Cornell College Department of Politics
About Cornell Academics Admissions Alumni Athletics Offices Library
Home > Politics

Department of Politics

262. American Politics
Special "Obama's First Year" Edition

November 2009

Craig W. Allin, Instructor
Greg Cotton, Consulting Librarian
Shawn Doyle & Laura Farmer, Writing Consultants
Jessica Johanningmeier, Quantitative Consultant


NOVEMBER 14, 2009

The following Supplements to this Course Description can be found on the Web:

Calendar & Assignments Intellectual Integrity Cole Library
Rules & Regulations Accommodating Disabilities How to Write an Abstract
Grades Documenting Sources Internet Research Links
Photo Class Roster Index to Paper Comments Good Advice


Web Syllabus: Hypertext seems the ideal medium for course syllabi. With a click, you can be at a site to which a paper syllabus could only refer. Short of a power failure, you can't lose it. You can use it all on line and print whatever you want. Portions of this syllabus or its attachments make use of the portable document format (PDF). To read PDF files on your personal computer you need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader, which you can download. This software is already loaded on most college-owned computers. Please report broken or malfunctioning links to me.

Feedback: In addition to the standardized end-of-course evaluation, I am interested in your comments and suggestions for improving the course, the readings, the assignments and this course description. Feel free to send comments as you think of them. E-mail:

Instructor: Craig W. Allin, Room 307, South Hall.
Telephone: Office, (895-) 4278; Home, 895-8103 [straight to answering machine]; Cell, 431-1100.

Office Hours: If I'm not in class with you, you can probably find me in my office. Feel free to make an appointment or just show up. You can also schedule time with me through Ms. Cheryl Dake, Administrative Assistant to the Politics Department, at extension 4283. To help you find me, the most current version of my schedule is available for your electronic inspection over the campus network if you are using Microsoft Outlook [not Outlook Express or Outlook Web Access].

  1. On the File menu, point to Open, and then click Other User's Folder.

  2. In the Open Other User's Folder box, click Name and select Craig Allin from the list.

  3. In the Folder box, select Calendar from the pull-down menu.

E-Mail Attachments: Please deliver your papers by means of e-mail attachments. Please save your papers and other submissions in Word (*.doc or *.docx) or Rich Text (*.rtf) format. Attach your file to an e-mail addressed to If you are unfamiliar with e-mail attachments, click here for instructions.

Classroom: South 302.

Schedule: You should reserve the hours from 9-11 and 1-3, Monday through Friday, for class meetings. Class meets every morning and many afternoons. See Course Calendar & Assignments. On days when something is scheduled for the afternoon, you can be sure we will meet. On other afternoons we might meet depending on need.

Books: The following are available for purchase in the bookstore. You'll need both immediately.

  • Core Text: Thomas E. Patterson, We the People: A Concise Introduction to American Politics, 8th edition (McGraw-Hill, 2009) [The 8th edition contains two new readings and general updates throughout the text. Using the 7th edition is a practical alternative if you have access to one. The two new readings are very short, and the general updates have to do mostly with the results of the 2008 elections.]

  • Readings: Robert E. DiClerico & Allan S. Hammock, Points of View: Readings in American Government and Politics, 11th edition (McGraw-Hill, 2009) [The 11th edition contains fourteen new readings, which obviously makes using the 10th edition more problematic.]

Articles: In addition to the books above, you will have occasional assigned reading in the form of articles. I will send them to you by e-mail, so be sure to check your Cornell e-mail regularly this term.

Internet Resources: The Politics Department Web Site contains a wealth of valuable information including programs and requirements of the Department of Politics; information about Politics Courses including course syllabi like this one; information about graduate schools and careers, and research links for politics, government, and law.

Synopsis: This course offers a survey of the theory and practice of contemporary government and politics in the United States. It is one of several relatively specialized introductory courses offered within the Department of Politics. The others are: Politics, Foundations of the First Amendment, Ethics & Public Policy, Comparative Politics, International Politics, and Public Policy. This course is a prerequisite for most advanced courses in American Politics including: Campaigns & Elections; Congress & the Presidency; Environmental Politics; Wilderness Politics; Urban Politics; Race, Sex & the Constitution; Current Cases before the Supreme Court and Constitutional Law.

