Author Archive | Dan Hopkins

So You Are Starting Your First Year at a Research University…

It’s August—and while that means a dearth of news about American politics, it also means that across the country, recent high school grads are getting ready to start up at a dizzying array of colleges and universities.  I’d be surprised if this blog has much of a readership among people in their late teens.  But having spent some 15 years at research universities, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts about starting undergraduate life at one, and would be curious to get others’ takes in the Comments.  I must have learned something in those eight years living in undergraduate dorms, right?  (Don’t worry—I wasn’t on the eight-year plan.  I was a residential adviser for most of my time in graduate school.  Hm, you still look worried.)

Research universities aren’t just a scaled-up version of a high school, with more students and better sports teams—they are organized differently, and understanding that organization is one of the first tasks of the entering undergraduate.  Case in point: in my high school, any study of literature would have been in the English Department, from Thoreau to Tolstoy.  I knew I liked literature, so when I got to college, I sought out a well-reputed class in the English Department.  But it was only months later, over the winter holidays, that I actually had time to read the course catalog, which was several hundred pages long.  And I realized, belatedly, that literatures written in foreign languages were taught in separate departments—Slavic Languages and Literatures, Germanic Languages and Literatures, etc.  Or else in the Comparative Literature Department.  I also realized that there were whole fields I had never encountered in high school—computer science, sociology, anthropology, to name just a few.

If I were starting again, I’d spend a lot more time reading (or now browsing) the course catalog, to get a better sense of how the fields at a university are organized.  I wouldn’t just read up in the fields I was most interested in.  In fact, I’d read up mostly in the fields I knew nothing about.  The less familiar the Department’s name, the better.  And I’d also spend more time asking people about the different fields, their main tools, their driving questions, their intellectual progress.  High schools are frequently organized by topic area, while universities are organized in part based on different disciplinary toolkits.  You might really like a subject like European history, but also find that the tools you want to use to make sense of that history are actually those of an anthropologist.  Or a computer scientist.  Or an economist.

In that is also a thought about picking classes, to the extent that first-year requirements leave room for choice.  Good classes convey facts, sure.  But they also convey ways of thinking and ways of learning.  More than the specific facts, it is those ways of thinking and learning that you are likely to retain years later.  So if the instructor of a course thinks about problems in a novel or compelling way, give the course a shot—even if you never imagined taking a class on pre-modern Chinese diets.

OK, so I would have spent more time asking people about the academic disciplines—but who, exactly?  Research universities are massive and busy, and some aren’t exactly brimming with people who will stop and explain the intellectual organization of the contemporary university to a wayward first-year.  But that’s where your advisers, teaching assistants, professors, and deans come in.  Harvard professor Richard Light has studied what makes for a successful college experience, and one of his main take-aways is that the students who get to know their instructors have richer college experiences.  His advice: make it a goal to get to know one instructor a semester.  That might mean balancing a few of those big lecture classes with smaller seminars.  It might mean thinking hard about a problem, and then heading to office hours to ask about it.  It might mean asking your teaching assistant why she went into a particular field.  Or it might mean asking a professor about her research, and seeing if you can get involved in it.  They’re called “research universities” for a reason—and yet, many students spend years on university campuses without getting involved in one of their signature activities.

Which brings me to… getting involved in general.  But not getting too involved.  In my high school in the 1990s, and maybe in yours today, a lot of people got involved in a lot of activities: sports teams, student government, religious groups, high school newspapers, weekend jobs, you name it.  But whereas high school life is highly structured, starting at dawn and going well into the evening in some cases, undergraduate life is much less so.  You might find yourself in class for 15 hours a week, leaving a lot of time for other pursuits.  Three weeks into college life, I’ll bet most first-year students couldn’t physically go back to their high school schedules if they tried.  (And having taught classes early on Monday mornings—well, 9:30 am—I have solid evidence of that.)  But the organizational and extra-curricular life at universities is a lot more specialized than that in high school.  It’s not the same people running every activity or doing every on-campus job.  So learn about lots of activities, organizations, and jobs, sure—but plan to devote your time to just a few, and to do those well.

