Teaching in Difficult Times: 2020 Election

 

The 2020 United States election is on many of our minds, including our students’, in some cases causing significant distraction and stress. These impacts may persist for a while. With that in mind, faculty are working to adapt their teaching to make their classrooms places where students can thrive even in this fraught time. This will probably mean being flexible about student work and acknowledging the situation, and may also involve making room for students to express their feelings and perspectives and perhaps to engage with and analyze the moment.

In order to help you think through how to adapt your own teaching to this time, we’ve compiled some resources below. We hope they’re helpful—and please reach out to us at cndls@georgetown.edu if you have additional resources to share or if you’d like to have a conversation about teaching around the election.

Please scroll down to see parts two and three of this series, which delve more deeply into creating space for student expression and facilitating exploration of the issues in your class.

Teaching Around the Election: Flexibility, Acknowledgement, and Other Strategies

Regardless of one’s political views, the 2020 election is unlike any other in recent history, and perhaps unique with regard to its potential impact on higher education. For a variety of reasons, anxiety runs high among our students—both undergraduate and graduate and in particular among marginalized student populations—and much of that anxiety is centered on or exacerbated by the elections.

How can we prepare to contend with the effects that the election might have on our students, ourselves, and our university? What role can we play in supporting our students as the end of the semester approaches? Whatever your particular discipline or class focus, we offer a few suggestions that we hope can serve as starting points in answering these questions. These suggestions are rooted in both the scholarship of teaching and learning and in Georgetown’s Jesuit values. Fulfilling the critical role that universities play in supporting and maintaining flourishing democratic societies, it is our mission to foster "serious and sustained discourse among people of different faiths, cultures, and beliefs [that] promotes intellectual, ethical and spiritual understanding.”

Current social conditions, lessons from 2016, and what we know from the science of learning make it clear that the first approach that we should all implement is flexibility. In addition to flexibility, you might consider other approaches, including acknowledging the difficulties of the moment, building opportunities for student expression into your class, and scaffolding student exploration of the issues at hand. Let’s consider each in turn:

Flexibility

Students are explicitly asking for flexibility, which is something we can do right now to help reduce anxieties and give our students some of the space they need to process the possibility of major social disruption. As Provost Groves wrote in a recent email, “As we approach Election Day this year on Tuesday, November 3, 2020, we ask that we each grant our students, graduate assistants and unit staff latitude so as to facilitate participation in the electoral process.” The precise form that flexibility takes is going to be idiosyncratic to a particular class, but we should prepare now by thinking through and then communicating to our students what that flexibility will look like. For example, we might do one or more of the following:

  • Pre-record lectures for the week of elections—even if we’re planning to still hold class
  • Cancel class the week of the election and create asynchronous course activities
  • Move significant assignments or activities to a different week
  • Extend deadlines

Creating and communicating a specific plan for flexibility is an important way we can respond to and support students now.

Acknowledgement

There are often good reasons not to use our classrooms as a space to collectively discuss or analyze social disruption. Upon serious reflection many of us may determine that—while extending flexibility—the best thing is to simply continue without delving into the elections in depth or directly taking up any of the other social elements that may be causing our students anxiety. In such cases, however, it’s best to first acknowledge the situation and its potential differential impacts. One lesson from the 2016 election is the frustration and even anger that students can feel when classes ignore significant social unrest, an approach that was often read as apathy and as another example of privileged academia trying to stand apart. With this election, we have a valuable teaching opportunity to model both transparency and our reasoning process for deciding to move on. Acknowledging the moment and explaining our decision to move on is an important means of honoring the dignity of our students, some of whom might disagree with our decision.

Expression

In addition to flexibility and explicit acknowledgment, some of us will determine that more is needed—because the moment demands such, because of the potential for learning involved, or because we find that our students need more before they can return to the business-as-usual of our course content. One form that this “more” can take is using our classrooms as a social space for expressing the panoply of emotions, positions, and social variables impacting us all. In addition to the individual benefits that come from articulating one’s thoughts and hearing those of others, such activities can grant faculty a critical window into what their students need and inform faculty decisions about whether and how to follow up.

Exploration

Certainly the most difficult but likewise the most potentially beneficial option for some of us will be to not only allow students to articulate what they’re facing, but additionally help them to further analyze and make sense of the moment. Many of our classes attempt to offer powerful intellectual tools for analyzing and understanding the most complex elements of human life. This may be an opportunity for your students to learn to use these tools in the service of understanding or coping with the difficulties of social disruption. The classroom provides a unique opportunity for helping them to see the relevance of course content, disciplinary tools, or the value of their Georgetown education as a whole.

Part II. Expression

The second post in the series tackles expressive activities that promote student agency and help them achieve reductions in anxiety while allowing faculty to take stock of where the class is at and make informed decisions about whether and how to engage more deeply. Expression activities can also be performed in any classroom—regardless of content or faculty expertise on the nature and causes of social disruption. Author James Olsen covers the following pedagogical principles:

  • Start before the elections
  • Be transparent about the pedagogical goals
  • Collectively articulate and agree to a set of ground rules
  • Consider beginning with an asynchronous discussion
  • Aim for universal participation

The post then explores pedagogical strategies such as "In a Word," "Write, Read, Listen, & Write," and "Mapping exercises." Expression activities like these can also function as priming for further in-class exploration—which is the topic of our next blog post. Whatever you do, keep in mind the specific goals involved in expression activities: allowing students to be in a supportive space that attends to the (possibility of) social disruption, get beyond themselves, and gain an expanded perspective.

Part III. Exploration

This final post explores pedagogical techniques to help students explore the results of the elections by engaging in such activities as discipline-specific analysis and synthesis, evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of various positions, and the regimenting and critiquing of arguments. This post suggests ways to maintain our pedagogical goals while engaging with the election and its attendant issues. Techniques discussed include:

  • Content Synthesis
  • Guest Speakers
  • Oblique Discussion
  • Argument Mapping
  • Ten Minute Analyses
  • Advisory Committee
  • Fish Bowl

With good pedagogy, we can even leverage these difficult circumstances to reinforce the knowledge, skills, and formation our classrooms are trying to develop. Seize this opportunity to invest serious reflection in whether and how to help students process the issues and anxiety surrounding the election. Offering maximum flexibility and the opportunity to collectively debrief in a space of reason is a means by which we can achieve our goal to teach the whole person.