This course emphasizes the practical consequences of established institutions and procedures for policy outcomes. Who wins, and who loses? To whom is the American government responsive? Its objective is to provide each student with a reasonably sophisticated understanding of why the system produces the kinds of policies that it does without getting bogged down in minutia.

A variety of materials will be used to achieve this general objective.

  • Our core text emphasizes the political culture, fragmentation of authority, competing interests, individual rights, and separation of economic and political spheres that characterize American government. It also contains some readings.
  • Our reader is based on the debate model, pairing essays representing different points of view on important issues of American politics today.
  • American mass media provide a third important source of information for this course. Each student should make daily contact with the world of American politics. Most Americans get most of their political information from television, but--with the obvious exception of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report--TV is the least efficient way to get the news. National Public Radio (locally 90.9 FM and 910 AM) is superior to any of the 24-hour TV news channels, both for objectivity and for depth of coverage. Reading remains the most efficient way to learn. Reading on line combines your most sophisticated data processing capacity with the world's most sophisticated communications technology. Why not use the best tools available? You can read hundreds of newspapers including the New York Times and the Washington Post. There are countless web aggregators of news and opinion. For a list of some prominent sites: conservative, liberal, and nonpartisan, go here.

Each of these information sources should provide a foundation for discussion and debate. Reading materials will be supplemented by occasional videos. Taken together, these materials will provide a variety of ways to learn as well as competing viewpoints regarding what should be learned in an introductory American politics course.

How This Course Is Related to Politics 282: Public Policy: This course emphasizes the role of law, political culture, political organizations and governmental institutions in national governance. The focus of POL 282 is more interdisciplinary and possibly a bit more quantitative, emphasizing the interrelationship of politics and economics, the processes by which public policy is made, and the methods by which it can be evaluated. It gives relatively greater emphasis to exploring specific areas of substantive policy. There is limited overlap, and students may profitably take both courses. Like this course, POL 282 fulfills the prerequisite for many advanced courses in American Politics and Public Policy.

What Former Students Liked -- And What They Didn't: Based on course evaluations, students generally like the reading. They find me knowledgeable and accessible. They say that I provide frightening amounts of feedback on their papers and that they learn a lot. They complain that I go off on tangents and that classroom discussions don't recapitulate the readings. They complain that classroom discussions often lag behind the readings.

I plead guilty on all counts.

  • I believe in answering the questions you raise, whether based on assigned readings or events of the day, even when that may seem like a tangent to others. I believe in trying to connect the news of the day to the themes of the course, even if that seems like a tangent to you.
  • I believe that doing the reading and attending the class are not alternative ways to learn the same thing. The time to master the reading assignments is when you are reading those assignments. Class discussion should proceed on the assumption that we have all read the assignments. Rather than recapitulating the reading, we should be attempting to build on it, to look at it from a different perspective, or even to refute it.
  • I believe that required reading should cover more information than we could possibly discuss in the time available to us and that classroom discussions should reinforce and advance themes identified as important or interesting by students as well as by the teacher. It follows that you will be on your own to master much of what you read. Most of it will not become the subject of classroom discussion unless you put it on the agenda.
  • I believe that required reading should be divided into assignments of relatively equal length for your convenience. It follows that a classroom discussion that emphasizes what students and instructor identify as particularly interesting or important will often lag behind the pace of the reading. If you cannot intelligently discuss something your read two days ago, you should seek assistance to develop your reading and note taking skills.
  • I believe that we are all engaged in a search for truth, which is often elusive, and that we must be ever vigilant lest we be misled by our biases and assumptions.
  • I believe that facts are important. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, "You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts."
  • Broadly speaking, I believe that higher education should be more about strengthening higher-order intellectual skills--like critical reading, analytical thinking, articulate speaking and cogent writing--than about filling your memory banks. In the social sciences facts change all the time, but learning how to think and communicate more clearly lasts for a lifetime.

See Course Calendar & Assignments for daily topics.


