Today (Nov 3, election day) in our Futures Initiative meeting we talked about what we’ll do in class the day after the election.
Several of the FI Fellows are graduate students who are also teachers. The election is the elephant in the room… but it won’t be the same elephant for every student and, as instructors, electoral partisanship is not permissible.
Yet, as with any cataclysmic event that has impact on everyone (a hurricane, a financial collapse, a pandemic), this election has impact on all of us, although not in the same way. Ignoring a cataclysm does not make it go away. Ignoring it, can impede engagement and learning.
And predictions from many organizations right now are that we won’t even have absentee ballots counted in key states until the weekend–so we may be meeting with students in a state of extreme anxiety.
So–and this is crucial–although it is important to acknowledge that we are all in a state of high anxiety, in your role as instructor you must be cautious and sensitive to the fact that it is unlikely everyone in your class holds the same political views. As an instructor, you teach all students, not only the ones who share your political positions. Yet learning is not going to happen if everyone is tense and silent. This is a minefield, in other words, and yet one that a good teacher needs to traverse.
Before you engage in a conversation about anxiety, make sure you are explicit about this not being a case to condemn one student’s beliefs or another’s. This is delicate, tricky, and crucial. And at some institutions, mishandling or seeming to judge negatively a student’s personal political position can be grounds for a complaint or dismissal.
The suggestions below are offered with the understanding that some will be more fraught than others in different classrooms, regions, kinds of institutions, and kinds of courses. Other suggestions (such as the “Avatar” suggestion) work well with almost no ideological component and might be more useful in some situations.
The single most important tactic is not about politics at all: Be kind, be flexible, be kind, be flexible, be kind, be flexible–to your students and to yourself.
—Bring the numbers of trained mental and physical health professionals at your institution into class. No one expects you to be a therapist–and you should not try to be. Make sure you are clear you care–but you are not someone trained to offer professional care and have, at the ready, contact information for those who are trained and can offer help. This sets the stage for everything else, making your concern clear as well as your non-judgmental awareness that some may need expert, dedicated, professional assistance.
–Ask students (as students, not “patients”) a straightforward, simple, human question: ex: how are you doing? ex: What have you come up with to help you survive in a situation of anxiety? No matter what you ask, do so as professor, not healthcare professional, and with consideration, boundaries, and care. As always, with active, student-centered learning, it’s best to ask students how they are feeling, what they are thinking, how they interpret the results and its impact on their lives as students. Don’t assume you know. Don’t assume they all have the same political positions. Be careful! Make space where they can air their own opinions. And do so with care. This can be incredibly awkward since they are basically performing their politics and their emotions in a group, not among intimates, not among friends even, but among that odd collectivity known as “classmates.” We suggest the instructor go first and offer students a template for how to do this–a minute, not ten minutes; general feelings (hope, regret, sadness, expectation, terror, etc) rather than too much that is too personal, too specific. And–adamantly and as with all activities–give students the opportunity to opt out. The student who prefers not to articulate complex emotions still learns from others and the very act of opting out is also a form of agency.
—Think-Pair-Share always works in a pinch. Think-Pair-Share is a bit more awkward online but the f2f method can be adapted to digital space. For f2f: start with a simple prompt (“Three things you are thinking about today, post election”): 90 seconds. The short time frame is important to emphasize this is very, very low stakes. Once it’s high stakes, it’s not a generous but can begin to feel like a test. And that stinks! Don’t do that! Then, f2f, have students work in pairs and literally read one another what is on their card, not interrupting. 90 seconds. Again. Low stakes. Then, in a small class, go around and have students either read their cards to the class, or have each person in the pair tell the class what the other suggested.
In the online version, say “Go!” and have students write out their three things in a collaborative tool as fast as they can. 90 seconds. (it may take 180 seconds online). You can then just go through and read the comments. Anonymously works. it’s cathartic.
—Act Locally. Stay connected. No matter who is POTUS, social problems and community issues remain. Be engaged. Do something kind that is not about party politics. Ask students for their ideas about this. Community change, despite electoral politics, is ongoing. Shaun Lin, the FI Fellow who led our meeting today, had us do a fantastic group activity, meeting in the break out rooms to exchange information about the ways we work within our communities on issues that matter to us. Those issues were there before the election. They will be there after. It was a great way to remind ourselves of our own role in change. He also had us watch a wonderful interview with the legendary feminist activist and philosopher, Grace Lee Boggs. At 90, this lifelong activist who co-authored a book with C.L.R. James and wrote three other books, had become excited by urban community gardening in Detroit. Her words of wisdom: “We are the leaders we are waiting for.”
–Create playlists for this moment. Have your students compile a playlist of songs for the day after which is always, ever, the day before. In our group, two of us came up with Bob Marley’s Redemption for our playlists. Killer Mike, Public Enemy, Nina Simone, and Ahn Chi Hwan also made our play list.
–Avatars. I believe strongly that students have a right to privacy and should not be forced to turn on their cameras during class time if they do not wish. At the same time, it is darn hard being serious and sensitive and meaningful while looking at a bunch of uniform black squares with white block lettering. Last week, when I addressed a youth group, I got around this blank screen by asking everyone who did not feel comfortable being on camera to take five minutes to post an image of “themselves”–it could be an actual photo of themselves or a photo of something meaningful and representative of them. It was so fun that several people who had been on camera (and went back to being on camera later) also posted avatars of themselves. They could also rename themselves if they wished. They could be funny or serious. I asked them to find strong, powerful images, not fearful ones. It worked beautifully–creative, inspiring, bold, intimate (and private).
–Evoke History. If it is relevant to your class, you might try what a colleague is doing today: teach Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech–a speech that addresses structural violence and institutional racism in another context that will help students understand what is happening now in this country. Or it would be a useful time to talk about McCarthyism, given that the Executive Order President Trump penned immediately before election was directly aimed at education and called for “patriotic history.” Give students context for that now, in this anxious time. Or make it a research assignment if relevant.
–What have you come up with? We’d love to hear from you.
The point: engaging the anxieties our students bring into our classroom is tricky. Not everyone is traumatized equally–and we are profs, not therapists. But some acknowledgment that there are human issues at the heart of all learning, all education, is crucial. Your intervention does not have to be long, or invasive, or creepy. Just meaningful. Sincere. Human. Admit that you are shaken too. That, alone, goes a long way.