The upcoming election has faculty members concerned about how its results might affect their students and likewise impact classroom engagement in its wake. In particular, there is the question of whether or not to address the election in class the next day, and, if so, how to do so effectively. As educators, we are constantly navigating the terrain between public life and course content, often experimenting with how to intertwine the two most responsibly. Obviously, certain public issues lend themselves more easily to certain classes than others. As a professor of rhetoric, my course is clearly enriched by engaging public discourse. Still, I believe all courses across a liberal arts education find important links to public life, and many students appreciate it when their instructors attempt to identify those links in class discussion. Inevitably, instructors will face criticism for whichever decision they make, and the choice is entirely theirs. Many also already utilize sound strategies for times such as this and need no assistance. Yet for those interested in engaging the election in its wake but unsure of how to proceed, I am happy to share strategies that work for me.
First, I would simply remind you that you are likely facing a mixed audience. Thus, appearing overly ecstatic or upset with the results will probably alienate certain students, and it will not do much to challenge favorable students either. That said, your students likely share important concerns and core values upon which you can utilize to drive discussion. For example, all students likely share a desire for more substantial debate, less polarization, more political cooperation, and greater access to credible information. Likewise, asking students to assess these challenges may facilitate a surprising amount of non-partisan dialogue. Second, it is likely possible to do so from within the framework of your specific discipline. For example, any discipline will likely find significant implications for its field within the policy platforms of either candidate or party. Thus, one might also ask their students how the election results could potentially shape the landscape of their field in upcoming years, drawing specifically on language and policy proposals within the various local, statewide and national campaigns. By asking open and non-value-laden questions such as these, instructors may find greater success in facilitating robust dialogue without it devolving into partisan bickering.
My spiel at times such as this looks something like the following: Good morning. I know emotions are likely running high today in the wake of a heated election. Obviously, some of you are happy with the results, and others displeased. And I’m sure that is putting it mildly for some of you. Still, such an event offers a unique opportunity to reflect on our political institutions and democratic processes and the overall quality of our public discourse. It also prompts important discussion concerning the state of our discipline in particular. So, rather than rehash the political debates we have been engaging ferociously over the past six months or longer, I thought, for the moment, we could engage some deeper questions and concerns about the political process, asking where we are as a nation, a state, and a field of inquiry, along with how we can move forward productively.
One should also remember that students may still need more time to process the election before they are ready to discuss such issues in a civil and productive way. And that is perfectly okay as well. Nevertheless, students may gain reassurance knowing that their instructor appreciates what is happening beyond the classroom and is willing to engage it with their students in a meaningful way.
Thanks for your time, and I am happy to continue the conversation further to help strategize opportunities to incorporate public discourse into the classroom responsibly and effectively. And I always appreciate learning from colleagues about strategies that work for them, so please feel free to send them my way!