  • ATTENDANCE: "Eighty percent of success is showing up." -- Woody Allen. Class attendance is not 80% of your grade, but it is important. I appreciate your letting me know by e-mail when you will not be in class.
  • STRUCTURED READING ASSIGNMENTS: Read the formal assignments in advance of the class periods for which they are scheduled. Read critically. Argue with the authors. Mark your text or take notes. The more you do to interact with the text, the better you will understand and remember it.
  • INDEPENDENT READING ASSIGNMENTS: In addition to the formal assignments, please be on the lookout for news articles pertinent to the day's assigned readings. I encourage you to share them with the class. You may occasionally receive a relevant news article by-email from me, and you will receive relevant news articles on a daily basis from your fellow students. [The Independent Reading and Reporting Assignment is described below.] You should treat news articles received from class members as a part of your required reading, and you should always check your e-mail at some point during the two-hour period prior to the morning class meetings.
  • CLASS PARTICIPATION: In addition to showing up and reading your assignments, I expect you to take an active and constructive role in class discussion.
  • EXAMINATIONS & QUIZZES: There will be no final examination. There will be four quizzes designed to test your mastery of the assigned reading and classroom learning. Consult the Course Calendar & Assignments for quiz dates.
  • POLICY PAPER: The research and writing component of Politics 262 is a policy paper described in excruciating detail under the heading Public Policy Paper Assignment below.

Independent Reading


Classroom Contribution
Four Quizzes
Policy Paper
Policy Paper Rewrite
Extra Credit [see below]

Extra Credit Opportunity #1: Of course, this is a class devoted to politics, but it is also a class devoted to critical reading, cogent writing, and analytical thinking -- invaluable skills for living and for working in every field of endeavor. One way to improve your writing as you read is to become more conscious of the writing of others. With that in mind, I will provide you the opportunity to earn extra credit in my continuing contest for students enrolled in POL 262:
In Search of Bad Writing

Extra Credit Opportunity #2: To encourage thoughtful participation in the polity, 25 extra-credit points will be awarded for each "letter to the editor" written by you about a question of public policy and published this term in an off-campus newspaper or magazine. Submit appropriate evidence.

The maximum number of extra-credit points that may be applied to your course grade is 50. The deadline for submission of applications for extra credit is noon on the penultimate day of the course. All submissions must be in writing. Click the flaming text for full details.


In order to create linkages between your assigned class readings and what's going on in the world of contemporary American politics, you have reading and reporting responsibilities that go beyond the assigned texts. Everyone should be on the lookout for these connections on a daily basis, but the responsibility for making this linkage in a formal way will rotate among members of the class. Each of you will have this responsibility once. On the first day of class, we will create a calendar of who is responsible when. The calendar is here.

The Course Calendar identifies the major discussion topics in boldface for each day of the course. When the responsibility has been assigned to you, here's what you do:

  1. Carefully read all of the formal assignments for the day.
  2. Find an article in a newspaper or a news magazine (a) that has been published within the last year, (b) that exceeds 1000 words, (c) that is interesting to you, and (d) that amplifies, explains, or illuminates some topic or theme from the assigned reading for that day.
  3. Write a formal abstract of the article. See How to Write an Abstract.
  4. Paste your article and your abstract into an e-mail and send it to all members of the class at least two hours prior to the class for which it is assigned.
  5. When called upon in class, you should introduce your article to the class by title, author, author's affiliation, publisher, and the date of publication and provide the class with a clear synopsis. In addition, you should explain clearly how this particular article amplifies, explains, or illustrates some topic or theme from the assigned reading for that day. All of this will probably take 5-10 minutes, although it is entirely possible that your presentation might provoke a considerably longer discussion.
  6. Note: Our classroom conversations will sometimes lag behind the reading assignments. Get your article and abstracts in on the day they are due, and be ready to present when called upon.

