Congressional Debates at FSCJ: How My Students Responded

So far as I know, my brother and I are the first in our family to complete our college degrees. My father had spent much of his life as an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy and then had a successful career in the restaurant business before passing away when I was nine years old. My mother was only a high school graduate, but had a love of books and a respect for education that she passed on to her children. Perhaps due to my mother’s influence, although coming from a family with no background in higher education, both my brother and I eventually completed graduate degrees. But this came only after both of us served as enlisted men in the Marine Corps and working a variety of (sometimes dreadful) jobs as civilians. In my mid 20s, I would have never suspected that I would eventually earn a doctorate from the University of Florida and become a college professor, which I see as a vocation rather than a job.

Consequently, I also never envisioned some of the unique opportunities I have had in the last few years as a result of working at FSCJ. Among those unique opportunities, moderating two recent U.S. congressional debates hosted by my college (and its Student Government Association) certainly rank high on any such list. Indeed, recently an excellent team of administrators[i] at my college put together two wonderfully organized debates for the 4th Congressional District’s Republican Primary and the 4th Congressional District General Election. During both debates, I had the opportunity to serve as a co-moderator, along with my highly talented colleague Professor Cynthia Counsil. It was fascinating to be a part of this process and so I want to reflect on those experiences here and the value of such events for the college community and our students.


Image above: Me with Prof. Cynthia Counsil, my co-moderator for both debates.

My employer, Florida State College at Jacksonville, with over 50,000 students, serves an important role in N.E. Florida. Formerly a community college, several years ago FSCJ made the transition to a “State College” that began offering bachelors degrees. So we offer some more traditional four-year degree programs, as well as many types of associate degrees, but also continue to offer a variety of workforce programs that are more commonly associated with community colleges. Thus, we have an extraordinarily diverse student body, coming from a variety of backgrounds, and because our college is so large, extending services to so many students through multiple campuses, it has a heavy footprint in the region. Indeed, while out and about on the town, whether in Jacksonville or St. Augustine, I often meet people in all sorts of social settings that have attended (or are attending) FSCJ.

So in this sense, as a leading higher education institution with the highest enrollment of any college or university in the region (UNF, for example, has fewer than 20,000 students), it seems obvious that FSCJ would be an ideal host for something like a U.S. congressional debate for our local 4th Congressional District. Such a venture works well with FSCJ’s role as an educational leader in our community and provides a genuine service for our students, many of whom will only be voting for the first time this November, 2016. Such events give them the opportunity to both meet and listen to the candidates as they debate important issues for all Americans. For many of the younger students, these debates represented the first time they have seriously considered some issues (e.g. immigration policies, the war in Syria, education policies, etc…) and undoubtedly framed the way they envision such topics.

Prior to the debates, I had encouraged my students and friends on social media to attend. As this is a contentious election year (Trump vs. Clinton), I assumed there would be considerable interest in attending a U.S. congressional debate between local candidates vying to represent a significant part of the local community in Washington D.C. Consequently, when the first debate was held at FSCJ’s Downtown campus on August 16, 2016, I optimistically assumed attendance would be high.

I was wrong.

Although free and advertised in local media and on campus as well, relatively few people showed up for the first debate. Other than students associated with the Student Government Association, perhaps only a handful of students attended. Even fewer faculty members attended, and only a handful of members of local community. The vast majority of the seats were empty and I think nearly half of those attending were family members of the candidates and the administrators that played a role in pulling it all together. It was unfortunate as the event had been exceptionally well managed and staged and the candidates offered a lively debate on a host of issues that I know to be important to local voters. The candidates (themselves veterans of these types of debates) told me how much they enjoyed taking part and how well run it had been. They then made themselves personally available to those who attended and continued to discuss various issues in small groups well after the debate had ended. It represented a great opportunity for those (particularly our students) interested in these issues to learn more about the candidates, but unfortunately not many had shown up.

