Election and Post-Election Conversations in the Classroom
Media reports have described the recent US midterm elections as critical to the country’s fragile democracy in the face of recent political violence. These and other US elections exist, of course, in the context of crucial international elections with implications that impact students, instructors, and the general populace worldwide. In the lead up to the 2020 presidential election, the CEP created our Presidential Election Discussions in the Online Classroom guide to help support conversations about the US presidential election and its potential aftermath. Since then, teaching and learning has moved almost fully in-person and the political climate in the US has changed significantly since the period before, during, and after the last US presidential election. To address these shifts in both national and teaching contexts, we offer these suggestions, adapted from our 2020 guide, for instructors seeking to create spaces in their classroom communities that allow for generative and sensitive discussions of elections and post-election contexts.
Beginning the process: self-reflection
Approaching potentially highly charged discussions is challenging for everyone, though depending upon one’s approach and subject matter, instructors will have differing levels of comfort in initiating them as will students in engaging in them. Take some time to first reflect upon your own strengths and and areas of growth in leading “difficult” discussions and your own potential biases, political and otherwise.
A vital part of the self-reflection process is considering to what degree the election and discussions about it are relevant to the learning objectives of one’s course and to one’s course more generally, including its subject matter, focus, and approach. Instructors might be uncertain about whether to discuss the election or elections generally in class at all, and if so, when and how to bring up the topic. As this helpful list from the University of Michigan Center for Research on Teaching and Learning’s Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-Stakes Topics suggests, first identifying a clear purpose and objectives for the discussion can be an important first step. In what ways does the specific election and elections more generally connect with and complement the course material? Are there concrete ways that your course and/or discipline can inform discussions about elections in new and generative ways? What key questions and themes, central to your own course, could be fruitful to explore in the election context?
Considering what your strategies will be in navigating the discussions and in integrating them into your course’s subject matter, material and your discipline may also prove helpful in planning your approach. How do you feel most comfortable engaging with such discussions (e.g., in the classroom, one-on-one. in small group discussions within the classroom, in office hours)? As an instructor, how are you planning to strike a balance between your own and your students’ comfort levels to ensure stimulating and sensitive conversations? If you do not already have a sense of how your students prefer to engage in such conversations, consider having them work together on articulating their wants in an in-class exercise (see the subsection titled “Create conversations collaboratively” for an example).
Cultivate awareness of and remain open about your own vulnerabilities and experiences. How has the election been impacting you in your personal and professional life? What issues and possible outcomes are you most concerned about? Consider how you might respond to these questions concretely for some potential, selective sharing with your students. Acknowledging your own process of self-reflection and reckoning with your own vulnerabilities and uncertainties may allow for an important opening into what are complex conversations for everyone.
Prepare to engage with select discussion topics that may likely arise
- Potential violence and chaos that could result before, during, and after the election
- The particular stakes of midterm elections for reproductive rights, the economy, immigration policies, and the broader political landscape
- The global repercussions of the midterm elections for democracy and human rights
- The connections between electoral trends in the US and other countries
- Election disruption, fraud, harassment, and threats of violence against voters and poll workers
- Election denialism and deniers
- The ways in which particular groups in the US and abroad may be disproportionately affected by election results
- Interpersonal conflict that may be present or arise out of discussions about elections
- Misinformation and disinformation in the media, on social media and media literacy
- Political polarization online and offline
- Domestic and international threats to democracy and democratic practice
- Electoral politics and re-evaluations of the electoral system
- Third party and other perspectives on electoral politics
- Voter suppression and intimidation
- Misassigned blame to certain groups for voter turnout
- Different forms of and approaches and attitudes to political action and activism during and post election
In the classroom community: first steps
Consider reflecting upon the very definition of “difficult” conversations alone and with your students. While conversations about the election and the election results indeed need to be handled sensitively, framing them as “difficult” when the conversation is initiated in the classroom space may or may not be fully productive. Initially discussing how such conversations are labeled and framed could be a productive entrée into larger discussions about how students have experienced such conversations in classroom and campus settings before, what they think worked well and what could be improved, and how they would like to structure and experience conversations about the election and the election results. Discussing and managing expectations for these discussions will also be crucial: accept that these conversations will be challenging and will likely be unresolved.
Collectively set community guidelines for election and post-election discussions with your students. Consider having the students work together on a collaborative tool (e.g., shared Google Doc) to establish them.
Some questions to raise together to create the community guidelines might include:
- How do you want to collectively reflect upon the election?
- What are some aspects of the contemporary moment and topics the class would like to address in conversation?
- In what forms does the classroom community feel comfortable discussing these topics (speaking in conversation with the class; speaking in small groups; speaking with other students one on one; speaking with the instructor one on one; doing short writing exercises that are either kept private or optionally shared with the class)?
- What are some ways of communicating about the topics chosen that the classroom community feels would be respectful for everyone involved?
Some possible guidelines might include:
- Listen actively and respectfully.
- Allow everyone who wants to contribute the opportunity to do so in the manner in which they feel comfortable.
- Don’t expect individuals to represent or speak on behalf of identities or groups we perceive them as having or being a part of, whether racial, ethnic, gender and sexual orientation or socio-economic class.
- Honor each other’s views, whether or not we agree with them.
- Connect course materials and concepts whenever possible.
If there is an established discussion etiquette for your class, consider together whether it will remain the same during these conversations.
Preparing some open questions and concrete themes will be helpful to start the conversation and other topics and questions suggested by the students can also be incorporated into the community guidelines. Creating complementary questions that specifically connect your course topics and themes will help to connect the discussion to your learning objectives and ground the conversations. Be prepared to remind students of the collective guidelines and to re-focus discussions as necessary.
