An expanded version of this article is available on our website, including sample language to use with your students.
2020 has been a stressful year for everyone in the IU community, and the upcoming presidential election is adding yet another layer of tension to a year that has seen a major health crisis, an economic downturn, conflicts over racial injustice, and an upending of lives and educations. This election carries high stakes for many of our students, and coupled with the other challenges 2020 has brought, it is impacting their emotional well-being and performance in our classes. In 2016, many instructors were not ready for the impact of the election outcomes on our students’ lives, and so we hope to better prepare ourselves and our students for dealing with this election season and its aftermath, no matter our political ideologies or the outcome of the election. We offer the following suggestions in hopes they can help you better prepare to support your students; more details on each one are available on the full page.
Research on reactions of students to the 9/11 terrorist attacks clearly indicates that they want their instructors to acknowledge stressful or tragic events, even if it isn’t within the purview of the course’s content (DiPietro, 2003). Addressing tension around the election or its results can help students, whether you take time for a discussion or simply acknowledge the challenges some students may be facing. Just don’t discount or ignore a situation that might significantly impact students; the research says they notice, and it influences their opinions of the course and instructor, which in turn can impact their success in your course and beyond.
Communicate You Care
Whether or not your subject area has anything to do with politics or key election issues, and even if you don’t normally build close relationships with your students, it is important that you express that you care about them and their success. And, yes, you can do that without opening your class to politically-charged discussions or becoming an ad hoc counselor for your students. Here is some sample language to use in a video message to your students–live or recorded:
I recognize that there has been a lot of tension around the election for many of you, on top of all the other stressors of COVID-19. I know this has all had an impact on me, too, sometimes making it hard to focus on my work. If you are struggling with issues around the election, please seek out help and support—whether that is from friends or professionals at CAPS. And please talk to me if you are struggling with your work in this course. I want to make sure you succeed, especially in a stressful time like this.
Think about Timing and Deadlines
Take a quick look at your syllabus now and change any big deadlines scheduled during the week of the election. Tests and assignments due that week simply will not get the attention they deserve. If you teach live classes, you might plan to record lectures that week, knowing students may be preoccupied during live class meetings.
Rely on Disciplinary Connections
Be ready to talk about the election and its implications from your disciplinary perspectives—whether that involves an overt connection to election issues, potential impacts a candidate’s policies might have on your field of study, or the promotion of effective argumentation and analysis. Not only does this disciplinary connection make discussion of political issues more relevant and appropriate in your classes, but it also provides students with frameworks for discussing complex and sometimes emotional issues. Be certain that you acknowledge the diversity of perspectives within your discipline, so students can see the complexity of issues and approaches.
Some students have a lot at stake in this election, feeling that national debates spotlight their social identities and may even put them at risk: Latinx students who feel targeted by immigration policies and the use of stereotype to describe their communities, Black students who feel threatened by racist groups that feel emboldened in the current political climate, or conservative students who feel they cannot express their opinions without being attacked or shunned by classmates. Vulnerabilities may be heightened online as anonymity and distance can depersonalize communication and embolden people to say more harmful things online. Be aware of these vulnerabilities when you have class discussions, knowing that students may feel uncomfortable engaging in conversations or other activities.
Communicate How Participation Impacts your Grading
Students may be hesitant to share their views because they may perceive risks related to grading. In short, they may fear your grading of them may be biased if you hold opposing viewpoints. Be clear about how any election-related discussion or activity will (or will not) be graded, using clear criteria like rubrics for any graded assignments. And because some students from vulnerable populations may may be hesitant to speak up in class, avoid grading participation, and be ready to offer alternate assignments for those students who feel at risk in your classroom.
Lay Some Ground Rules
Part of any sensitive class discussion involves setting ground rules for the conversation, which are even more productive if they are generated and agreed to by the group. Also pay attention to the longer-term stability of the learning community. For a situation like the election—particularly preparing for post-election tensions—it might be useful to roll out the old “golden rule”: If your preferred candidate loses, how do you want supporters of the winning candidate to treat you? How can you apply those principles to your treatment of others should your candidate win? How can we commit to moving forward as classmates and co-learners in this class or major?
Prepare for Class Discussions
There are many ways we can manage difficult classroom discussions—conversations on those “hot” topics which may be important to have, but which can cause discomfort in our students or which have a higher risk of becoming uncivil. The three broad catagories to consider include:
- Preparing for discussions: Establish clear goals, provide pre-discussion activities to shape the conversation, establish discussion guidelines, and be open with students about the challenges ahead.
- During class: Provide frameworks and guiding questions for the discussion, actively manage or moderate discussions, pause for structured reflection if tensions rise, and be ready to confront inappropriate language.
- Following up: Synthesize the discussion to demonstrate value, reflect on the conversation’s dynamics, and share relevant support resources on campus for students who need them.
For a detailed exploration of this topic, see our Managing Difficult Classroom Discussions page.
Provide Students with Resources
As part of supporting students whose stress levels may increase to the point of crisis, make sure they know of resources that are available to them. Consider pointing to resources as part of your larger messaging about stress surrounding the election, and work to normalize it.
- Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
- Know a student or classmate in crisis? Fill out an anonymous Care Referral and someone will reach out to them.
It is important that you take care of yourself, too, recognizing you are not immune to stressors of this election… and the rest of 2020. Consider adjusting your own workload around the election, both in your classes and your other work; you may not be ready to grade lots of papers or participate in multiple Zoom meetings the day after the election… no matter how it goes.
To learn more, explore these resources:
- Managing Difficult Classroom Discussions (IUB CITL)
- Making Educational Use of Difficult Moments (IUB CITL blog post)
- Teaching and the Election (University of Oregon)
- Preparing to Teach About the 2020 Election (and After) (University of Michigan)
- Talking about Elections in your Classroom (The Campus Election Engagement Project)
- Big Ten Voting Challenge (IUB Political and Civic Engagement—PACE)
As always, if you want to talk more about these and other teaching strategies, you can contact the CITL to meet with one of our instructional consultants.