In her work, political scientist Sarah Treul Roberts is teaching students to engage with one another across their differences.
Civil discourse on divisive topics can sometimes seem like a utopian concept, but to Sarah Treul Roberts it can exist quite comfortably within a UNC-Chapel Hill classroom.
“I take it as my personal responsibility to help students learn the value of their voices and that their opinions do matter,” said Treul Roberts, Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor in Political Science.
For Treul Roberts, Carolina’s undergraduate and graduate student diversity — “in the broadest sense of the word” — provides abundant opportunities to communicate, listen charitably and discuss tough questions with respect.
She sees this in her political science course “Legislative Procedure,” for which she designed an interactive model Congress. The first half of the semester focuses on learning congressional procedures. Then Treul Roberts assigns each student a member of the U.S. House of Representatives; the student creates and introduces a bill from the representative’s perspective and then shepherds that bill through numerous decisive steps to floor debate.
Feedback from students emphasizes how much they enjoy their classroom deliberation, specifically “having the opportunity to engage with one another across differences. I really do think they recognize there is nothing more important now.”
On academic leave this year, Treul Roberts is working on a book project about the increased success of inexperienced candidates running for Congress.
The project focuses on members of the U.S. House of Representatives who enter Congress never having previously held elective office — a trend on the rise, she said. Treul Roberts uses data from 1980 to 2022 to demonstrate, she said, that “the rise of the inexperienced candidate and legislator can be attributed to voters’ affinity for anti-establishment rhetoric, social media, a focus on identity politics and laws governing campaign donations.”
She is also faculty director for the Program for Public Discourse, based in the College of Arts and Sciences and serving the entire campus.
The program makes strong contributions toward supporting civil debate. Faculty workshops, public events and student-led discussions encourage constructive campus conversations featuring multiple views. The Abbey Speaker Series, made possible through the generosity of Nancy ’74 and Doug Abbey, has covered topics including science and democracy and bridging the rural-urban divide. The undergraduate Agora Fellows meet throughout the semester to share their perspectives on a variety of issues, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the consequences of social media.
Treul Roberts serves as a faculty affiliate with the Center for Effective Lawmaking, an initiative of Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia. She is the author of Agenda Crossover: The Influence of State Delegations in Congress (Cambridge University Press) and a co-editor of Legislative Studies Quarterly.
She received her bachelor’s degree in political science and psychology from Wellesley College, and her master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from the University of Minnesota.
For all her research and outreach centered on governance and civic engagement, Treul Roberts said teaching is the most important facet of her work at Carolina. A UNC faculty member since 2009, she has received numerous honors for her teaching, including the University’s Tanner Award for Teaching Excellence and Chapman Family Teaching Award, the political science department’s Robson Award for Excellence in Graduate Instruction and Honors Carolina’s Manekin Award for Teaching Excellence.
Her Bowman and Gordon Gray professorship, awarded through the College, also recognizes undergraduate teaching excellence.
Practicing respectful communication within a classroom setting promotes engagement that will serve students well in all aspects of their lives now and after they leave Carolina, she said.
“We preserve, enhance and protect civic virtue by engagement,” said Treul Roberts. “I tell my students regularly that I have no personal preference what your ideology or partisanship is, but I do want you to be engaged members of our society.”
By Deb Saine ’87
Published in the Spring 2023 issue | Tar Heels Up Close
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