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Classroom Strategies in a Tense Political Environment

September 28, 2018 | Mark Crescenzi, Chair, Department of Political Science
Mark Crescenzi
Mark Crescenzi, Ph.D, Professor and Chair of the UNC Department of Political Science

Silent Sam. Supreme Court Nominations. A Russian plane shot down by the Syrian government and the Russians are mad at Israel. At every level, there have been no shortage of heated political issues surrounding our students. As a scholar of peace and conflict in global politics, I have never shied away from teaching uncomfortable material in the classroom. But with the midterm elections around the corner and no end in sight to intense partisan debate, how can we as teachers give our students the opportunity to process this tension without getting sidetracked?

I first encountered the challenge of discussing controversial politics early in my career. I was teaching my Defense and National Security class when the planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. I still remember my pager (yes…pager!) going off repeatedly as the news spread. I had no idea how to handle the situation, to be honest, and as that semester limped along I remember feeling like I had to find ways to help the students process the trauma. I also remember feeling like I was doing a terrible job of it. I’ve spent the last seventeen years trying to find ways to talk about difficult and divisive issues without harming the most important quality of the classroom: a safe learning environment.

Classroom strategies need to fit the instructor’s personality, so your mileage may vary. With that caveat in mind, here are a few of the ways in which I encourage and facilitate the discussion of difficult topics in my classroom. These strategies are based on the premise that some of the students want to talk, some of the students do not, and none of the students want to spend the whole class debating politics in lieu of learning the material on the syllabus. Rule number one is to make sure the politics of the moment do not impede the learning goals of the course.

Rules of Engagement

Early in the semester the first thing I do is to ask the students for rules of engagement. What sort of topics are OK, and what should be off-limits? Invariably the students plea for civility. No matter how sensitive the topic, the students want to avoid personal attacks and polemic stances. In other words, they want to preserve a safe learning environment. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, the goal of the ground rules discussion isn’t really the rules themselves. The goal is to convey to the students that they have a say in how we will engage with current events, and that they have a responsibility to distinguish between ideas and the people to express them.

I have one other goal in this initial ground rules discussion: rules for me. What’s going on here is a bit of a social contract between the me and the students. I ask them to check their ideologies at the door, and promise to do the same. I state explicitly that I am not there to tell them what to think, but instead to teach them how to think analytically. If I do my job correctly this semester, for example, they should be uncertain about how I will vote in the upcoming midterm election. I think we all recognize that this goal is a bit naïve, in that it is never really possible to maintain that level of objectivity. But here I think it is the intent that matters. Simply put, the students have just spent their entire lives being told what to think and do, and what they really want is the space to learn how to make their own decisions.

This initial discussion is usually enough to open up a few questions about current issues in the early moments of class, but not sufficient to get most of the students to engage in tricky discussions. So the second strategy is to model the kind of behavior I’m looking for from the students. I stick to the facts, ask a lot of questions, and give the students the chance to demonstrate what they know about the situation. Even partisan issues can have common ground with respect to the problem at hand, and I focus on those commonalities. I allow the students to try out new ideas and arguments without fear of being ridiculed or judged. Over time, we build a sense of community.

The Tools to Understand 

My favorite strategy, however, is to use these discussions as opportunities to talk about research. Divisive issues always seem so unique and emotional in the moment, but the truth is that most issues can be better understood within the context of patterns of behavior structured by institutions and norms. The other day, for example, a few students were wondering why a third party has not emerged in the United States. I used the conversation to teach the students about Duverger’s Law, which tells us that “first past the post” systems with single-member districts like ours quickly drive out third parties, while proportional representation systems like those found in Europe are more amenable to multiple parties. Similarly, flare-ups in the Syrian Civil War lead to discussions about the research Stephen Gent has done here at Carolina about how interventions affect civil wars. Labor and human rights crises lead to conversations about the work done by Layna Mosley (also here at Carolina) and the race to the bottom of labor standards. And don’t get me started about reputation! I could talk about reputations in world politics all day long.

If you put these strategies together, something magical happens. The students get a chance to sort out their views on current issues without someone telling them what to think. We give them tools to help understand the way the world works, and trust that they will use those tools as adults. We show them how research shapes and reshapes these tools, and they discover that they are privy to some of the most interesting and cutting edge research in the world. So far, this approach has been deeply rewarding for me, and as I hear from former students over the years and the great things they are doing I feel confident that these strategies have been an important part of an effective teaching strategy.