Enjoying a return to face-to-face classes, while harnessing the digital tools and experience gained during the pandemic: this is the pedagogic opportunity offering itself to many faculty members at the start of the new academic year. Gaspard Estrada, the Executive Director of Sciences Po’s Political Observatory of Latin America and the Caribbean (OPALC) (fr), is no newcomer to hybrid teaching. He experimented in the format last semester for his course “How to conquer, govern, and quit power: methods and practice of political communication”, a module on political communication offered to students of the Master in Advanced Global Studies at PSIA in May 2021. Estrada told us more about his dynamic course, which was enriched by the new possibilities opened up by hybrid teaching.
What were the aims of your course?
Gaspard Estrada: For several years now, I have been working on the structuring of the political consultancy market and the professional network of political consultants in Latin America, as well as their impact on issues around the quality of democracy. This work has allowed me to build up a pool of contacts in the field and, since my work is not limited to this geographic area alone, to gain a detailed understanding of the evolution of electoral campaigns around the world. I previously taught a course on electoral campaigns in Latin America at the Sciences Po Undergraduate College, which began by outlining different theoretical contributions to these issues from within sociology and political science, in order to then introduce a series of case studies.
For this course at PSIA, my aim was twofold. On the one hand, it was to set out the terms of the academic debate surrounding the internationalisation of the political consultancy market and electoral campaigns globally, while maintaining a firm focus on analysis of political communication in all its diversity (campaign communication, governmental communication, post-governmental communication). On the other hand, I also wanted to give students as many keys to understanding the world of political communication on an international level as possible, together with tools that would be useful to them in their own careers, given that these were qualified professionals enrolled on the Master in Advanced Global Studies (MAGS) at PSIA.
How did you make use of the opportunities offered by hybrid teaching to innovate in your teaching?
G.E.: This was the first course I had taught in person since the start of the pandemic. I was thrilled to be able to see students’ faces and interact with them directly! While it’s a pleasure to be back on campus, the option of inviting speakers to contribute remotely using new technologies is also a real opportunity to enrich courses, in both form and content. So I took the initiative of inviting some very high-level practitioners to share their insights with students. These included the former special advisor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the former Minister of Communication for Brazil, former French president François Hollande’s communication advisor, the director of qualitative research for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, the former president of the French National Digital Council and the associate director of political research at IPSOS. Their discussions helped to give the course a genuinely comparative and international dimension. Hence why one of my students nicknamed it “the presidential advisors course”!
Were you struck by any one discussion in particular?
G.E: The aim of my course was to invite reflection on the idea of power, whether it be in an election campaign, when exercising governmental duties, as well as during a president’s departure from office. In that context, I was keen to invite speakers with divergent points of view, so as to foster discussion and enliven the debate. I was struck by a remote discussion between Benoît Thieulin, the former Dean of the School of Management and Innovation and Jessica Reiss, the former director of qualitative research for Joe Biden’s electoral campaign, concerning the role of data in structuring and leading an electoral campaign. While Jessica was arguing for the centrality of data, based on her experience as a consultant for one of the biggest political consultancy firms in the world, Benoît put forth a more nuanced view, highlighting the oversizing that can be seen in some campaigns.
More generally, would you say that this period has led you to explore new horizons in your work as a professor and teacher?
G.E.: Without a doubt. The pandemic has forced us to revise our pedagogic practices but it has also revealed new ways of teaching, particularly through use of new technologies, which are not a substitute for but a compliment to face-to-face teaching.
What feedback have you received from your students and how would you evaluate the experience?
G.E.: The feedback from my students has been excellent. First of all, they enjoyed the course’s comparative approach, which was intended to provide a counterbalance to theories that aim to demonstrate the “americanisation” of electoral campaigns around the world. The US undoubtedly plays a central role in the political communication market, at both a technical and narrative level (due, in large part, to the huge cost of campaigns in the country, as made possible by the absence of a spending cap there). However, the internationalisation of campaigns and, above all, the circulation of ideas and expertise networks, do not (or rather, no longer) only work according to a dynamic of simply “exporting” the North American model. Other countries, whether developed or emerging, such as Brazil, have created their own powerful markets for political communication, enabling them to outsource their expertise – and their consultants.
Secondly, I think the opportunity to interact with experts from across different countries and horizons, all of whom have played an important role in the politics of their country at the highest level, gave students a better understanding of the issues at stake in the course. The students at PSIA are excellent and the course will definitely be one to run again!