In the spring of 2008 I had the opportunity to take a Presidency seminar during the historic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It was an ideal time to be thinking, writing, and considering anew the structure, person, and institution of the presidency. One particularly cold spring morning my eventual dissertation advisor, Dr. Ryan Barilleaux, was running unusually late for class. As we waited we discussed the ongoing Democratic primary between the two historic candidates.
Nothing is easier than getting a room full of graduate students to enter the horse race narrative of an election. I listened intently to the arguments proffered around the room. A majority of the room considered Clinton the likely candidate. A smallish minority gave a real possibility to the complete newcomer, Obama. With a bit of trepidation I interjected that I thought an important distinction was the manner in which the two candidates were running their respective campaigns. It seemed to me that as a new media communicator Obama had an edge. An edge, that in this campaign, I thought would have a measurable result. Lest I seem too proud, I still did not predict an Obama victory.
Dr. Ryan Barilleaux would arrive a few minutes later and the class brought up my suggestion. He considered it a moment and then, rather quickly, dismissed it as more hype than substance. The election would slowly open his mind to the possibility of an effect. After the election he would quickly agree to be my advisor because he was deeply interested in the emergent impact of social media in presidential communication. My primary research agenda was born in that conference room in 2008. I wanted to understand the shifting role of power, communication, and social media.
Doris Graber (2009), rightly I believe, has stated that “media do more than depict the political environment; they are the political environment.” Modern political officials and candidates live in a world defined by the media. No where is this more true than for the American Presidency. Yet the media is experiencing a profound shift. Starting in the 1990s the combined prime-time ratings for the major stations (NBC, ABC, and CBS) dipped below 50% and has never recovered (Dizard 2000). Robert Iger, ABC president in 1998, commented regarding the decline of television audience losses: “We used to think that the possibility existed that the erosion was going to stop, we were silly. It is never going to stop” (Washington Post 1998). Iger’s prediction has proven accurate.
Concurrent with the decline of traditional media — newspapers and television — a new trend has emerged. Social media has become prevalent and the devices that drive it are becoming ubiquitous. Today 67% of adults use social networking sites regularly (Brenner 2013). Facebook draws daily, often hourly, attention from its over 175 million active members. At the same time 91% of Americans own a cellphone, 55% a smartphone, and 31% a tablet. The political environment is profoundly shifting.
It only takes a moment to see the anecdotal evidence. President-Elect Obama would state that security would have to pry his BlackBerry out of his hands speaking to the New York Times. He would tell Matt Lauer that the BlackBerry was necessary to remain active on Twitter. In 2009 President Obama would cancel a trip to Indonesia to push for healthcare legislation. Press Secretary Gibbs would tweet about it exclusively with no advanced press information. Obama would also create two new positions in the White House: Chief Technical Officer and Director of New Media.
It was surprising then, and it remains surprising now, how little political scientists have paid attention to the emerging trends of social media, political communication and the presidency. From 1994 to 2014 Presidential Studies Quarterly, the premier journal on the subject of the American Presidency, has had only eight articles addressing the presidency and the internet in any capacity. Of these eight only three focus on the internet and the president as a main topic. There have been none on social media. My research agenda has been intended to fill this clear gap. How does social media impact the presidency? My first effort was in my dissertation entitled The Social Media Presidency. In it I argue that the landscape of the political environment has shifted so that presidents can bypass the traditional media landscape via social media. The benefit being a more direct tool to creating a positive narrative both while in office and during the campaign trail.
From this starting point I have also done work more broadly, including my recent chapters in the edited volume American Political Culture. In that work I wrote two chapters: one entitled “The Social Media and Politics” and the second “Political Communication.” I also recently presented my work to the Florida Political Science Association on “The Nomenclature of War,” which is currently under review at the Florida Journal of Communications.
An additional area of interest has been in enhancing social-science teaching. Specifically at the intersection of new technologies and learning, here I have done some extensive research on collaborative note taking. That collaborative research has culminated in a work entitled “Collaborative Note Taking: the Impact of Cloud Computing on Classroom Performance,” and has been accepted by the International Journal of Teaching and Learning. It has also had some profound pedagogical implications for how we manage our honors classrooms at Daytona State College.
An unfortunate disconnect in the academic world is between academic research and undergraduate education. I am committed to involving undergraduates into research work. In this area I think I come with a distinct advantage. Miami University has an award winning focus on producing broadly trained political scientists where departmental research was heavily connected with undergraduate teaching. This model has undoubtedly molded me. Faculty members fostered an environment where students had the opportunity to involve themselves in the research process. I have done the same in my three years as a professor.
The way to get students interested in research is to get them in, and excited about, data. We live in an age of data. We measure and monitor more variables than ever. Yet students are often not introduced to data, measurement, and the exciting complexities of social science until relatively late in their academic careers. It has been my goal to bring deep writing, critical problems, and data to all of my classes — including introductory courses. The chunk of requirements will differ based on level, but all students need to begin their academic careers thinking about the field as it is, not the typical introductory caricature of it.
This model has paid off. By involving students in these questions early they want to dig deeper. This spring (2014) my student Melissa Diaz presented at the Florida Political Science Association a paper on democratization. She is a junior at the University of Florida. In her freshman year Elizabeth Strople would help me gather data on my note taking project. She is now at the University of Central Florida. Charles Strickhouser would take all of my classes and due to the writing requirements would end up become a writing fellow with the University of Central Florida.