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At the Sheridan Center, we anticipate that many instructors are wondering about how to facilitate classes adjacent to the U.S. election. Below, we offer several possibilities for addressing the topic or acknowledging the emotions that many members of the Brown community may be facing at this time. We acknowledge the multiplicity of crises facing our campus community but also suggest that it is helpful to pause to intentionally think through a plan for teaching pre- and post-election class sessions. Similarly, instructors may wish to encourage their students to develop a plan for how they will handle election results, thinking through multiple contingencies (Case, 2020).
Signaling your concern for students
Generally, research suggests that students find useful instructors' efforts to acknowledge issues of deep campus concern. One study of instructional responses after large-scale emotional events found that the vast majority of students found it helpful when an instructor noted that the class would proceed, but if students were too distressed to process the material, the class would offer other opportunities for review in the future (Huston & DiPietro, 2007). A brief non-partisan acknowledgement of your concern for students' well-being during difficult emotional times can signal your care for students while also addressing the need to focus class time on key course objectives. A sample statement might be something like the following:
I understand that this is likely a challenging day to be thinking about [subject]. I also imagine that by being here today, like me, you find some reassurance in observing this moment as a community. In a minute, I will turn to the topic in the syllabus, but I do understand that it may be difficult to focus, and so I will both record the session and be available later this week in office hours to support your learning and well-being.
Instructors can also invite students to write a brief minute paper with prompts, such as inviting them to reaffirm their own key values or to link observed dynamics to course content. Writing to Learn in Times of Change offers several ideas for how to structure in- and out-of-class writing.
Holding a discussion soon
Depending on the learning objectives of your class, a discussion of the election can benefit student learning, engagement and well-being -- and help you address course material in a highly relevant way. However, thinking intentionally about a controversial discussion is important to avoid some common pitfalls, which psychologist Derald Sue (2013) summarizes as silencing, abruptly cutting off dialogue, and allowing the discussion to develop in unproductive and potentially harmful ways. If you choose to have a discussion during class, planning the contours of the discussion and anticipating hot moments are important considerations.
Sheridan resources for planning the discussion include Sheridan Center posts on facilitating controversial discussions and fostering equitable classroom participation. Although a heated verbal exchange is the most popular image of a controversial discussion, silence is another common outcome (Sue, 2013). For discussions that seem stalled or superficial, Helen Fox (2009) recommends having students write on an index card, "One thing I've been reluctant to say....," which serves as a prompt for follow-up discussion. Written, or silent, discussions can also be effectively employed for online and hybrid contexts.
Staging a discussion for later
A third possibility is to combine both of the approaches above by engaging in a brief acknowledgement in the immediate week but postponing decisions about a discussion until later. This approach may be preferable if you are processing your own emotional response, if you want more time to think through an approach, or if students raise the topic in ways that you had not anticipated. In the latter case, instructors can recognize the importance of the topic, indicate that taking more time to think about it would be helpful , and, if applicable, that they may plan to revisit it in later class sessions.
Staff at the Sheridan Center are also available to plan or debrief pre- and post-election classroom discussions: [email protected].
Case, K. (2020). Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence Newsletter: 2020 Election Edition.
Fox, H. (2004). "When race breaks out": Conversations about race and racism in college classrooms. New York: Peter Lang.
Huston, T.A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of a storm. To Improve the Academy, 25: 207-224.
Sue, D .W. (2013, November). Race talk: The psychology of racial dialogues. American Psychologist: 663-672.