Although attendance was poor for the first debate, I still saw it as a very successful initial run for our college. It had unquestionably been well organized and managed by the administrative team in charge of it all. All that was needed was to find a way to encourage more students to attend. Thus, as the second debate approached, to be held at FSCJ’s North Campus as a general election debate on Oct. 26th, I did not assume that the important issues at stake in the debate would be enough to draw a crowd. The college energetically promoted the debate and I played my part in promoting it on social media and among my students in my classes. I even pulled out the big guns- offering extra credit for students who attended. As a result, attendance was much better for the second debate and I had around 12 to 15 students from my various classes attend. There they were to able to hear the views of the Democratic candidate David Bruderly, independent candidate Gary Koniz, and write in candidate Daniel Murphy. Republican candidate and former Sheriff John Rutherford was invited to the debate, but did not attend. All of the candidates then made themselves available to talk with attendees after the debate.


Image above: My daughter Claire with congressional candidate David Bruderly after the debate.

After the debate, I also talked with my students about it and asked those who attended to send me an email with their impressions of the evening. This is where the “rubber meets the road,” so to speak, as the primary purpose of the college is to educate students both in the classroom and as a community by providing opportunities like this so they can become better informed, so I was curious to know their thoughts on it all. The students from my classes who attended were mostly very young, in their late teens or early 20s, mostly white, and overwhelmingly female, with only a few exceptions. About half of them emailed me to provide their thoughts on the debate and their responses were both interesting and informative.

I provide some selections of their comments below (with minor paraphrasing in some cases], and do not include the names of the candidates as my purpose here is instead to show how the students reacted to the event and what they heard rather than suggest student endorsements for one candidate over another.

FSCJ Students on the Tone, Approach, and Theatrics of the Debate

To begin with, the approach of the various candidates made an impression on the students, suggesting, obviously, that stage presence and delivery methods matter. One of my students expressed great skepticism about what she heard at the debate, noting “

“I personally thought the debate was very theatrical. I do not know how sincere the congressmen were. I believe they were just saying what the people wanted to hear instead of what they really meant. When that transgender woman/man went on stage and asked what they would do to protect and to keep transgender people safe, I do not know how sincere their answers were.”

Another of my students was surprised by the relatively low key approach of the candidates during the debate. Perhaps this has something to do with the current presidential election, as the televised debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, each watched by somewhere between 70 and 80 million people, had been quite raucous and combative. She noted:

I have never been to a debate before but I’ve seen the ones on TV so I thought it was going to be very intense with lots of yelling. Instead, I saw 3 old guys being very cordial to one another.”

Along these lines, another student complained that one of the candidates was so meek in responding to questions, with such a “low voice” that he was hard to understand while another candidate (e.g. “the bald one”), in contrast, “projected his voice the loudest.”

But not all of my students saw them as being being low key or cordial. Another student noted:

“[One candidate], who was the ‘grumpy old man,’…seemed to have forgotten some facts of the real world.  Yes, his 10-point system could be effective, but his demeanor was very strong headed. He seemed like he wanted a change for the country, but i feel like that should come with an open mind.”

FSCJ Students on Political Issues

My students also commented on various political issues. Two of the candidates offered sober and serious responses to the various questions. But one of the candidates had an unusual approach to the debate, trying to display a sense of humor about otherwise very serious issues. As a result, his attempts at humor peppered his responses, and were generally not well received by the students. One student noted:

“There was a clear distinction between the three, especially on the topic of education and creating a no fly zone over Syria. [candidate one] was very liberal on the issue of climate change, and went to the extreme of blaming Hurricane Matthew on CFCs in the atmosphere. He also whipped out a pocket constitution on the issue of immigration reform and “dream children”…  [Concerning candidate two] I did agree with his views on the no fly zone and about getting involved in the middle east. [candidate three] didn’t explain his reasoning very well. His closing statement took me by surprise… I thought his “Ha Ha Healthcare reform” was insulting. He mocked JFKs famous quote “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” as well as many other famous American reformers. I felt like he was mocking them and not taking issues and the debate serious at all. His hat was a very weird touch. I get that it was Trump’s slogan but “Make America Laugh Again”? What’s happening right now isn’t very funny, I’d love to see this man on the house floor trying to crack jokes.”