Here are some hints to get you started:

  • Google News is an excellent source for articles that have been published within the past month. It has two major limitations. The first is that Google News is relatively awkward to use with respect to archival materials more than one month old. The second is that many Google News links expire because many of the indexed sources delete articles from their web sites on a regular schedule.
  • Cole Library subscribes to two proprietary databases of newspapers and magazines: LEXIS-NEXIS Academic and EBSCOhost Newspaper Source.
    • LEXIS-NEXIS Academic: The default "easy search" page pre-selects "Major US and World Publications" and a timeframe of two years. At a minimum, you will want to reset the timeframe to one year. If "easy search" lacks the specificity you desire, shift over to "power search."
    • EBSCOhost Newspaper Source: You will want to adjust to the default search parameters. Select full text. Select your one-year timeframe. Select newspaper for publication type and article for document type. You will probably want to check the boxes to include synonyms and plurals and to search the full text of articles.
  • If you would like to avoid information overload, you might want to consider searching specific newspapers such as the Washington Post or the New York Times.
  • The fastest way to find individual newspaper web sites is to consult
  • The fastest way to determine whether a specific newspaper or magazine is available through Cornell College databases is by consulting JournaLocator on the Cole Library web site.


"He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that."
--John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), chapter 2

OBJECTIVES: This assignment has three major objectives. The first is to increase your familiarity with an issue of public policy importance and the arguments that surround that issue. The second is to increase your familiarity with relevant sources of information like professional journals and government documents. The third is to help you improve an important intellectual skill: writing a clear and convincing argument supported by reliable evidence. This is a complex and difficult assignment, and I would like each of you to do it well. To that end, I have broken the assignment down into pieces and provided explicit instructions about how you can maximize your success. Please read all the information that follows, and do your best to master this task one step at a time. I have tried to answer the most obvious questions here in writing, but obviously I have not answered all the possible questions. Please feel free to ask me for help along the way.

ASSIGNMENT: Your job is to write a public policy paper of 1,500 to 2,000 words exclusive of title page, abstract, illustrations, notes, bibliography, appendices, etc. Your paper must deal with a matter of public policy within the Constitutional power of some officer, agency or institution of the United States federal government. If in doubt, ask me.

PUBLIC POLICY & POLICY PAPERS: A "policy" is a clear course of action. (E.g., it is the policy of Cornell College to issue grades each term.) A "public policy" is a policy adopted by a government. (E.g., it is the policy of the United States to intervene militarily wherever America's national interests are threatened.) A "public policy paper" is a written document that (1) recommends a public policy and (2) argues for the adoption of that policy. Your public policy paper will be developed through four stages. Consult the Course Calendar & Assignments for deadlines associated with this project.

Stage I -- RESEARCH QUESTION & BIBLIOGRAPHY: Send an e-mail attachment (with a copy addressed to the consulting librarian for the social sciences) stating your research question and providing a properly documented working bibliography for the investigation of that question.

  • Selecting a research question requires that you identify a topic appropriate for inquiry and susceptible to a public policy recommendation.
  • So what's a good topic?
    • One that is consistent with assignment: “Your paper must deal with a matter of public policy within the Constitutional power of some officer, agency or institution of the United States federal government.”
    • One that is interesting to you.
    • One where you have no preconceived bias to blind you.
    • One that is narrow enough to allow relatively thorough research.
    • Exactly how narrow is more art than science.
      • If your topic is too broad, your research will be unfocused and superficial.
      • If your topic is too narrow, you won’t find the information you need to proceed.
      • You need to strike a balance based on preliminary exploration of your topic.
      • In this wired world, it is probably easier to be too broad than too narrow.
    • Here are some topics that are too broad:
      • Endangered species
      • Environmental protection
      • National park policy
      • Yellowstone National Park
      • Federal wolf management
      • Ranchers' rights
      • Threats to livestock
    • And here's one that has something to do with all of the topics above but is appropriately narrow:
      • Whether the Yellowstone wolves should be protected when they leave the park.
    • Notice that the formulation above is more than just a topic: it is a research question. Should they be protected or shouldn't they? Let's go examine the evidence and reach a conclusion. Doing the hard work of answering your policy question will result in the policy recommendation required in Stage II.
    • Before submitting your research question, make sure that it begins with the word whether and includes the word should with respect to some specific issue.
  • Your bibliography will continue to evolve throughout your research and writing, but the working bibliography you submit at this time should demonstrate that you have located and have access to high-quality information relevant to your research question. In most cases your working bibliography should include some mix of scholarly books, articles in scholarly journals, and primary sources such as laws, court cases, census data or polling results. If the sources you can locate are primarily secondary and non-scholarly, i.e., journalistic, seek help in finding better sources or choose a new research question.
  • Choose one of the approved style sheets and label your working bibliography to indicate which one you have chosen.
  • This assignment is not graded, but failure to complete it in a timely fashion will negatively affect your class participation grade.

