“This isn't a typical classroom,” said Anthony “Jack” Gierzynski, director of the Vermont Legislative Research Service (VLRS) — a hands-on class and policy research shop serving Vermont’s civic legislators — “and students don’t do typical research papers.”
Chair of the Political Science Department at UVM, Gierzynski created the course in 1998 in response to a request for student assistance on policy research from a state legislator. Unlike many other states, the 180 working legislators of Vermont do not have individual staff, but instead share a limited — and very busy — professional staff.
That's where POLS 230: VLRS comes in. “So I set up a class and worked to organize this in a way to provide research to legislators,” Gierzynski said. “It develops students’ research skills while providing non-partisan policy support to Vermont State Legislators.”
Not for the faint of heart, VLRS is limited to students with junior and senior standing and requires an application, acceptance and a 1-credit prerequisite — POLS 296: Legislative Research Services Prep that provides the necessary training for students to carry out VLRS policy research — to enroll. Gierzynski trains students on how to find, read and evaluate scholarly studies or credible material online.
“We go to legislators, explain what we do and ask if they have any policy research requests,” Gierzynski said. “Requests are reviewed by the students and then the student research teams pick which requests they want to do.” The goal is to create concise, short and well-documented reports with basic and key information for the legislators who request them.
“It's definitely increased my intuition and my ability to critically think and those more intangible skills that you don't really learn in classes,” said Clay Lerner ’22, a business administration student minoring in political science. “Honestly, it's allowed me to amass a lot more knowledge by just reading through all of these documents.”
“It's also increased my passion for trying to do good as well,” Lerner said. “It's interesting how much information is publicly out there, yet it’s so difficult to get and to understand. I think it's made me more interested in trying to make information more accessible and easier to understand.”
As part of the class, students typically visit the Vermont Statehouse and meet in-person with legislators to discuss and understand the requests, and experience in the legislative atmosphere for themselves. This year, unfortunately, students are limited to meeting with legislators remotely.
From start to finish, Gierzynski leads each student team through three to five drafts per report, edits, fact checks and publishes the final report on the VLRS website. Subjects range from agriculture and transportation to safety and even craft beer.
“I learn a ton every time I teach this class,” he said. “I'm learning more and more about different policy areas because I have to become a policy wonk on each subject matter as well.” A few years ago, for example, Rep. Matt Dunne (D-Hartford), asked for research to support the state’s brewing industry.
“There were limits on the alcohol level that was acceptable in beer, which was blocking the craft beer industry in Vermont,” said Gierzynski, “So we did a study on that and other state policies. Dunne took that information and helped to get the law changed, and now we have a thriving craft beer industry in Vermont.”
Regardless of the topics requested by legislators, Gierzynski said the class has three main goals, one of which is learning how to find and evaluate information, and then write about those findings. “I really want them to come out with a really strong understanding of what information can be trusted and what can’t,” said Gierzynski “and, obviously, that's now more important for everybody these days than before.”
Just as critical, his students must learn to work as a team and develop an understanding of legislative processes and how laws are made.
“People have a very simplistic notion of how a bill becomes a law,” said Gierzynski “It is a lot more complex, it's not easy to get legislation passed. These students are part of that and contributing to this institution.”
Kellyn Doerr is a graduating English major.