Teaching in a Tense Political Climate

Teaching in a Tense Political Climate

These are truly unique times: the conditions under which the MIT community is teaching and learning are difficult, stressful, and at times threatening.

Life under the dome is not, in fact, under the dome. We are dispersed across the world, in a wide range of environments, and subject to various constraints. In the US: the pandemic, racism, social injustices, governmental policies that threaten international students, and the upcoming presidential election may justifiably pull our attention and focus away from our teaching and coursework, making this a semester like no other.

As Election Day draws near, it provides a focal point for all of our hopes, anxieties, fears, frustrations, and anger. All members of the MIT community are affected and distracted to varying degrees. We have heard from students that they cannot focus on their academic work and would appreciate it if their instructors could at least acknowledge all that is happening outside of the dome. Faculty and instructors may want to say something—to recognize these tumultuous times and their impact on students and colleagues—but may not know how or when to start a conversation. In many subjects, the Election is the proverbial elephant in the room: everyone sees it, but many feel better not mentioning it. Given that this particular elephant is not likely to disappear anytime soon, we are likely to make it bigger by not discussing it, creating a compounded distraction with even more impact and influence.

What can we do now?

  • We can establish norms for classroom discussions that allow all students voices to be heard and respected.
  • We can model how students should engage in civil discourse and meaningful dialogue.
  • We can remind ourselves and our students that we can all work together. Regardless of our political affiliations, we can strengthen the MIT community by collectively identifying and seeking solutions to the pressing social, economic, and technological issues facing our nation and world.
  • We can highlight the relevance of our subject content and disciplinary research to pressing governmental policy decisions, for example, in the areas of medicine and health, energy and the environment, transportation, and basic research.
  • We can encourage students’ civic engagement: urging them to vote and to spread the word to others about the importance of voting. Resources include:


On October 26, we hosted a workshop and discussion on Teaching in a Tense Political Climate (recording below).

The workshop aimed to provide tools and perspectives for faculty and instructors who feel that they need to say something about the election or current political landscape, but are concerned with exposing their political opinion or excluding students whose political leanings may differ from their own.

Charles Stewart, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science, explored ways instructors can discuss the election and related topics with students. Ray Feller also discussed the impact of the election on students’ well-being and stress.

Additional resources

The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching and the Edward Ginsberg Center at the University of Michigan have put together a guide for faculty members, Preparing to Teach About the 2020 Election and After.

Debra Mashek, former executive director of the Heterodox Academy, wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed on how colleges can avoid post-election student unrest.

Written by Janet Rankin