Student perspective: Watching the first debate of the 2012 election with dormmates gets us talking politics

On Wednesday night, I watched as students filed into the main lounge of my dorm, the Communications Residential College, to watch the first presidential debate. Everyone coming in could grab a politically-themed cupcake provided by our social chairs, topped with either an elephant- or donkey-shaped sprinkle. A television crew from Fox Chicago [Watch the segment here] was set up in the lounge, waiting to get the reactions of students. The packed room included current and former residents, news junkies and people who just wanted to see what all the hype was about. A girl sitting next to me was excited to get a taste of American politics, coming from a Canadian and Chinese upbringing.

CRC Master Roger Boye asked us to stay silent during the actual debate so we could hear the candidates’ arguments and the audience reactions. We only broke the silence to laugh at an especially ridiculous statement from one of the candidates or to groan at how hard it was for debate moderator Jim Lehrer to keep either politician in check.

Many students were glued to their computers, furiously checking Twitter and other social media sites to gauge reactions. The best part of any political event for me is watching the reactions of my friends and journalists I admire in real time. CRC had a big presence on Twitter during the debate, and it was a way for us to communicate even though we were supposed to stay silent.

Afterward, David Zarefsky, professor emeritus of the School of Communication, led us in a discussion of the debate. We discussed the format of the debate and whether Lehrer was really to blame for the disorganized nature of the speaking. Zarefsky reminded us that debates rarely sway voters one way or the other, and forced us to delve deeper into why debates are a valuable part of the election process.

Overall, Zarefsky said, the candidates both had good command of detail and avoided hyperbole. Students participating in the discussion mentioned the differences in body language between the candidates and said it was informative to see them have to defend their positions in an unscripted arena. Questions and discussion continued up until 10 p.m., and residents kept the conversation alive in suites and hallways even after Zarefsky left.

CRC Master Roger Boye said about 80 students attended the debate while 55 stayed for the discussion. CRC will host students for two of the next three debates. The setting was a great example of the residential colleges’ combination of community and learning, and fostered an easy and fun way to get our residents thinking about politics.