Dealing with Difficult Topics: Politics in the Classroom
Politics and the classroom. Nowadays, it’s up there with measles, cable companies, and robocalls as things we’d all like to avoid if at all possible. Political conversations have become deeply divisive, personal, and problematic for many instructors and it’s becoming something we try to avoid, which of course is not always possible.
Political leanings, conversations, and disagreements have a sneaky way of creeping into even the most politically lacking courses. Staying in control of the classroom, while making students feel comfortable to share and debate their thoughts, can be a real challenge, even for seasoned faculty. Even if you don’t teach political science or history class, you need to be prepared for a contentious political conversation in your class.
Dissuading “Right” vs “Wrong” Discussions
Whether intentional or organic, if a politically-charged discussion comes up in your classroom it’s critical to have a good attitude about what should be taking place here. The point is not necessary to prove one side “right” vs. another side “wrong” but rather allow students to broaden perspectives and deepen understanding by hearing from others. Personal opinions or beliefs aside, this discussion-oriented attitude can make a potentially contentious argument into a growth opportunity for everyone.
Establishing Truth vs Falsehoods
That being said, while people are entitled to their opinions and beliefs they’re not entitled to their own version of facts. If a conversation or debate is happening in your classroom, office, etc. it’s beholden on you as the educator and authority in the room, to ensure that factual information is shared. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an encyclopedia but obvious falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and plain old misinformation should be curtailed and corrected with established factual information. It does no one any good to debate demonstratively false information. You must also be prepared to say you don’t know. If this is the case, slow the class down, look up the information or table the discussion- asking students to do research and come back to the discussion next class. Model the behavior they will need to take in the future when an article pops up on their social media page or another student states something they believe is a fact. This is a perfect opportunity to exercise critical thinking.
Setting Expectations and Mutual Respect
Since the expectation for discussion is to learn from one another, students need to be open to another perspective, consider it, and be respectful. Set a clear expectation that nothing but mutual respect will be tolerated.
- Active listening is a technique to slow an accelerating argument down and ensure understanding. Before a student responds to another student, have them first repeat what they heard the other person say. This will certify that the viewpoint is correctly understood and confirms to the other student that they have been heard.
- This does not mean the student has to agree with their perspective – understanding is not the same as agreement -- and ultimately, the outcome may be they decide to “agree to disagree.”
Creating Boundaries and Consequences
Set boundaries and consequences early and note it on the syllabus. Any disrespectful or degrading behaviors will not be tolerated.
- The “three strikes you are out policy” provides a time frame to learn from mistakes and change behavior. The student gets two verbal warnings to remain respectful and open. On the third time, they are asked to leave for the day. This is followed by a discussion about appropriate language and respect in the next class.
- If the issue continues, seek additional help from the Dean of Student Services or your college. Include all of the expectations, boundaries, and consequences on the syllabus and review it early with the class. Remind the class about the boundaries before any discussion that is anticipated to be difficult. Be prepared to act if the boundaries are pushed. This can be uncomfortable but doing so increases the likelihood of a productive discussion.
Know Your Own Biases
Everyone has biases. These influence our ability to manage a discussion or act impartially in a heated conversation. It’s important to know your biases ahead of time and attempt to experiment with taking the other side of an argument. Even if you don’t agree, the preemptive work to see something from a different point of view will likely help you maintain a better, more controlled approach should that topic come up in class.
Agree to Disagree and When It’s Ok to End the Discussion
In many cases, particularly with politics, there is no common agreement. People almost never change their opinions or beliefs based on one conversation or debate. Frankly, that’s not an instructor’s job. It’s okay to end things with an “agree to disagree” conclusion. The important thing is the discussion itself and allowing students the opportunity to discuss and hear from individuals who have a different point of view and thought process than their own.