How to Be Political in Class

September 21, 2017

Because I regularly write about teaching, my colleagues often ask for my opinion on tricky pedagogical issues. Perhaps no issue is trickier than how and whether instructors should deal with politics in the classroom.

Clearly it’s a fraught subject — I’m asked about it a lot. Should we disclose our political beliefs in class? Should we avoid talking about political subjects altogether?

Of course one reason this subject feels particularly difficult right now is our political climate. A few state legislatures have recently considered bills that would ensure "partisan balance" in the faculty of public universities. There have been a series of political skirmishes centered on campuses, pitting safe spaces against freedom of speech. A recent survey showed that Americans are sharply divided — by party identification — on the value of higher education. This is not even to mention the infamous white-supremacist rally on the campus of the University of Virginia.

There aren’t easy answers to the question of how to deal with sensitive political material in the classroom. But I’ve tried to work out what I think, with the assistance of my colleague Ben Hassman, a lecturer in rhetoric at the University of Iowa, who helped me clarify many of the thoughts herein. With the caveat that this is inevitably incomplete and probably unsatisfactory, here’s my attempt at establishing some principles on the matter.

It is clear to me that, as instructors, we should seek to avoid unduly influencing our students’ political beliefs. I see two main reasons for this:

  • First, we want to avoid the unethical use of our authority, which derives from our power to evaluate and grade our students. To use that power to inculcate our students with our political views would be wrong.
  • Second, it’s not our job to change our students’ beliefs. We’re here to teach — that is, to try to help our students develop — not to rally students to our favorite causes, no matter how righteous.

The question then becomes: Are we able to express our political beliefs while staying within the bounds of that teaching mission?

There’s a bad-faith argument on the right that suggests that any discussion of a politically sensitive topic in a college class taught by a (presumably left-wing) professor will inevitably be a form of indoctrination. They tend to see the mere consideration of certain topics in class as "ideological" — i.e., that a course discussing feminism is inevitably left-wing, and will punish those with right-wing views. Conservative critics seem to suggest that the ideal is a completely apolitical professor — a human Scantron machine with no views at all.

I think we can comfortably reject their argument. Such reasoning leaves no room for politically sensitive material to ever be included by a professor with any political leanings. At a certain point, we need to embrace our mission as educators and simply state that seeking to help every one of our students develop as critically minded independent thinkers is our goal. Other people defining the teaching of certain topics as "ideological" cannot be something that pulls us away from our mission.

If we accept that there’s a danger that the political views of faculty members might influence their role as evaluators and/or deform the educational mission, the answer cannot be to ignore that potential problem and hope it goes away. We can’t pretend that we have no politics whatsoever. Nor can the answer be to completely ignore politically sensitive topics.

Rather, it’s best if we are as transparent with our students as we can be, banishing the fiction of the completely objective robot prof. Make clear to students: We have beliefs, we are real people, but we will do our best to be as objective as possible and evaluate you as fairly as possible.

When politically sensitive subjects come up in the classroom, instructors should disclose their views to students. But when making such disclosures, we need to keep in mind the two-pronged danger I sketched above and give a disclaimer, explicitly promising students that we will work to ensure that our political beliefs do not influence our evaluation of their progress in the course. In fact, we should make clear that a student’s progress is not something that has to do with the student arriving at the "correct" beliefs.

In my own classroom, I actually state these disclaimers at the beginning of the term — to pave the way for some of the discussions we will have during the course. I use that moment to emphasize that I won’t be judging their beliefs in any way.

Even when it comes with a disclaimer, the disclosure of your views in class can influence students. Some may want to curry favor with you, and may feel that the best way to do that is to say something that you’ll agree with. Given that reality, perhaps it is best to let students know that you won’t express your own view yet on the issue under discussion because you want them to debate it on their own. Tell students you want them to work out what they think about the subject, and you don’t want to push things in one direction or the other.

When you do finally share your opinion, strive to come across as an equal participant of the discussion, rather than as their superior, telling them the correct way of things. What you want to avoid, always, is the impression that their grades will hinge on whether you agree with their beliefs or not.

So yes, there is a danger — both ethical and pedagogical — in disclosing our political beliefs in the classroom. But we cannot let fear of that danger keep us from raising politically sensitive topics or material. It’s important for higher education to remain a space in which students can explore a wide variety of issues and viewpoints, and develop as critical thinkers and engaged citizens. The best way to ensure that it remains such a space is not to pretend that you have no views, but to emphasize that those views will not get in the way of your mission as an educator committed to helping your students however you can.

David Gooblar is a lecturer in the rhetoric department at the University of Iowa. He writes a column on teaching for The Chronicle and runs Pedagogy Unbound, a website for college instructors who share teaching strategies. To find more advice on teaching, browse his previous columns here.