Professor’s passion for politics gives life to presidential debates


Tori Lentz

Dr. Steven Weiss

Dr. Steven Weiss knew he probably wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise in his next class.

The longtime communication studies professor was planning to broach the topic of the most recent presidential debate to his students. If the class never moved beyond that subject— a very likely possibility– Dr. Weiss said he was perfectly alright to just sit back and listen.

“I want to have a free-wheeling discussion. It’ll probably take the entire class,” Dr. Weiss said. “If we don’t finish a lesson or topic that I planned to cover today, that’s the least of my concerns.

Discussions in which the whole class participates are Dr. Weiss’s favorite. In addition to teaching his specialty course, Presidential Debate, Dr. Weiss also teaches Rhetorical Theory, Argumentation and Debate, Communication Theory and other related classes in the communication department. In the last couple of months, it’s been hard to keep the subject of the presidential election from bleeding into each one.

Sarah Kellam, a senior electronic media and broadcasting and communication studies double major, has taken five classes with Dr. Weiss. She said his main priority is to get students talking.

“He wants you to ask questions. He wants you to be engaged,” Kellam said. Sometimes he’ll actually stop class to actually have a discussion with you about your question.”

For the past two election cycles, Dr. Weiss has played host of the College of Informatics Digital Debate-In, a special three-part event in which students can view the presidential and vice presidential debates on the Griffin Hall Digitorium screen and participate in live polling. As host, Dr. Weiss periodically asked the crowd how they thought the debate was going and who they thought was winning.

Communications and Event Manager Krista Rayford, a former student of Dr. Weiss and now his colleague, said she was impressed by the way Dr. Weiss was able to engage with the crowd about the debate.

“Instant polling was his idea,” Rayford said. “He showed us both good and bad debate tactics before the debate started.”

Dr. Weiss wasn’t always so passionate about debate and argumentation. In his first year at Temple University in Philadelphia, he switched majors nearly every week. After periods of majoring in radio and television, French and English, Dr. Weiss realized he was running out of time. He settled on getting a degree in communication because the program required a small amount of credit hours that would still allow him to graduate in four years.

“I really did not get into the classes that much, but then I took this argumentation class,” Dr. Weiss said. “It was something I’d never experienced in college before, that you could study arguments and how to win arguments and how to make arguments.”

After getting his undergraduate degree, Dr. Weiss continued at Temple University to earn his master’s degree and worked as the debate team coach. He became increasingly interested in political argumentation.

During one of his first teaching jobs in North Carolina, Dr. Weiss found that people valued his political opinions.

“I had the opportunity to teach political communication and also debate,” Dr. Weiss said. “At that point, people in the news media would call me and ask my opinions on the presidential debates. They would ask me to do analyses.”

From that point forward, politics became his passion. Dr. Weiss has carefully followed each presidential race. This election cycle has been a little painful for him to watch as traditional debate tactics and etiquette seem to have fallen by the wayside.

“I watch these debates and it literally starts to upset me that we are electing the most powerful person on Earth and these are the things we’re saying to one another and trading insults and getting very personal,” Dr. Weiss said.

He predicted Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton will win the highest office in the land in an outcome similar to when President Barack Obama beat Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.

“It may be a bit more lopsided because Donald Trump has been getting in more and more trouble,” he said.

When it’s not an election year, Dr. Weiss has made sure his students are able to freely research other political topics. When Kellam took Political Communication with Dr. Weiss in the fall of her sophomore year, she had the opportunity to look at first ladies and their effect on the presidency.

“I started writing this paper and realized I had gotten myself into something way bigger than the four to six page requirement,” she said.

She told Dr. Weiss she wanted to spend more time on the paper and he told her to turn it in when she could. Kellam turned in a 20-page paper two weeks later and was surprised to find that Dr. Weiss wasn’t angry with her late submission. He praised her for work and told Kellam she should submit the piece to be part of the annual Celebration of Student Research and Creativity.

“He encouraged me to do that, which I don’t think I ever would have done on my own with my writing at that point,” Kellam said. “He instilled that passion in me. I still have that paper.”

From that semester on, Kellam tried to take as many classes in her major as she could under Dr. Weiss.

“Honestly if I saw Weiss’s name on a course, I would highly consider taking it,” Kellam said. “Sometimes it didn’t exactly work out with my schedule, but if he was teaching the section of a class I needed or was interested in taking, it was a no-brainer.”

Rayford said that her experience in Dr. Weiss’s class 10 years ago was a big influence in her decision to take a job at the university. As part of the class she took under Dr. Weiss, Rayford was required to give speeches.

“I was absolutely terrified,” she said.

Dr. Weiss’s teaching style put her at ease and she felt like he believed in her as a person.

“I say this about probably a handful of professors, had it not been for them giving me the experience that I had here as a student, I would have never come back as an employee,” Rayford said.

Rayford would write in her cover letter for the job at NKU that her love of communication started during her years as a college student at the university. She got the job and was surprised that Dr. Weiss knew her name from years ago.

“He remembered me. That’s indicative of NKU in general, but it was 10 to 12 years ago that I was in his class and he still knew me,” Rayford said. “He’s interested in Krista and that just speaks volumes about him.”