Media CenterTeaching: Helping Students Make Sense of the Election

Teaching: Helping Students Make Sense of the Election

Our teaching-and-learning experts give you insights on what works in the classroom. Delivered on Thursdays. Teaching is written by Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano. We love hearing from readers, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly. You can also read more articles about teaching and learning.

The Day After

Anne Berg, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, teaches two courses this semester that connect to the politics of the moment. One is on the origins of Nazism, and the other is on white nationalism in the era of climate change. For weeks, she and her students have discussed current events alongside historical ones.

So on Wednesday, the day after a presidential election whose outcome remained unclear, she knew that she wanted to ditch her normal class structure and simply let students talk. It’s a decision that many professors have made as they help their students discuss, debate, and support one another during a period of tremendous conflict and uncertainty.

“The mood was pretty grim,” she said, after wrapping up two hours of conversation by Zoom, one for each class. “Students really felt like there’s nothing they can do. The difficult part was to come to grips with the fact that the country is still divided.”

At times of great stress, professors often wonder, What is their role? Educator? Facilitator? Adviser? Berg took on a bit of all three. She answered questions about what might happen next in the political process, and why so many voters backed Trump, something her mostly progressive students seemed to find unfathomable. She gave them a space to talk, which many said they found helpful. And she reminded them that they should still invest their time in the causes they care about and the communities they support.

“I tell students they need to take care of each other and of themselves, and remember that a lot of things can be done incrementally, and history doesn’t change quickly,” she said. Even a Biden presidency “wouldn’t change a lot of the things they are most concerned about.”

Every professor handles classroom conversations in their own way, of course. For Berg, Wednesday’s discussions may have been easier to navigate because she has been open with her students all semester about her views on the Trump administration, which she considers dangerous on many levels. (Berg has said her family history has informed her professional life: She was born and raised in Germany, and her grandparents had ties to the Nazis.) Her students needed, she said, “someone they can talk to who is not pretending this is business as normal.”

She also helped her students make sense of what to them seems nonsensical. Some were expecting a blue wave of voters and were stunned to see the turnout so evenly divided. Someone even asked, are people really that stupid? No, she said. They’re not stupid. They’re simply voting their interests. For many, she says, it was a referendum on race, one in which white voters made their feelings clear. For others, it was about lower taxes. And for others, it was about a desire to restart the economy rather than wear masks and social-distance. “It’s something to look into and think about,” she told her students. “What was this election about? What was this election for?”

Although she said many of her students felt a sense of hopelessness, they were glad to come together. “They all expressed that this helped, that this made them feel better in community with other people, to air concerns and questions. I think that’s really all we can do right now.”

Many colleges have been ramping up programming around the election. Campus counseling centers are on high alert, offering support groups and drop-in sessions for students to help them deal with anger, frustration, stress, and other emotions. Teaching and learning centers, as well as centers for civic engagement, have also been working hard to prepare staff and faculty members to talk about the election and its aftermath with their students.

“We were caught unaware in 2016,” said Neeraja Aravamudan, associate director for teaching, research, and academic partnerships at the University of Michigan’s Edward Ginsberg Center, which focuses on the university’s community and civic engagement. “This year we want to make sure we are really able to support students.”

At Michigan, staff from the Ginsberg center and the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching have been helping professors prepare to navigate classroom conversations.

Faculty members should first consider their goals, they say, as different interests require different approaches. Do they want to connect the election to what students are learning in the classroom? Would they rather create a space for students to talk about how they’re feeling? Do they want to help them figure out how to talk with others who think differently? Are they looking to analyze the partisan conflict that has been unfolding, and help students devise ways to move forward?

For Anna Maria Flores and Gail Gibson, the goal on Wednesday was to allow students to talk about their feelings around the election. Flores is associate director, and Gibson the director, of the university’s Kessler presidential-scholars program, which supports first-generation students. And the class they run is a one-credit seminar for first-year students on how to be successful in college.

The Kessler students come from all walks of life, from tiny towns in rural Michigan, to Detroit, Chicago, and New York. Their politics are similarly diverse. Flores said that one student, who wears a hijab, talked about how some students on campus have the privilege of not caring about politics. But, the student said, her identity was not something she could ever step away from.

Another student said she felt that if she ever revealed her political views to her friends, they would very likely ostracize her. Although she didn’t explicitly say she was conservative, Flores said that was implied, given that the Ann Arbor campus is very liberal.

“In one small class of 40, we saw a snapshot of what you saw take place across the country,” said Gibson. “We had students across the political spectrum, in essence saying, I don’t feel seen. I don’t feel heard.’”

The overall mood, said Gibson, was one of exhaustion. “People are tired. This has been an enormously difficult semester. They’ve been managing through Covid and living on campus in a strange, masked, distanced way.”

The two mainly let the students talk, but near the end of the conversation tried to move toward “a bit of a sense of hope,” said Flores. She asked them to “think about what things we can control, and next steps”

“In some ways,” she noted, “this just feels like the beginning, especially for young people.”

Different campus, different students, but Benjamin Blankenship spent the afternoon in a similar discussion. An assistant professor of psychology at James Madison University, he was part of a panel of psychologists helping students process their emotions over the election.

About two dozen students came together over Zoom to talk about feelings of anxiety, disillusionment, and uncertainty. Those feelings often belong to students whose party has lost, but given Tuesday’s unclear outcome, they were practically universal.

Many students also worried about threats of violence, should people protest the election results. Student leaders and resident advisers in the group were uncertain about how to talk to other students. Some students worried about Thanksgiving-day conversations with family. Blakenship said students were asking: “How do we come back together after this? How are we going to reach across the aisle and try to make connections?”

The professors — two research psychologists and one therapist — walked the students through some of the reasons why people behave the way they do; for example, why we often have visceral reactions to other people’s politics. The issue, they noted, is often more about a person’s underlying value system, not a particular policy. So they advised students to frame conversations with friends and family in those terms.

Blankenship also noted that to build bridges, it helps to have a common goal, and suggested that there may be a value in having the College Democrats and College Republicans work on a project together.

That said, he thinks for many students it’s too early for long-range plans. He noted that an earlier session, in which a panel of faculty members from political science, media, and communication studies analyzed the election results and the role of media, race, and gender, had drawn well over 100 people. Students are still processing the possible outcomes, he said. Building connections will probably come later.

To that end, James Madison University has been putting together a range of post-election programming, on the idea that that’s where “our hard work really starts,” said Abe Goldberg, executive director of the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement. In addition to the politics and psychology panels, the university offered on Wednesday a session on self-care and managing stress, a student-led discussion about free speech on campus; and a session on moving forward as a purple campus, where Democrats and Republicans are well represented.

“It’s exciting to be building these programs and collaborating with partners around campus,” said Goldberg. “But at the same time, it signifies where we are as a country. We are going to need so many outlets for these post-election conversations.”

Resources for Election-Related Discussions

If you’re wondering how to talk about the election and its aftermath with your students, here are some guides that may help.

Essential Partners, a nonpartisan nonprofit that helps colleges and other organizations build communication skills, offers “A Guide to Conversations Across the Red-Blue Divide.”

The University of Michigan’s Edward Ginsberg Center and the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching offer a series of guides around the election, including “After Election 2020: Moving from Reaction to Action.”

James Madison University has put out a guide to help faculty, staff, and students facilitate difficult election conversations.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Teaching and Learning offers advice and resources on responding to the election. And Penn’s SNF Paideia program, which focuses on civic dialogue in undergraduate education, recently hosted a webinar called “Can We Talk? Civil Dialogue for Troubled Times.”

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