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Did a Pro-Obama Canvass Produce McCain Supporters?

Does all this mean that Obama’s allies would have been better off talking up McCain in 2008?  Not exactly.  Like the effects on survey response and voter turnout, the negative effect on Obama support appears concentrated among infrequent voters.  So the people who were turned off were those least likely to turn out.  But the experiment does reinforce just how difficult persuasion can be, and just how central targeting is to an effective ground game.  And for campaigns and campaign watchers, it underscores that putting boots on the ground isn’t always enough—or even a net positive.  If the volunteers in those boots are knocking on the wrong doors, or saying the wrong thing, they might not be helping their candidate.

That’s from my post today at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, reporting the results of a large-scale field experiment in Wisconsin during the 2008 presidential election.  For more, head over to Wonkblog.  Or if you are curious about the working paper on which it’s based, head here.

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Think Messaging Will Change Health Care Attitudes? Think Again.

Might the efforts of Oprah Winfrey and others encourage Americans to sign up for health insurance?  Sure—and a separate vein of research in political science provides evidence that Americans’ actual experiences with social policy programs can have a pronounced influence on their views.  Signing up people, not shifting public opinion, is the aim of the Obama administration’s latest efforts.  But after five years of debate, it is clear that public opinion on the Affordable Care Act is unmoved by catchy slogans alone.

That’s from my post today over at Wonkblog, summarizing a working paper on the parties’ messaging on health care reform and its surprisingly weak impacts on public opinion.  For more, head here.

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Detroit and the Origins of the Urban Crisis

My examination of Detroit in the quarter-century after World War II suggests that the origins of the urban crisis are much earlier than social scientists have recognized, its roots deeper, more tangled, and perhaps more intractable.  No one social program or policy, no single force, whether housing segregation, social welfare programs, or deindustrialization, could have driven Detroit and other cities like it from their positions of economic and political dominance; there is no simple explanation for the inequality and marginality that beset the urban poor. It is only through the complex and interwoven histories of race, residence, and work in the postwar era that the state of today’s cities and their impoverished residents can be fully understood and confronted.

That’s from the introduction of historian Thomas Sugrue’s seminal book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.  It is one unparalleled starting place for anyone trying to understand the events of the last several days in Detroit.  Even in Detroit’s heyday just after World War II, when it was the fifth-largest city in the U.S., Professor Sugrue finds the seeds of its decline.  And the dynamics between the state government in Lansing and the City of Detroit are certainly one part of the story, as Professor Sugrue told The Globe and Mail recently:
The governor and state legislature have mostly been elected by voters who are profoundly suspicious of Detroit, who see it as a sinkhole, a corrupt Third-World country, emblem of urban misrule. They believe that if their tax dollars go to the city, the money is going to be wasted on more mismanagement.

For  the full post-bankruptcy interview with Professor Sugrue, see here.

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The Fox News Effect

In the wake of a presidential election, there is an understandable focus on what is holding back the losing party. But we shouldn’t ignore the factors that have advantaged the GOP in recent elections. And as a pair of recent studies show, the Fox News cable channel is one such advantage.

That’s from my post today over at Wonkblog, describing two papers on the political impact of Fox News during its roll-out.  The first is a 2007 paper by Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan, while the second is more recent work I’ve undertaken with Jonathan M. Ladd.  For more, head here.

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Do Anti-Immigration Stances Cost the GOP Votes from Latinos?

The question at hand is whether the Latino respondents became less likely to support the GOP ticket in 2012, after Arizona’s SB1070 and Romney’s advocacy of “self-deportation.”  As it turns out, Latino McCain supporters were more likely to leave the GOP camp than any other demographic group analyzed here.  McCain supporters who were not Latino stuck with Romney 84 percent of the time, while the senator’s Latino backers only stayed with Romney 70 percent of the time.

