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

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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.

Acknowledgment: 

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.

I’ll cover the other two options in more depth in forthcoming blog posts, but, in brief:

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. 

These last two approaches in particular can be tricky. But these are precisely the techniques that we typically deploy in our classrooms, and this isn’t the first moment of social disruption or the first time faculty are seeking to constructively lead students in expressing or exploring deeply sensitive and controversial topics. Pedagogically, there are a number of specific tools and approaches that can help. We’ll follow up shortly with separate posts on concrete strategies for expressing (now posted: “Space for Student Expression”) and exploring potential difficulties that arise with this election (now posted: “Facilitating a Deeper Exploration”). We’re also working to curate tools suggested by others, and will make these available as well. In the meantime, we encourage you to think about flexibility in the context of your particular course and how you might acknowledge the difficulties we all face.

As you prepare to approach your courses with these ideas in mind, you can find more resources on our Election Resources page. And please also see our calendar of upcoming workshops and roundtables, which include “Safety Net Training, Part 2: Supporting Our Students in Challenging Times” and “Towards a Trauma-Informed Classroom: A Workshop & Discussion.” And always reach out to us at cndls@georgetown.edu if we can be of any further help.