Plymouth voices: Professor John Lappie 

Jacob Downey




Professor John Lappie is listed by the US Vote Foundation as a leading expert in the study of local elections. On Wednesday mornings, he is awoken by the “best alarm clock [he’d] ever bought”, his cat, and tunes in to NH today with Chris Ryan, a radio show on which he is the recurring guest discussing the local politics of the week. He then makes a brief commute here to Plymouth State where he is a local celebrity to the Political Science major. One of three Poli-Sci professors, he is renowned for his whimsical anecdotes, his inspired methods of quieting the class, and his end-of-semester butter bars, a treat he describes as that it “would actually be healthier to just eat a stick of butter”. A man of many stories, we sat down with Lappie to better understand the fanfare behind PSU’s favorite Political-Scientist.

Who is John Lappie?

Well, I’m from Connecticut originally. Got my undergrad from your little East conference rival, Eastern Connecticut. I’m a New York Jets fan. It’s unfortunate. But it’s the reality of the situation.  I have two cats, Frankie and Rosie. And ironically, as a UNC, Ph.D., my mother is a lifelong Duke fan. So you know, awkwardness there. In my last job at Rice University, I spent three years doing research on local life, and most of that time was spent just collecting data. And we wound up with like, the most comprehensive dataset of local elections ever. And it’s something like 12,000 candidates across 12 states and 20 years. And that’s the best there is. But it’s really cool to study because, you know, the business made in town hall have a bigger effect on your day-to-day life than the ones made in Concord or Washington. And there’s also a lot of really interesting political scientist variation in how elections work at the local level, like partisan or nonpartisan, some are on a cycle, some are off cycle. So there’s a lot of really interesting study to look at, versus like, say, US elections, which were basically the same way across states.

As someone who worked at so a variety of institutions, what do you like about Plymouth?

I like the small school environment. I got my Ph.D. from UNC. and that was a great grad program. It’s wonderful but you know, a lot of the teaching is done in, for undergraduates, this auditorium of 150 people, and it’s not the right way to learn. And, you know, it wasn’t the way I wanted to teach, I wanted to actually get to know my students. And that’s something I appreciate about this school is the small class sizes. I get to know them as people over the course of their college experience. I was kind of a late bloomer academically, I didn’t do all that well, in high school. I just didn’t apply myself. When going to college I matured, and I did well, I did really well and would I have done as well, if I had gone to UConn, well, maybe. But I wouldn’t have gotten to know my professors, they wouldn’t have gotten to know me. And they wouldn’t have said “Hey, you should consider graduate programs”, so if I had gone to some school like that, I don’t think I’d be sitting here right now.

A few political science majors have noted that you remain very neutral no matter what is being discussed in class. Do you think that’s a difficult thing to do when teaching a political science course?

It’s not an easy thing to do Because the reality is, if you are getting a Ph.D. in political science, or if you’re majoring in political science, even, you’re probably doing that because you care about politics. And if you care about politics, you’re gonna have a strong opinion. So I want to maintain neutrality in the classroom. For a couple of reasons. One is I want my students to feel comfortable expressing their own views. And I don’t want anybody being intimidated, like, oh, well, Professor agree with me or not. That’s another reason is that there is a distinction between my personal opinion and my professional judgment. My personal opinion, on the issues, is no better than anybody else’s. My personal opinion on abortion is no better is no more valuable than anybody else’s personal opinion on abortion. Nothing about getting my Ph.D. gives me some special insight into that. So the other part of that is my professional judgment. That’s not the same thing. My professional judgment as a political scientist is my evaluation of the facts. I’ve had lessons on the 2020 election. And I’ve been very clear that the election was not stolen. Right, Biden won fair and square. That’s just what happened. And I walked through and I say, look, here are all these claims of election fraud. And here’s why these claims are wrong. And that’s not biased. Because that’s not my personal opinion. That’s my professional judgment as political science, Ph.D.

How would you describe the structure of your classes? And what would you say it takes to like succeed in them?

I will say the number one cause of failure in any class is just not turning stuff in and not getting it on time. Generally speaking, if you do the work on time, you’ll at least pass generally speaking in college. In my classes, you know, we have a lot of group discussions. We do a lot of group activities. Information is given sometimes through a lecture format, but it’s interspersed With group discussions, activities, other things that try to demonstrate the concepts in a real-world way or give students a chance to opine on it themselves. Some opine more than others do. 

 Lappie treats his students well and you really feel heard in his classes, with plenty of opportunities to discuss not only the curriculum but how it relates to current events. He rambles, he repeats jokes (enough so to inspire a semesterly Bingo card), and he cares immensely about his students. Lappie’s classes provide a crash course in a robust array of Political Science topics with the occasional (dated) pop-culture reference to keep the class engaged. Next semester he will teach two sessions of Tackling a Wicked Problem, Parties, Elections, and Interest Groups, an upper-level political-science course, and Social Statistics to fill the quantitative reasoning connection.