Stage II -- POLICY RECOMMENDATION & CONTENTIONS: Prepare a document (2 copies) stating your policy recommendation and setting forth an outline of the contentions you intend to make for it. Bring it to your individual paper conference.

  • The policy recommendation is the paper's thesis. The outline of contentions previews your paper's anticipated structure.
  • Please note that articulating a good policy recommendation requires that you have done the research required to answer your research question with some specificity. For example: "The wolves that have been introduced to Yellowstone National Park should have the full protection of the Endangered Species Act as they spread beyond the park's boundaries."
  • Remember your policy recommendation must be within the legal power of some officer, agency or institution of the United States national government.
  • This is the point at which trouble most often arises, so before you submit your policy recommendation and contentions, examine them carefully using the criteria set forth in Getting from Research Question & Bibliography to Policy Proposal & Contentions.
  • Before you organize your contentions into an outline, consult A Good Argument Is a Hierarchy of Contentions.
  • This assignment is not graded, but failure to complete it in a timely fashion will negatively affect your class participation grade.

Stage III -- POLICY PAPER: Send an e-mail attachment presenting your recommendation and supporting arguments in a formal paper with appropriate manuscript format, proper citations, etc. Remember, you are being asked to take a position and make a case for it. A good policy paper consists of a clear policy recommendation supported by strong arguments supported by unimpeachable evidence. A good policy paper will be:

  • Persuasive: You must state a conclusion and back that conclusion with reasoned argument. Your mission is to persuade the reader, and the better the argument, the higher the probability of success.
  • Well Researched: Your arguments must be firmly rooted in careful research. You must have a command of the relevant facts. You must understand your own position, the positions of those with whom you disagree, and the relationship of the facts to each.
  • Concise: A good policy paper is not always brief, but it must be concise. That means no padding and no B.S. The typical audience for a policy paper is a judge, a corporate executive, or a high government official. If your policy paper does not get to the point quickly and move the argument forward relentlessly, you are unlikely to get and hold the attention of your target audience. If you want to persuade a busy person, do not waste her time. The assigned length of your paper is short in part to force you to be concise. If you don't have to struggle some to reduce your arguments and evidence to 2,000 words, you probably have not done the research you should have done.
  • Hierarchically Organized: It will organize the arguments to be made into the strongest possible hierarchy of contentions. Refer again to A Good Argument Is a Hierarchy of Contentions.
  • Appropriately Documented: Documentation is important for both ethical and practical reasons. Ethically, documentation gives credit where credit is due. Practically, documentation enhances the credibility of your work by demonstrating its reliance on and relationship with credible sources of information. I expect you to use one of the approved styles of documentation and to follow it with care throughout your paper.
  • Well Written: I will be looking for clear organization of the ideas and arguments; effective use of paragraphs, and subheadings if you like, to orient the reader; good transitions from one part of the text to the next; a conclusion that is both substantive and relevant; and sound grammar, punctuation, spelling and usage.
  • Professionally Presented: I will also be looking for a paper that has all its component parts appropriately formatted, in proper order, and in the form of a single e-mail attachment.

Consult POLICY PAPERS: How to Succeed for more detailed instructions.

For a sample of a real policy paper written by a real Cornell student that earned a grade of A, please click here.

Stage IV -- REWRITE: After receiving a written critique of your policy paper, you will rewrite and resubmit the paper as an e-mail attachment making as many improvements in substance and presentation as you can manage.

  • The rewrite should be better than the original paper. After all, you will have had the benefit of expert editorial advice.
  • As a practical matter, a conscientious effort to address the technical problems that have been identified in your paper will preserve your grade. More substantive improvements will enhance your grade.

Maintained by: Last Update: November 15, 2009 5:41 pm
600 First Street West, Mt. Vernon, Iowa, 52314 ©2003 Cornell College; All Rights Reserved