Should faculty share their own political views with students?
Educators disagree widely on the answer to this question. Above all, faculty should be committed to promoting debate and reflection in the interest of helping students to develop their own opinions.
That said, faculty are necessarily faced with the decision of how to treat their own personal views as they facilitate student learning. In their book The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, Diane E. Hess and Paula McAvoy discuss the issue extensive as they present a study of teachers who incorporate politics into their curriculum. The researchers outline a number of reasons that teachers give on each side of the issue (187).
Reasons to share
- Allows teacher to model his/her own thought process, serving as a pedagogical tool
- Is "more respectful to students to reveal a bias than try to hide it"
Reasons not to share
- Risks unduly influencing students' personal opinions
- May encourage students to agree with the professor in order to get a good grade
Hess and McAvoy conclude that the decision depends largely on the judgement of the teacher and the situation of his/her specific classroom. In an interview with NPR about the book, Hess stated, "there are times when it's probably better for teachers to share than other times when it's better for them not to share. That depends in large part on the context — on who's in their class and what their goals are." McAvoy indicated, "that what's most important is that teachers create a culture of fairness in the classroom. That means being fair and reasonable to all the competing views that are in the classroom and that are being represented in the public." Finally,The Political Classroom urges teachers to make conscious and explicit decisions about when, whether, and how they should include their own opinions.
Further resources on teachers sharing political views:
Chronicle of Higher Education opinion piece in which author David Gooblar contends that "When politically sensitive subjects come up in the classroom, instructors should disclose their views to students."
Washington Post article that talks about a choice that teachers made to speak out against Trump.
Huffington Post article describing teachers' first amendment rights as they pertain to the classroom.
How can we facilitate productive controversial discussions?
Discussing politics in the classroom means that we must moderate conversations on controversial topics. It's important for students to understand the need for respect at the outset of the course. I include a brief statement in my syllabus that reads: Please be sensitive to other students’ ideas and opinions. In particular, be aware that it is often scary to share one’s writing with others. The class will be successful if each of us strives to be open-minded and gentle with each other while offering our honest reactions to what we are reading. This includes me.
I also like to include students in establishing rules as a class at the beginning of the semester.
For a very basic set of guidelines, consider these "Conversation Agreements" at The Living Room Conversation.
Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education is a comprehensive online handbook that "explores productive ways to engage difficult dialogues in classroom and other academic settings." It includes many practical classroom tools, including ideas for establishing Ground Rules, such as an exercise for establishing a Code of Conduct within the classroom.
Facing History has some good ideas for how to Develop a Classroom Contract (see #3).
As the semester proceeds, there are a variety of tools to available to guide faculty and students in having good discussions. In these resources are a wealth of activities and advice.
Further resources to facilitate productive controversial discussions:
Brief article from the website The Conversation providing a guide for teachers about how to foster good communication in the classroom.
Scholarly article from the American Association of University Professors which offers "simple approaches to tough conversations."
Detailed curriculum by The Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts designed to prepare students to have civil conversations
Part of a project on civil discourse at American University, this is "a resource to support students in identifying their goals, values, and challenges as speakers, listeners, and learners, and becoming the architects of their voices."
How do we promote good research skills and civic online literacy?
Every day in the news we hear about how our democracy is in jeopardy because individuals lack the ability to discern credible information. It's a crisis. Perhaps the most important reason to discuss politics and elections in the classroom is to equip students with the skills to evaluate information. Students need to be able to find good sources and assess whether information is factual and legitimate. Here are some excellent resources to facilitate student learning of good research skills.
Further resources to teach civic online reasoning
Executive Summary of the Stanford History Education Group should be required reading for today's educators. It defines civic online literacy, establishes the importance of civic online literacy to our democracy, and demonstrates the degree to which today's students lack the necessary skills. Their website features a series of assessments that can be used in the classroom.
An online textbook with content and exercises to educate students about how to read critically and laterally on the web. This would be a strong resource to use to guide students as they learn about credibility.
A groundbreaking digital literacy project that aims to teach 1 million teenagers — half from underserved communities — how to sort fact from fiction online by 2020.
How should we define and recognize citizenship in the classroom?
I’m careful not to single out individual students when discussing citizenship and voter eligibility. I do not ask directly if students are eligible to vote because they may not be comfortable sharing that information. Some students will volunteer their status as voters or non-voters, but I let them make that choice.
As a part of students' civic education, I work with them to define and understand citizenship. “Citizen” usually refers to a legal status with corresponding rights and responsibilities. This link from the Department of Homeland Security offers a good summary of the rights and responsibilities of American citizen. In most states, citizens who are 18 years or older are eligible to register to vote and to cast a ballot. Some states have limitations based on felony convictions.
I also note that the term “citizen” can refer to an “inhabitant” of a country. This can become a little confusing during class discussions, and the distinction is important. I try to use the terms "citizen" and "community member" appropriately.
Instead of requiring students to categorize themselves as legal citizens, I explain that all of my students, regardless of their legal status, have the opportunity to influence elections, either by direct participation or by meaningful conversations with voters. It is important that students understand this premise so that they can connect with the topic. Thus, I explain that for the purposes of the class, I want all students to consider what choices they would make if they were registered voters and how they can share their opinions productively with other community members.