Stay attentive to how the intersectional issues of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality and socio-economic class may be contributing to what your students are facing in the lead up to, during, and after the election. Be particularly mindful of how individuals’ specific experiences may be impacting them without making assumptions about how they are being affected or what their political views might be based on their race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality and socio-economic class. It is also important to acknowledge a wide range of perspectives and reactions to the election process and results. While some students might be dismayed by or ambivalent about the outcomes of the election and the electoral process generally, others will feel positive and even triumphant. Be mindful that this range of reactions and viewpoints will not necessarily be readily determined by race, nationality, gender, ethnicity or socio-economic class.
Be mindful of including the perspectives of students who may have been or have felt disproportionately affected by the lead-up to the election and/or by the post-election environment. Give space for these students to express their feelings, but try to avoid singling them out to share their thoughts. While the impulse to have their voices heard may be well-intentioned, students are ultimately the ones responsible for deciding what to share about their personal experience.
Balancing students’ varying desires to participate in election and post-election discussions
As outlined in our Transition to In-Person Teaching guide, a variety of remote teaching approaches may be beneficial for in-person learning and can stimulate diverse ways in which students can participate in and co-create a shared space. Alternatives to using the chat function in Zoom, for example, might be generative for election and post-election discussions: focused free-writing and using post-it notes could be reflective and low-stakes ways in which students express their feelings and ideas. Short free-writing exercises will also give students individual, quiet time to reflect upon their feelings and thoughts that they may or may not choose to share with the rest of the class. Using the polling tool Poll Everywhere, and not requiring students to identify their name, could be generative by having students anonymously respond to an open or closed question and then reflect upon the results individually and/or in small groups or as a class. Please contact the CEP (email@example.com) or IMATS (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have questions about Poll Everywhere or if you plan to use it in a large class (>25 students).
Some students, for whatever reasons, may not want to participate in discussions about the election, in speaking, in writing or anonymously. Respect their need to reflect and to process their thoughts and feelings and appreciate their participation in these discussions through active listening.
fostering and maintaining a shared sense of belonging alongside those differences is crucial. Without negating differences, striving to reveal connections between students’ perspectives (even when their actual opinions differ) may be generative in maintaining classroom community and cultivating new senses of respect students may have for one another and the instructor. Consider the commonality in students’ responses even and especially when their views might differ. Seek to bring out the common ground between students’ perspectives and approaches even and especially when they do not support the same views or candidates or opinions about voting and the range of other topics related to electoral politics. Focusing on peer support and understanding is especially important, too, in the context of distance learning during the ongoing pandemic and in what has been and continues to be a very tense and divisive political atmosphere.
Give students time to reflect and collect their thoughts and feelings, whether they will be expressing them in paired conversations, in group conversations or in whole class conversations and whether or not they will be expressing their ideas in speaking or writing. Waiting at least approximately 30 seconds before asking for student responses may be a helpful guideline.
From discussion to meaningful action: supporting students in continuing these conversations and in related scholarship, activism and resistance
- As relevant to your course and discipline, integrate activities and assignments such as media monitoring, writing op-eds, political analysis, statistical analysis and policy research into your courses
- Integrate scholarship related to your discussions into the course as possible and encourage students interested to conduct research and/or produce related writing
- Make students aware of a variety of public discussions and debates that intersect with your course material, your discipline and issues related to the election and to the post-election environment
Continuing the conversations and support at Barnard
- If you feel comfortable and are able to, offer one on one meetings with students who want to discuss elections further during office hours or at other times.
- The Center for Engaged Pedagogy welcomes faculty and students to be in touch about navigating classroom conversations leading up to and after elections.
- The CEP has resource pages about Antiracist Classrooms and Practices and Recognizing Signs of Trauma in College Students that may be helpful in your planning.
Existing resources for instructors for additional ideas and support
- Understanding the Issues of the 2022 Midterm Elections from the New York Times
- Debating the Electoral College from KQED
- Structuring Classroom Discussions about Elections Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, University of Michigan
- A Brief Guide to Teaching Through the Election Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, Pennsylvania State University
- 2020 Election Guide Intergroup Dialogue Project, Cornell University (though developed for 2020, contains very useful general strategies)
- Facilitating Difficult Election Conversations James Madison University
- Difficult Discussions Instructional Continuity, Georgetown University
- Strategies and Guidance for Teaching During Politically Divisive Times Indiana University
- Managing Difficult Classroom Discussions Indiana University Bloomington
- Addressing difficult events in the classroom Teaching + Learning Lab, MIT
- Navigating Difficult Conversations in the Classroom Using Non-Violent Communication Center for Teaching and Learning, Kent State University
- Handbook for Facilitating Difficult Discussions in the Classroom Queens College
- Teaching Resources for Tumultuous Times Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, University of Colorado, Denver
- Learning with Current Events University of Maryland Baltimore County
- Responding to Difficult Moments Resource List from the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, University of Michigan
- Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-Stakes Topics Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, University of Michigan
- Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education Teaching Tolerance
Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen and Antonio Damasio (2007) “We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education” International Mind, Brain, and Education Society 1(10):1-10
van der Kolk, Bessel (1994). “The Body Keeps the Score: Memory and the Evolving Psychobiology of Posttraumatic Stress” Harvard Review of Psychiatry 1(5):253-65
Sondel, Beth, Hannah Carson Baggett and Alyssa Hadley Dunn (2018) “For millions of people, this is real trauma: A pedagogy of political trauma in the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election” Teaching and Teacher Education (70): 175-185
The guide from which this was adapted was researched and created by CEP Graduate Assistant Joscelyn Jurich.Thank you to Alex Pittman and Melissa Wright for their valuable feedback on this revised guide.