Another student wrote:

“I thought that [candidate one] offered educated responses and I enjoyed the fact that, with his military background, he had positive things to say about the military now and for the future. I was not able to understand or hear [candidate two] very well and I did not think he answered the questions asked. I did not like [candidate three’s] perspective that America should laugh more in general and about politics. I do not think that the issues America has is something to laugh about. It should be taken seriously as they are what is making America fall apart.”

Another student wrote:

“When [candidate two] said [challenging traditional interpretations of the 14th amendment] that a child (who is born in the U.S) cannot be considered a citizen because their parents weren’t citizens, it was quite funny because that made it seem as if he wasn’t that informed on stuff you should definitely be informed on…. When [candidate three] said we’ll make America laugh again and that we should use jokes instead of drugs I found that kind of funny, I did laugh, but I couldn’t really take him seriously after that….I found it kind of weird when [candidate three] said he wanted to enhance [increase spending] the military….I’m not sure if I’m right but I think the U.S spends most of their money or at least a lot of their money on the military. So it wouldn’t make sense to spend more money on the military or as he said enhance the military, in fact I feel we should spend a little less on the military to really help the economy.

One thing that really annoyed me in this debate was when the trans woman came up and asked the simple question “What will you do to protect people like me from discrimination,” which I felt was a very important question. Unfortunately, no one really answered the question. They all basically said we have a constitution that protects all of us and our rights…. they didn’t really answer that question….”

Finally, another student, perhaps taking the “laughter is the best medicine” candidate a bit too seriously, wrote:

“The candidate that was in the military gave some very good points about how to strengthen the military, and also talked about our amendments rights…. The final candidate was very intriguing. He felt like laugher is the best medicine, and that he would try to influence the people… [and] healthcare companies that laughter [could replace most medical treatment]. Unfortunately, the world isn’t made up of flowers and rainbows so this logic wouldn’t be as helpful in the real world where people die everyday. Yes, I believe laughter could bring happiness and better health but laughter wouldn’t be able to help someone with cancer or help someone to walk again. His… point even though it might not make sense, came off very funny and definitely made the crowd laugh, but like I said to bring that into the real world, he won’t have a fighting chance in the election.”

Overall Impressions of the Debate: Was it Worthwhile for the Students?

One student wrote:

I thought the debate was honestly very interesting and helpful in educating me on political topics and events happening in the world…. I wish that all of the candidates were able to attend so I could better absorb all of the views. However, overall, I was glad I attended the debate so I can expose myself more to [politics and gain a better understanding of the issues].”

Another wrote:

 “Overall, it was an experience. I’m glad that I went. In the future I will attend my districts debates to learn more about the candidates.”

Finally, another student wrote:

“The congressional debate last night was very interesting…. Overall I enjoyed the debate and would love to come to another with more passionate candidates in the mix. Thank you for the invite Professor Holt.”

I’m glad the students had this opportunity and I am grateful to the talented and hardworking group at FSCJ who pulled it all together and were kind enough to give me a role in it. It gives students, many of whom who have never seriously considered many of the issues or the politicians who run our country, a better sense of what issues are at stake for them, as Americans, as well as the kinds of people vying for political power in our democratic republic.

Addendum: Video of the debate

[i] Among the administrative team that put the debates together I should highlight the excellent efforts of Jennifer Silva, Director, Government & Community Engagement; Heather Kenney, Director of Student Engagement; Shyann Schmid, Student Success Advisor II; Amanda Burgess, Asst. Director of Communications; and Kerry Roth, Associate Director of Student Success. There are undoubtedly others who contributed and I apologize for not including them here.