James Melcher
Professor of Political Science

Ph.D., University of Minnesota
B.A., University of Wisconsin-Madison

Imagine a college professor combining the energy and humor of Robin Williams with the keen insights of a gifted and respected academic — that’s University of Maine at Farmington Professor of Political Science Jim Melcher. And his students wouldn’t want him any other way.

In addition to being a gifted academic, Melcher (one of Farmington students’ most popular faculty members) is also a talented impersonator and often infuses his highly entertaining lectures with dead-on impressions of politicians, news broadcasters, pop icons and others.

But Melcher sees a method to his madness in using humor in the classroom. He has long used his unique brand of humor and sharp mind as highly effective devices to help students learn, putting students at ease in the classroom, helping them to become actively engaged in the classroom, enticing them to be more interested in the subject matter and also helping them to better retain what they’ve learned.

Classroom Fun — With a Purpose

Jim explains that as a student many of his favorite professors, those from whom he learned the most in political science and other fields, were professors who brought humor to their teaching. He came to appreciate this both as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin with Booth Fowler and John Milton Cooper (the latter regularly used impersonations of Franklin Roosevelt in his lectures) and later in graduate school at the University of Minnesota.

Jim has implemented his own brand of offbeat humor to his teaching as well, and student reaction has been overwhelmingly favorable. Many of Jim’s students know he playfully cites the old slogan of Highlights magazine, “Fun — with a Purpose,” as his teaching motto. But even beyond his own experience, there have been many scholarly examinations of the use of humor in the college classroom that have noted both student appreciation of humor and other benefits of it.

Order in the Court: Legal Case Studies and Political Realities

In Jim Melcher’s Constitutional Law and Civil Liberties classes he routinely sets up mock trial formats to help students explore real-life constitutional issues and to see the issues from both sides.

For instance he recently ran a mock Supreme Court debate where students explored the 2000 Boy Scouts of America and the Monmouth Council vs. James Dale case where students argued for — and against — the notion that a Boy Scout Troop should be compelled to retain a Scout Master who acknowledged to be gay. In this mock trial, Melcher’s law students investigated the real-case subject. One student took the position of the Boy Scouts of America, a second student took the position of James Dale and the State of New Jersey Supreme Court and the rest of the class assumed the role of the U.S. Supreme Court. Jim found his debaters conducted a tremendous amount of research into the landmark case, as well as developed their own opinions about the court case.

Other real-world legal issues his students have discussed in these classes and others include: organized prayer in public schools, the U.S. decision to not sign the Kyoto Treaty, the laptop computer initiative in Maine schools, and more.

Of Elvis and Nixon

In his Congress and the Presidency class, Jim Melcher has introduced the class-favorite “Thursday Prop.” The Thursday Prop can be most anything related to the American presidency in mass culture, and he displays a prop at the start of class every Thursday. He lets students examine the object at the end of class, and it seldom fails to elicit a reaction — usually one of laughter — from his students.

The props come from Jim’s rather eclectic collection of U.S. Presidential artifacts: a life-size cutout of Bill Clinton, the 1960’s election game “Mr. President,” a small pewter statue of Herbert Hoover, a sheet of stamps featuring James K. Polk, an “X-Presidents” comic book based on the Saturday Night Live skit (in which Presidents Ford through Bush Sr. have superpowers and fight villains), an “Ohio: Mother of Presidents” postcard, a small box of M&M’s with the presidential seal and signature, a 1960’s ashtray honoring President Johnson, a magnet depicting the meeting of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon in the White House, a linen wall hanging/dishcloth depicting the presidents, to name just a handful.

The props help illustrate the fascination the American public has with all things Presidential and it accomplishes two things: It gives the students a tangible demonstration of this phenomenon in American politics and, because these items so frequently seem “over the top,” provides valuable humor in teaching that sometimes even spurs students to recall other examples that they have seen.

Jim said it was these sorts of things that interested him in the Presidency in particular and American politics in general, and he is hopeful that these oddball items may help motivate his students’ interest in the Presidency as well.

Outside the Classroom: Innovation and Excitement — Putting Theory into Practice

For more than a decade Jim Melcher has been the UMF faculty representative for the Maine Policy Scholars Program and serves on its steering committee. The Maine Policy Scholars Program is a scholarship program designed to engage college students in the public policy process.

