by any means nail the internal viva - the feedback was that I was still, in part, too journalistic, while paradoxically, not being sufficiently sharp on how my work will make a significant contribution to Eisenhower/early space scholarship. I thought I was being both polite and measured, and was desperately attempting to avoid the accusation of 'showboating' that I've been subject to before. It seems like I'd dialled down my performance just a notch too far.

Still, the whole point of the confirmation hearing is to get practice for the external event. I've learned quite a lot, and hope I'll be able to apply it when the time comes - some time in 2014.

The bad news is there's no time to rest on my laurels. On the way up, Confirmation feels like a big thing. Once through it, one realises it qualifies the Confirmed candidate for nothing. I have one core section out of three written and revised. I've started on the major context piece. The consequences are still some way off. I have anything from 40,000-60,000 words still to craft, polish and set.

It seemed that all my hard work was leading up to last Friday's event. The reality is: the really hard work starts now.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Walter Cronkite, Patrick Moore and James Burke can rest easy

I had an interview filmed at the recent Ike Reconsidered Conference. Somehow, I think my days as a TV pundit will be brief - though kudos to the editors for actually getting some sense out of my musings. You can see me here.

Friday, 15 March 2013

US Diary - reflections

It's a week now since the 'Ike Reconsidered' Conference in New York, and I've actually been back in the UK since Monday. It worked out cheaper to stay in the US 'til Sunday, so I enjoyed the great pleasure at the end of the trip of a free day in New York City. The feedback from the conference has been great - my presentation went down well and my work seems to have picked up an appreciative audience. To an extent, I was preaching to the Choir, but it's a reall buzz to get a positive response to my thoughts on Ike from a very knowledgeable crowd.

As is my great pleasure, I set out relatively early on Saturday morning and just walked: miles and miles, stopping to browse in a Barnes and Noble; taking a look in the wonderful Art Deco lobby of the Chrysler Building and skirting the rather ghastly Times Square.

Given my history leanings, I'd always wanted to visit the USS Intrepid, nudged up to the edge of Hell's Kitchen on the Hudson River. I spent a good couple of hours looking round the WW2 carrier and its aircraft displays.

After that, it was back to Times Square to try and get hold of a ticket for one of the major Broadway Shows. The queues were a killer, so I headed direct to the Richard Rogers Theatre and bought a ticket for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The theatre, which feels just a bit run down, wasn't quite full, and the play has had mixed reviews. But, aside from Ciaran Hinds' Big Daddy starting with a significantly more Belfast than Southern USA accent, and Scarlett Johansson gabbling a few too many of her early lines upstage, I thought the performance was mesmerising. Back at the hotel about 15 hours after setting out for the day, I still couldn't get to sleep.

Sunday morning, I breakfasted with the estimable Dave Nichols before we shared a cab to Penn Station and I started my trip home - via DC. My journey back was ridiculously expensive, thanks to getting a cab from Washington's Union station out to Dulles (when's the subway finally due to reach the airport?), but it would be churlish to complain about a terrific week including great research, a superb conference - and the chance to see Scarlett Johansson looking deliciously sultry.