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New Direction, Vision for Idaho Center for History and Politics

By: Cienna Madrid   Published 11:49 am / August 16, 2016

In July, associate professor of political science Justin Vaughn and history professor Jill Gill became acting co-directors of the Idaho Center for History and Politics, taking the reigns from its founder, history professor Todd Shallat. The co-directors have big plans for the 12-year-old center, which include bringing more focus on the essential interaction between politics and history.

The center will officially kick off its new vision with a free screening of the film “Lincoln,” from 6-9:30 p.m. Sept. 7 in the Student Union Special Events Center. Visit the website for more details and to view upcoming events.

In a Q&A, Gill and Vaughn describe their plans for the center:

How will the focus of the center change under your direction?

Photo of Justin VaughnVaughn: We’re going for a total reboot. Todd did a great job with history. Jill is the best person you could have to continue and build upon history. But when [School of Public Service] Dean Corey Cook was talking to me, we discussed how there wasn’t much politics in the center. I’m a political scientist who focuses on American national politics in a really contemporary way. There’s some historical influence, but primarily I’m looking a at what’s happening right now, nationally.

We want to be responsive to current events, so we’ll be doing a lot of programing that focuses on the campus community and builds bridges to the broader Treasure Valley community. For instance, we’ll be launching a film series with experts who provide intros and post-film discussions. We’ll also be bringing in speakers to talk about hot-button topics in an informed way – guest speakers who are both from out of town and within our own pool of experts. In addition, we’ll be taking over the Andrus Center’s Politics for Lunch series, we’ll host the filibuster series during the legislative session, and we’ll be starting new workshops and seminars geared at both students and interested community members.

Portrait of history professor Jill GillGill: Our job at the center is to create applied learning, practical learning, and stay relevant to what’s happening around issues of history and politics – both nationally and in Idaho. For instance, we’ll be starting a ‘difficult dialogue’ series so students can engage outside the classroom with topics that are popping up in the news. It’s a bottom up programing approach … we’ll be looking to hear from them what they want to discuss. For instance, students are interested in race and how cops are treating black people. We’ll be doing a workshop next spring called “Activism and Advocacy: A short History of Race,” so students can understand the context of racial tensions and discuss how to move forward. The questions will come from them and we’ll build a system to provide context and structure for their questions.

How do you plan to introduce the center to the campus community this fall?

Gill: Aside from the “Lincoln” movie screening, we’ll be offering a semester-long series of events under the umbrella of “Patriotic Choices,” which will examine political courage and civil discourse and how those factors enhance the common good.

Students can earn prizes for attending the events. They simply enroll in the Patriotic Choices program prior to attending events. We’re offering an all-day symposium and brown bag lunch talks with noted speakers and panels; a film series that features leaders making courageous choices (President Abraham Lincoln, 1972 presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, human rights activist Malcolm X, etc.), debate-watch events, and election and inauguration day watch parties.

What other current issues on your radar directly align with the center’s new goals?

Vaughn: President Kustra’s campus-wide Civility Initiative is a great example. In our current era of incivility, how do we make choices that promote the public good? We’ll have panels and speakers that talk about civility on campus, in the media and political civility. We’re also organizing fall workshops that teach students how polling works, how to write a survey and how to analyze polling data.

Gill: Related to civility, I’ll be leading a workshop on dog whistle politics this fall. We’ll talk about race baiting and gender baiting, which are coded ways to play wedge politics without sounding outright racist, sexist or like a bigot. You poke at people’s fears – Democrats and Republicans alike do it. We’ll be learning about the history of it past and present. We’ll give students the ears to hear and the eyes to see what’s going on.

How will the center engage with Boise State faculty and staff?

Vaughn: The Blue Review is coming under our fold. Nathaniel Hoffman will still be in charge but we’ll help recruit writers and develop content. The point is to get academic writers and take the work they’re doing and link it to contemporary, salient phenomena that more than just their academic peers will care about – writing that people working downtown or students might find interesting.

In the spring we’ll start a fellowship program for faculty to help them get better at engaging outside of academia. As fellows, they’ll learn how to write op-eds, give TED-style talks and do other things that help them engage broader communities outside of their narrow academic lens.

Gill: We want the center to be nimble and able to respond to relevant issues, relevant questions and get into the weeds with students as well as handle highfalutin’ concepts. We have versatility. We provide applied learning that students need, on the ground. We don’t mind hanging with students with pizza, having a political debate watch party and facilitating a discussion afterward.