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We’re only two weeks away from the United States presidential election, an event that 68% of US adults report as “a significant source of stress in their life.” Some groups feel these effects more strongly than others. For instance, “The proportion of Black adults reporting the election as a source of stress jumped from 46% in 2016 to 71% this year.” We can safely assume that the election is also a significant source of stress for our students, particularly for those who belong to marginalized groups. 

For those of us who wish to broach the subject of the presidential election in our classes, these numbers can be daunting. How can we discuss the election in a productive and equitable way? How can we facilitate conversations that will help students learn without exacerbating election stress for more vulnerable individuals and groups? These are complex questions with complex answers. But what follows are a few quick tips to help you navigate the difficult election conversations you may wish to have in the next two weeks.

It’s important to begin by clarifying the objectives for the discussion and making sure that those objectives are in line with your overall course goals. How do the election or the issues raised by it relate to the disciplinary concerns of your course? What is it that you want students to get out of the conversation? How can you facilitate the discussion in such a way that those goals are met? Don’t forget to communicate these objectives to students as you begin the discussion.

As you consider the content of the lesson plan, make sure that the topic of discussion doesn’t inadvertently marginalize or traumatize certain students or groups. Remember that even a seemingly “neutral” viewpoint can be ethically questionable if it allows for racism, xenophobia, sexism, or other expressions of harm toward marginalized groups. 

Additionally, it’s essential to establish ground rules for discussion with students before you get started. You can begin by acknowledging the difficulty of the conversation you’re about to have and enlisting students to help you make it as productive as possible. If possible, ask students for their input in creating the rules of engagement. Remind students that their arguments should be based in evidence; they should disagree with one another respectfully, refraining from ad hominem attacks; and that they should avoid invalidating the feelings or experiences of others.

In many contexts, creating a sense of conversational structure can be helpful. If you’re facilitating a standard large-group discussion, try not open with big questions like, “What do you think about the election?” Instead, create specific, directed questions that contribute to your learning goals for the session and for the class as a whole. In addition to crafting structured discussion questions, you can also consider a structured discussion format. For instance, you might assign a think-pair-share activity, employ the five-minute rule, or facilitate some functional subgrouping.

Relatedly, make sure to build in time for processing and reflection. Stopping the discussion periodically to think quietly or write about what’s been said not only helps students speak more thoughtfully during the rest of the conversation but also helps create a more equitable environment for discussion. Students who process their thoughts through quiet reflection or writing rather than speaking will be more likely to participate in the discussion going forward.

Finally, have a plan to intervene if things go off the rails. If a student makes an inappropriate comment, it’s best to acknowledge and deal with the comment rather than ignoring it. Use the ACTION framework to develop strategies for responding: try to ask the student clarifying questions and help them explore the potential impact of their statement on others. If the conversation gets heated, consider implementing a writing activity or continuing that portion of the conversation at a later date. 

You can find additional resources for teaching around the election in this guide from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching and this blog post from the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning. For more on this and teaching other controversial topics, join us for Wednesday’s Kaneb Center workshop on Difficult Conversations in the Classroom. And don’t forget to vote and encourage your students to vote!

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