Presidential Election Discussions in the Online Classroom
Presidential Election Discussions in the Online Classroom
Cultivating a Classroom Community
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 remain unresolved.
Collectively set community guidelines for election and post-election discussions with your students. Consider having the students work together on a shared google doc or some other shared online document 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; using the Zoom chat function to express ideas; having time for free-writing that is voluntarily shared with the class; having space for students who choose to listen to the conversations rather than participate; allowing students share ideas anonymously via a google doc before the live session in Zoom)?
- 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 Zoom etiquette for your class, consider together whether it will remain the same during these conversations
Students’ fears, anxieties and sadness about the election and the results may manifest in the form of political trauma (Sondel, Baggett and Dunn 2017), caused by the characteristics of the elected president, the tangible consequences and implications for students and their families, both in the US and abroad, and to what extent hate crimes and violence may spike after the election. People experiencing traumatic stress go into survival mode, and learning, which requires a great deal of cognitive energy, becomes a lesser priority to the brain (van der Kolk, 1994; Immordino-Yang and Damasio, 2007 cited in Teaching in Tumultuous Times). In this potentially unpredictable and fragile context, keeping students feeling safe and empathizing with them is crucial.
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. 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 sensitive to how individuals’ specific experiences and sensitivities 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.
Be conscious of the ways in which some students may have been and continue to be unevenly affected by policies of the current administration. 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. Practice acute sensitivity to giving space for these students to express their feelings, but do not single them out to unsolicitedly share their thoughts. While the impulse to have their voices heard may be wholeheartedly well-intentioned, these students may be feeling particularly vulnerable and should share their feelings only if they initiate that sharing.
Balancing Students' Needs
Though you may have an established Zoom etiquette in your courses, both you and your students may decide that some variation of it would be helpful for election conversations (for example, you may collectively decide that turning cameras on is completely optional or that the Zoom chat will be used in a way differently than it usually is during class). You may consider everyone to switch from “speaker view” to “gallery view” for these discussions so that everyone is visible (though for a very large class, it will be necessary to decide how students signal participation). Consider collectively whether the Zoom direct messaging function will be enabled or disabled, how the chat will be used and who will monitor the chat for these conversations. Consider creating an anonymous poll to get conversations started and building in a break, even if your class usually doesn’t take one. Zoom’s “mute” “unmute” function does not organically allow for the flow of conversation; consider how the chat might be used to mitigate that as well as other ways of expressing ideas: via email or in office hours.
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.
Consider incorporating free-writing exercises and exercises that invite students to express their thoughts in the Zoom chat. Short free-writing exercises will 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. Allowing students to express their ideas in writing in the Zoom chat as well as by speaking to the rest of the class will give students multiple ways to participate, and acknowledges that some students may feel more comfortable participating in discussions in this way.
While students in your courses and you yourself may hold very different political views, 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.
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 the election 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 the election. The CEP has resource pages about Antiracist Classrooms and Practices, Inclusive Pedagogy Online and Recognizing Signs of Trauma in College Students that may be helpful in your planning.
- The Athena Center for Leadership has an Election 2020 Events guide to all campus election and related events for students, faculty and alumnae.
- Alumnae Relations will host a lecture by Professor Mike Miller, “November 3rd and Beyond: Examining the 2020 Election” on October 27 at 6:30pm EST.
- The Ombuds Office will host a workshop, “How to Have Difficult Political Conversations with Family: Speaking Across Political Divides” on October 30 at 2pm EST.
- The Office of the Provost will host a Faculty Talk Back with Professors Maria Hinojosa, Mike Miller, J.C. Salyer and Elizabeth Ananat, moderated by Provost Bell on November 4 from 6-7:30pm EST
- The Athena Center for Leadership will host Debriefing the 2020 Presidential Election: A Look Back and a Look Ahead, Part 1, on Thursday, November 5 from 5:30 - 6:30pm EST, and Debriefing the 2020 Presidential Election: A Look Back and a Look Ahead, Part 2, on Thursday, November 12 from 5:30 - 6:30pm EST.
- The Furman Counseling Center has scheduled special Listening Hours during the week of the election: November 4 at 3pm EST and November 5 at 12pm EST.
- 2020 Election Guide Intergroup Dialogue Project, Cornell University
- Teaching During the US Election Center for Teaching Innovation, Cornell University
- Preparing to Teach About the 2020 Election (and After) Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, University of Michigan
- Teaching in Response to the Election Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University
- Teach and Learn with the 2020 Election from the New York Times
Difficult Conversations in the Classroom
- Difficult Conversations, Virtually Speaking California State University, Channel Islands
- Tips and Strategies for Difficult Discussions Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, Georgetown University
- 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 in Tumultuous Times Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, University of Colorado, Denver
- Managing Difficult Classroom Discussions Indiana University Bloomington
- Facilitating Difficult Discussions Center for Teaching and Faculty Development, University of Massachusetts/Amherst
- 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
This comprehensive guide was researched and written by Joscelyn Jurich, graduate assistant at the CEP.
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