Times of political strife can create challenging classroom dynamics, and as an instructor, your action or inaction sends a message to students. This page provides a guide for discussing an election or current political landscape while recognizing the challenge of exposing your political opinions or excluding students with contrasting political leanings.
During these tense times, students often cannot focus on their academic work and appreciate it when their instructors acknowledge all that is happening outside of class. Some students find it distracting when their instructor doesn’t mention or address the particular situation and wonder why they pretend this impactful event did not happen. We also know that high-stress hinders student learning, both by preventing them from learning in the best way and inhibiting retrieval of what they have learned.
It is part of MIT’s mission to provide students with an education that includes “the support and intellectual stimulation of a diverse campus community.” Creating a diverse campus community includes valuing a diversity of political perspectives while at the same time, supporting students made to feel unsafe or unwelcome because their identities are threatened by political policies or rhetoric.
How to plan for the conversation
Reflect on why you want to talk about the election
Before deciding whether or not to discuss the election or its outcome with your students, take time to think about your motivation for having this discussion.
- Reflect individually or discuss your feelings and concerns surrounding the election with a colleague—both concerns for students and your personal reactions to the moment.
- Consider how or whether a conversation about the election aligns with your learning goals or your discipline’s role in the issues raised during the election. Including:
- Which topics within the subject and/or your discipline might require special attention in light of the election?
- How might the candidate platforms be a resource for teaching and learning these topics?
- How might your discipline be impacted by policy decisions as a result of the election?
- What are the diverse perspectives and voices that characterize your field related to these topics, and how can you maintain some balance in presenting them?
Facilitating these kinds of conversations may be challenging because not all disciplines have explicit ties to politics or government policy, and you may have little practice in leading such conversations. Emotions—of students and instructors—can run hot. Yet, because the absence of any acknowledgment sends its own message, these conversations must happen.
As you plan these conversations, be aware that:
Students may have concerns that require expertise that you do not have, including questions about impacts on their immigration status or mental health concerns. Know the different resources available to students (many are described below) and be ready to refer students to them.
Different things are at stake in these conversations for different people, and those whose identities are regularly the targets of political rhetoric are likely to feel particularly unsafe. Classroom discussions about the election may trigger or reproduce the harmful effects of this rhetoric. The stakes involved may include:
- Academic Risks & Consequences: Do students perceive that there will be academic consequences for sharing their perspective during (or opting out of) an election-related discussion?
- Experience of Vulnerability: Might this discussion bring to the surface students’ deeply held beliefs, assumptions, and worldviews? Might it make visible their personal experiences or their political investments? How are the stakes of vulnerability different for members of different groups (e.g., BIPOC, LGBTQ, disabled communities, and other groups)?
- Changes to Relationships: How might the relationships between students, or between you and your students, change in the course of this discussion?
- Belonging & Exclusion: What are the stakes of this discussion for students from marginalized and underrepresented groups? What are the stakes for you if you are a member of such a group? In what ways can this discussion signal to these students that they belong (or don’t belong) in the classroom community, in the discipline, or at MIT?
- Experience of Harm: What forms of harm could be produced in real-time for students during this election discussion? What harms related to systemic injustice should be avoided? How will you help your students distinguish between these actual harms and the feelings of productive discomfort that arise when students are challenged to learn?
- Some students may initially be hesitant to discuss the election, particularly if you are leading this conversation in the days after election day. You may want to provide additional opportunities for engagement in the days and perhaps weeks after the election.
How to facilitate the conversation
We suggest planning your discussion based on this outline developed by Student Support and Wellbeing.
As you consider your class schedule, think carefully about when you want to facilitate this conversation during a class session. If you plan a conversation before the election, it may be best to save it for the end of class so that students are not worked up or distracted while trying to learn. Conversely, if you are having the discussion immediately after the election, you may want to start class with this conversation so that students aren’t wondering whether you plan to say or do anything and are likely distracted by the election anyway.
- State why you are having this conversation and how long it will last.
- Mention that the discussion is optional (students do not need to participate) and that difficult topics may be discussed. You may even allow some students to leave the room or log out of Zoom for the specified amount of time.
- Share your goals for the conversation:
- To acknowledge that something has happened and that you understand that this is likely impacting them.
- To allow students to share how they are feeling.
- To share resources for students.
You can use the example below to begin the conversation but should feel free to adapt and expand depending on your own goals.
2. Discuss reactions
- How are you feeling? How is this impacting you?
- What do you feel like you need for yourself?
During this time, your role is not to respond to every student’s concern at the moment, but to say that you hear them and make a note of common themes or resources you can direct students to. Share discussion guidelines that foreground valuing all students. Make it clear that personal attacks or attacks on students’ identities are not permitted.
You should be clear in advance how much time will be allotted for students to share their reactions and hold to that time, but mention that students may speak to you later or that you can direct them to more resources if they don’t get a chance to share.
3. Share your perspectives
If you are comfortable, share your reflections or reactions with students. Think carefully about the extent to which you want to share these opinions. While it might make some students feel supported to know that you are on “their side,” it may erode students’ trust who have different political opinions.
4. Direct students to resources they may need
The most comprehensive collection of available resources can be found via Division of Student Life, Student Support Services (S^3) for undergraduate students, or GradSupport for graduate students. It will also be beneficial to familiarize yourself with some of the resources described in these websites to better direct students to the support they need.
Remind students also that this is the time to prioritize self-care (e.g., getting enough sleep and healthy food, exercise, and taking time to relax).
5. Plan a transition back to your regular content
With the same intentionality that you planned for this conversation with your students, consider how you will guide students back to refocusing on your class content.
Suggestion for emailing students
In place of a synchronous conversation during class time, you may opt to contact your students electronically via email or through Stellar or Canvas. Feel free to adapt the email template below, developed by Student Support and Wellbeing.
Resources from the Division of Student Life
- Tips for Leading Productive Community Conversations
- All support services
- Student Support Services (S^3) for undergrads
- GradSupport for grad students
More articles on teaching in times of political or other stress
- Preparing to Teach About the 2020 Election (and After), Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan
- Avoiding Postelection Student Unrest, Debra Mashek for Inside Higher Ed
- Teaching: Can Colleges Prepare Students for the Election and Its Aftermath? Beth McMurtrie for the Teaching Newsletter of The Chronicle of Higher Education
- Teaching and the Election, Jason Schreiner, University of Oregon
- Teaching in Times of Strife and Trauma, Teaching & Learning Lab, Harvard Graduate School of Education