That’s from my newest post over at Wonkblog, where I look at the claim that anti-immigration stances cost the GOP votes from Latinos.  For more, and to learn about the shift in Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Latino support between 2004 and 2008, head here.

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The Political Fallout of Natural Disasters

So when tornadoes or others natural disasters strike, how do voters react, and what do those reactions tell us about voting? It’s plausible that voters might blame incumbents, even for something that is as obviously beyond their control as a tornado. There is, after all, evidence that voters punish incumbents for everything from shark attacks to losses by local sports teams. But on disasters specifically, the most recent evidence suggests more than just knee-jerk blame for whoever happens to be in office. Multiple studies indicate that when incumbents act in voters’ interests in the wake of a disaster, they are rewarded with increased support.

That’s from my most recent post over at Wonkblog, detailing political science research into the political impacts of natural disasters.  For more, head here.

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Immigration and Public Investment

Here in the United States, opponents of immigration reform frequently talk about the dangers of rewarding people who came without authorization or the prospect that immigrants might take jobs from native-born Americans. But there is another concern about immigration that they don’t typically raise, one that you are more likely to hear from the European left than the American right: that immigration undermines the social welfare state by making voters less supportive of public spending.

The logic behind this argument is simple. Writing in the Guardian, David Goodhart contends that “if newcomers do not make some effort to join in it is harder for existing citizens to see them as part of the ‘imagined community’. When that happens it weakens the bonds of solidarity and in the long run erodes the ‘emotional citizenship’ required to sustain welfare states.”

The striking thing about the United States, though, is that increasing ethnic and racial diversity hasn’t dampened our public investments.


That’s from my latest post over at Wonkblog, detailing what research on American cities can teach us about ethnic and racial diversity’s effects on public investments in roads, sanitation, and other services.  For more, head here.

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The GOP is Moving on Immigration. Are Its Voters?

Talk of self-deportation has cooled down; talk of comprehensive immigration reform has heated up. Have those changes influenced voters?

One answer comes from recent Washington Post polling, which has shown majorities of 55-57 percent of American adults supporting a pathway to citizenship in each of three post-election polls. From the toplines, the story seems to be one of stable attitudes from November 2012 to March 2013. But those numbers hide an important fact: not everyone has responded to the changing GOP stance in quite the same way. It turns out to be well-educated Republicans whose attitudes have shifted most dramatically.


That is from my post at Wonkblog looking at how the GOP’s changing stance on immigration appears to have influenced at least some Republican-leaning voters.  More is here.

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Heard through the Marble

The Monkey Cage welcomes back Emory University’s Tom Clark for a guest post on the Supreme Court.

Yesterday, I attended oral argument in the Supreme Court’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) case. This was particularly exciting for me, as I have argued in my research that concerns about the Court’s public perception and legitimacy, particularly in the context of intense public interest, may be consequential for the Court’s decision-making. As I stood among the protestors, both before and after oral argument, I could not avoid the conclusion that while the protestors’ physical voices were not audible in the courtroom, their presence was felt and was part of the underlying themes argued by the lawyers and justices.

About a year ago, I wrote a post on The Monkey Cage about the effect of public opinion campaigns on the Supreme Court’s decision-making in the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) case. There, I argued that efforts to build popular support in favor of the ACA could potentially reach the Supreme Court, and in the wake of the Court’s decision to uphold the ACA (particularly Roberts’ vote in support of ACA), there was much speculation that concerns for the Court’s reputation and public perception might have influenced the Chief Justice.

My thoughts on these questions remain unchanged, and I think the same logic holds in the case of DOMA. The flurry of endorsements of same-sex marriage by U.S. senators—mostly, but not only, Democrats—over the past few weeks is certainly not coincidental; this is a topic at the forefront of public discourse right now. Still further, public opinion research has documented a clear and consistent shift in favor of equal treatment for homosexual people, and the many recent public opinion polls have documented majority support for same-sex marriage rights (e.g., here and here). These are developments of which the Court is certainly aware and to which I believe it is sensitive. Continue Reading →

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