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Our teaching-and-learning experts give you insights on what works in the classroom. Delivered on Thursdays. Teaching is written by Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano. We love hearing from readers, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly. You can also read more articles about teaching and learning.

From: Beth McMurtrie

Subject: Teaching: Can Colleges Prepare Students for the Election and Its Aftermath?

This week:

  • I talk to two professors about why colleges may be unprepared to handle students' concerns around the election.
  • I point you to some resources around teaching about the election.
  • I share some articles and ideas on teaching you may have missed.

Politics, Pandemics, and Zoom

It’s mid-semester and many professors and students feel as if they’re at their breaking point. Zoom fatigue, social isolation, remote education, and exponentially larger workloads are hitting everyone hard.

So how does perhaps the most significant presidential election in our lifetimes fit into campus life? Not easily, say two professors who have been watching, and worrying, whether colleges are doing enough to help students understand the issues underlying this election and handle its aftermath.

Samuel Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College, and Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, say that it’s a critically important time for colleges to create spaces in which students can talk to faculty members and others on campus about the election.

Abrams and Suri have written several opinion pieces about student-voter enthusiasm, noting that young people could be a decisive force in the election. Yet that enthusiasm could be at risk if colleges can’t provide constructive events for students' questions and concerns. And the two say they aren’t seeing enough activity.

It’s problematic, yet understandable. How do you hold, for example, a nuanced conversation on Zoom about the inherent tensions between the First Amendment and extensive disinformation campaigns? Who is willing to speak frankly among people they may have never met in person about racism, voter suppression, and possible post-election protests? And can a distanced learning environment really allow for open conversation when everything is being recorded and you might not know where it will land?

Holding such discussions within a class is hard enough; holding a campuswide conversation is even harder. “Schools are stretched so much with remote learning,” says Abrams, “that there is very little planning on what to do on a mass level” beyond classroom conversations.

Yet this is exactly when college students need the kind of perspective that faculty members can offer. Suri, who holds an appointment in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, says that government, history, and political-science professors could speak about past elections to show that the country has lived through such tumult before. “We have this mythical view that elections are clean things and everyone accepts the results,” he says, “and that’s not true.”

On his own campus, he notes, events that focus on politics have largely stuck to traditional topics. Peter Baker and Susan Glasser were recently invited to speak about their new book on James A. Baker III, for example. But what students really want to discuss are issues like political misbehavior, law-breaking, escalating violence, and claims of voter fraud — and their effect on the election. “The real lacuna is outside the classroom,” he says. “Teach-ins and public discussion.”

The two offered several ideas to foster conversation. Abrams suggests tapping into the extensive apparatus of residence life, in which staff members and students who are trained to facilitate discussions could organize virtual get-togethers, inviting faculty members to join as experts. Suri suggests scheduling informal Zoom “happy hours” (sans alcohol) on the general topic of the election to allow for open discussion and Q&A. He also suggests scheduling a short webinar discussion with someone who has worked on a prior presidential transition.

Holding events in which students and professors can have broad-ranging conversations could give students a sense of agency, the two professors say. “They need to talk about this stuff because they don’t know the path forward, the history, what works and what doesn’t,” says Suri. “If you’re young, there’s this sense that this is apocalyptic.” Their concerns also tie into broader conversations that campuses have been having around racial justice and policing, he says.

Abrams says he’s seen a significant increase in mental-health challenges among his students, which he connects to a sense of political disengagement that he finds troubling. A number of his students said they didn’t even plan to vote. (Both UT Austin and Sarah Lawrence have been operating mostly remotely this semester.)

To counter those feelings of hopelessness, he says, will take the combined work of mental-health experts and professors who can help guide students through these complicated issues and place them into historical context. “But that takes a lot of coordination and a lot of work,” he says. “And it’s very hard to do when the human touch is important.”

Suri echoes that concern and encourages colleges to sponsor events in which people can talk about the events surrounding the presidential campaign, pulling in faculty members, student affairs, and other parts of the campus. “Part of the story would be, our elections have been very messy for a long time. Let’s understand how our moment fits in.”

Has your college held discussions with students about the election in a way that you consider helpful? Or is your campus planning any events following the election? If so, write to me at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com and your story may appear in a future newsletter.

Resources on Teaching About the Election

If you’re looking to address the election on your own campus, here are some resources you might find useful:

The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching and the Edward Ginsberg Center at the University of Michigan have put together a guide for faculty members, Preparing to Teach About the 2020 Election and After.

Debra Mashek, former executive director of the Heterodox Academy, wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed on how colleges can avoid post-election student unrest.

Princeton University is co-sponsoring a virtual event on November 20, The 2020 Elections: What Happened and Why?

ICYMI

  • In the second in a series of essays on distraction for The Chronicle, James M. Lang, an English professor and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, shares three strategies to gain students’ attention.
  • Beckie and I have been asking faculty members to share their stories on teaching during the pandemic. If you want to tell us what it’s been like for you, please fill out our Google form. We have been reading all the entries, so thank you!
  • Our Chronicle colleague Alex Kafka reports on how the pandemic and racial turmoil are reshaping college curricula.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

-Beth

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.

Beth McMurtrie is a senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where she writes about the future of learning and technology’s influence on teaching. In addition to her reported stories, she helps write the weekly Teaching newsletter about what works in and around the classroom. Email her at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and follow her on Twitter @bethmcmurtrie.