A new class at Harris pushes students to apply theory by serving a client. The result is a proverbial win-win and an antidote to political cynicism.

While planning their second-year courses, Emily Rice and William Morgan, both MPP'22, realized that they could use an outlet to practice the theoretical knowledge they were gaining in classes such as microeconomics, statistics, and analytical politics. They signed up for Applied Policy Communications Lab, a first-time class taught by first-time instructor Meredith Shiner, a public affairs and strategic communications professional and former national political reporter.

Over the 10-week class, Rice and Morgan were among about two dozen students who put their theoretical skills to work for something a little more practical than grade point average. The class focused on communications work for a particular client, UChicago’s Center for Effective Government.

“Our students are so smart and so plugged in,” Shiner said. “They're reading the news all the time, but they're not thinking about the sausage making behind the news, either from the journalist’s perspective, or the lawmakers’ perspective, or from another client’s perspective. I thought it would be really cool and interesting to create a lab course where we bring in a client and simulate the work for that client from start to finish.”

Students saw the value in that format.

“I loved the class,” said Morgan. “The way that all the assignments built on each other led to us having a legitimate deliverable for a legitimate client. And getting the client feedback in real time is a really cool process.”

Like Morgan, Rice said she welcomed the chance to apply what she was learning in other classes.

Meredith Shiner

“It was fun to work in a team and kind of workshop writing,” she added. “And Professor Shiner gave us a lot of interim steps that helped us understand what we were doing and how to make our work stronger. We were able to discuss things and take different spins on the same assignment, which I found very useful. It was just a well-run class.”

Both also said Shiner tuned the class to relevant and timely issues, which made it that much more engaging and relevant.

“If you asked me the favorite parts of course structure,” said Chaille Biddle, MPP'22, another student in the class, “it was having a lot of variety in what we were doing every day. Sometimes there were guests. Sometimes it was a workshop. Sometimes it was Meredith sharing her experiences in the field.”

Biddle’s enduring takeaway, she said, was hearing questions from classmates and discovering different ways students analyzed the same problem.

“I learned so much from the way that they thought, what they wrote, and the solutions they came up with,” she added, “and that was a lot of fun.”

Bridge to ‘the real world’

CEG – where scholars, practitioners, and students study, debate and promote reforms that strengthen democratic institutions and improve government’s capacity to problem solve – may have been an ideal client for the course. The reason, Shiner said, is that it’s relatively new, having been established in 2019 at Harris.

CEG was familiar and accessible to Harris students and provided a bridge between the academic world that students were navigating and political-oriented engagement work that CEG performs in Washington, D.C., said CEG Assistant Director Dylan Schaffer, MPP ‘21.

“I think the course has filled a real niche at Harris,” he added. “I wish I would have had the class available to me when I was a student.”

Students reviewed and developed a strategic communications plan, op-eds for CEG Executive Director Sadia Sindhu, a press release, policy talking points, and social media copy, among other assignments. Students worked individually and in teams.

Along the way, Shiner tapped her network and brought to class professionals, including a Washington, D.C. councilwoman, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, a Communications Director for a congressman, and journalists from the New Republic and Huffington Post.

Dylan Schaeffer, Assistant Director for the Center for Effective Government

“It was really important for me to bring in a diverse set of people who do this sort of work in Washington, primarily, but also across the country,” she said. “That way, it wasn’t just me telling students that this is the way to do it.”

The final week’s session featured small teams presenting a strategic communications plan to CEG staff, a particularly powerful experience.

“Presenting our work to them at the end made this very real,” Rice said. “You can write a plan or memo for a theoretical client, which I’ve done, but actually sitting down and running them through our thoughts and taking questions and really having to think through that was a really useful exercise.”

Just as useful for the students, they said, was placing themselves in the client’s shoes and mindset, and learning to write in the client’s voice. In addition to the practical experience, students left the class with written portfolio material—both of which are useful in job interviews.

Adopting student suggestions

The most persuasive evidence that the class hit its mark may be that CEG adopted several ideas the students pitched. “In the end, we were really just blown away by the quality of the work we got from these folks,” Schaffer said.

CEG had three primary objectives for its participation in the class: Framing its work to the broader community to help CEG’s effort to grow; determining how to roll out a major, new cross-disciplinary research initiative, Data & Democracy, to many different stakeholders and integrating the launch of Data & Democracy into CEG’s brand.

The students performed a very robust, competitive analysis of organizations similar to CEG or with similar initiatives, Schaffer said, then provided “an unvarnished assessment” of which organizations are successful, and which are taking different, innovative approaches that CEG could consider.

The students also offered useful ideas on how to integrate Data & Democracy into the broader CEG portfolio of work, suggesting that participants in a CEG senior practitioner fellowship work on and act as ambassadors for the initiative, Schaffer said.

“We ended up bringing on two new fellows this year, specifically for this new initiative,” Schaffer added.

Students also suggested pitching Harris’ Not Another Politics Podcast to spread the word about Data & Democracy through guest appearances. Schaffer said CEG is planning to explore that suggestion, too.

Antidote to cynicism

Feedback from students and CEG administrators was very encouraging. Shiner is planning another installment of the class in the fall and starting to look for potential clients. CEG’s experience should help draw interested organizations, she added.

“This was something I really wanted to do,” Shiner said, “because spending time in Washington can make you a little cynical about how broken things are.”

Working with the students in Applied Policy Communications shifted her perspective, affirming that smart, dedicated young people “who believe in the right things” – public policy informed by data and evidence – are flowing into the public policy arena, she said.

“That was the gift they gave me,” Shiner said. “It makes me hopeful, and that’s a great privilege. It challenges us to think about how the students can continue to expand their offerings and their opportunity in ways that help them grow; that they can feel that growth, knowing they’re prepared to go into the real world and change it.”