More Inspiring Minds
By Mary Alice Casey
Watching DeLysa Burnier orchestrate Political Science 418/518 can be inspiring, even exhausting.
She cracks a mammoth window in Bentley 307 and chats with students as they trickle in. She sips coffee from a Styrofoam cup and adjusts a lectern she won't stand behind even once in the next two hours. When the 45 students have assembled, the day's discussion is launched.
The topic is campaign finance reform. She talks briefly about issue advocacy, stealth groups and soft money before presenting a case study. Students are asked to consider the merits of McCain-Feingold as they read an article putting the cost of the nation's 2000 elections at $3 billion. Then they are to talk among themselves.
Conversation starts at the back of the room and spreads. Burnier sits on the desk, taking in snippets of the discussion. She smiles, gets up, paces, glances at the clock.
"OK, you guys, what do you think?" she asks. "Should McCain-Feingold have been allowed to die?" "I think it's complete censorship," Emily says. "Why should everyone have to shut up just because not everyone can afford to contribute?"
"I'm enamored with the British system," says Ed, "but I'd take it one step further: I favor complete federal funding of all national races."
"I'll back you up, Ed," Lyndsay says, smiling. "For the first time ever, I support something Ed says." Her classmates, including Ed, chuckle.
Making students feel comfortable enough to gladly share their opinions is important to Burnier. It deepens their connection with the material and with each other, and it gives them confidence.
"If students have a good college experience," she says, "they have a good sense of themselves. For me, there's the subject side and the personal development side."
Emily Pawlosky, who in March earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and certificate in political communication, counts Burnier among her best professors.
"She's so knowledgeable and passionate about the material, and she's open to students' thoughts," says Pawlosky. "She is always able to draw even the quietest students into the conversation."
Burnier has long been a watcher of politics. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, she pondered a journalism career that would allow her to keep tabs on the wheels of government. Then, during her junior year, the professor leading her urban politics class suggested grad school. Teaching, she thought, would be another way to stay close to government without being in it.
Today, Burnier is completing her 16th year as a political science professor at Ohio University. She teaches undergraduate and graduate classes and directs the master of public administration program. In 2001, she was one of two professors among 50 nominees to receive the University's first Presidential Teacher Award, which carries a $15,000 prize and the responsibility to share outstanding teaching practices with fellow faculty.
"I think it's really important for people to know how government works," Burnier says. "It's incredibly rewarding to me at the end of the quarter when someone says, 'Wow, I never knew politics was so interesting.' I have this sense of making change at the micro level."
Mary Alice Casey is editor of Ohio Today.