After this year’s divisive election, the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning disseminated a helpful document on how to discuss the aftermath of the election in the classroom. They respected that this is clearly a sensitive, complicated topic and that some people would not feel comfortable with or capable of discussing and therefore provided alternative options for those who wanted to acknowledge the election and the high emotions engendered by this election season without engaging in an in-depth discussion.
I was glad to have such a resource, since I wanted to provide my students with a space in which to share their feelings about recent events but didn’t know how to do so. I feared I would not be able to be bipartisan enough even though I truly wanted everyone’s voice to be heard. I didn’t want to erase my feelings but rather wanted to make sure that they didn’t overshadow anyone else’s who had different political views from me. I truly wanted to come together in solidarity, no matter which candidate each of us voted for. The University of Michigan’s document solidified my feelings that this was a conversation that was necessary to have in the classroom.
My pedagogical approach can often be a bit meditative. I tend to give students time for their thoughts to naturally flow individually so that they can be confident in the thoughts that they share with the class. I simply had my students reflect on the election on paper as I provided some guided questions that they could choose to answer or not. Then, we had a class discussion, in which participation was voluntary.
At first, students of a particular political persuasion felt much more empowered to speak, voluntarily offering information on who they voted for. When only one side of the spectrum was clearly being offered, with several students remaining silent, I decided to offer my own feelings, which diverged from what many of the students had expressed thus far. I stated directly who I voted for, just had the students had done, and shared my feelings. I did this while emphasizing that my voice is only one of many in the classroom and that I did not intend for what I said to sound dismissive of anyone else’s opinions. I relinquished my authority at this moment and became just another concerned citizen. Afterward, a student who had not spoken shared thoughts similar to mine and explained the rationale behind these thoughts.
I wish I had enabled all of the students to share their opinions but I also respect their wish to remain silent. I did not want to force anyone into a debate. In fact, I didn’t want it to be a debate at all. I just wanted to share our feelings with one another and we did that. I just hope that the students chose to be quiet and that they did not feel uncomfortable sharing their thoughts. I wanted the classroom to be a safe space and tried to do this to the best of my ability. That’s all we all can do.
I think it is necessary that we carve out class time for processing political and social events such as the election. The election and other social happenings are integrally important to all our disciplines. This is perhaps most evident in fields such as history, political science, and sociology, which deal directly with such material. Social and political relevance, however, extends even to fields that may not be as obvious. Government grants for example play a large role in determining what types of scientific research will be supported and how this research will be used and the outcome of an election can radically affect who and what gets afforded grants. Some social issues are more relevant to some disciplines than others, so I am not advocating for stuffing the classroom with the world as much as possible, but only for making sure that enough of the world is present so students are aware of how the material they are learning in class plays out in the world.
Though the election occurred weeks ago, there is still time to integrate it into your classroom discussion. I hope that my experience doing so proves helpful. I have also included the link to the University Of Michigan’s advice on discussing the election below.
Information on discussing the election from The University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning: http://www.crlt.umich.edu/node/93815