During the course of the academic year, one student from each of the University of Maine System’s seven campuses, working closely with a faculty advisor and community mentor, tackles a real-life policy issue currently facing Maine. After conducting extensive research, each Maine Policy Scholar produces a final report and gives an oral presentation to a panel of policymakers, providing a succinct statement of the problem addressed, data assembled, and recommendations. Each students’ final reports is forwarded to the Governor and other policymakers for their consideration.

Jim also serves the campus as an advisor for the UMF Political Science Club, a non-partisan student organization that promotes political awareness, invites guest speakers to come to the University of Maine at Farmington and hosts public political debates and discussions.

He is involved with “A Rising Tide,” a Portland-based non-partisan nonprofit organization established to encourage and empower young people in Maine to affect positive community change through the political process. The organization provides free, high-level training to students, teaching them critical political skills such as how to run political campaigns, how to help keep candidates on message, how to work with the media, and more.

Jim feels this encouragement to perform civic leadership is vital to the students and to the state of Maine. His students have picked up on this encouragement. In 2008, four of Jim’s current or former students ran for the Maine House of Representatives, and in 2009, one of his alumni, Lance Harvell, was elected as State Representative for District 89, which includes Farmington and Industry. Harvell was joined in the Maine House in 2010 by a second Melcher alum, Alex Willette of Mapleton, who was elected as the youngest member of the Maine State legislature

A True Academic — Areas of Special Interest

Jim Melcher teaches a very wide range of political science classes at UMF: Intro to American Government to Constitutional Law, Public Opinion, Interest Groups and Parties, and more. But Jim’s special areas of academic interest are the Presidency, elections, and political parties and state politics in New England and the Midwest.

Jim said he caught the political bug as a five-year-old boy in Madison, Wisconsin when he became keenly aware of the Nixon-Humphrey Presidential election in 1968.

By age 13 he was handing out Jimmy Carter for President literature outside University of Wisconsin football games. So from an early age, Jim Melcher has seen politics as something that is fun, not castor oil (his words). He has tried hard to instill in his students this sense of “politics as fun.”

It should also be emphasized that Jim Melcher’s political science classes are noted for their respect for all political points of view and his students are well known for their ability to think for themselves, something that makes Jim especially proud. The guest speakers in his classes have spanned a particularly inclusive range of Maine political figures.

Respected in the Field — Noteworthy Accomplishments

Jim Melcher has published a number of articles in political science journals: Comparative State Politics, American Review of Politics, The Journal of Economics and Politics, and others.

His most recent publication is a chapter on state-level electoral college reform in Gary Bugh’s Electoral College Reform: Challenges and Responsibilities. Jim’s chapter focused on Maine and Nebraska’s use of the district plan for allocating electoral votes.

In addition, Jim is a member of the American Political Science Association and has presented at its national convention as well as at the New England Political Science Association convention and other conventions as well.

Jim Melcher, the King of All Media

Jim is highly sought by the media for his keen political insight. He has appeared as a political analyst on: ABC/Fox Bangor’s election night coverage, Time Warner Cable’s “Pingree and Katz: The Maine Event” talk show seen around Maine and online, Bangor’s WABI-TV5, National Public Radio (NPR), Maine Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Radio, Portland’s WGAN-AM radio.

An oft-quoted political analyst, Jim’s commentary has been published in the Associated Press (appearing nationally, including in the Washington Times), The Bangor Daily News, The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, The Sun Journal, The Kennebec Journal, Down East magazine, to name just a few.

He has also gone international. The Mexican newspaper, La Reforma, interviewed him for its American election podcasts, and he provided blog updates (in Spanish) for them on election night. He came back for an encore in 2010 helping La Reforma analyze the 2010 U.S. congressional elections

Outside of Academia — Personal Interests and Activities

Outside of his work at UMF, and when he is not following politics for fun, Jim Melcher serves in the vestry of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Augusta where he is cantor in the church choir.

Jim is also involved in the national Book Crossing project, which facilitates book-swapping among strangers by releasing a beloved or unwanted book “into the wild” and tracking its travels as finders and new readers of the book log into the organization’s Web site.

He is also a volunteer editor for Mexico, Maine-based Front Street Reviews, for which he writes online book reviews.

An avowed fantasy baseball and fantasy football geek, Jim also enjoys hiking the area’s hills and mountains with his wife. Jim and his wife reside in Augusta, Maine.