If you decide to engage your students in group conversation about the election, we provide some guidelines and recommendations for structure and content.
Clarify your goals as an instructor.
Clear goals allow us to make informed pedagogical and curricular decisions. Are you interested in supporting your students’ well-being by creating a sense of community in the classroom? Do you want to encourage students to reflect on and share their different perspectives on specific issues or policies? Is your goal to engage with the election as a way to connect with your course material?
Communicate your goals clearly.
Let students know your purpose in opening up this conversation. This alleviates confusion, generates enthusiasm, and helps students know why they are engaging in a potentially uncomfortable topic.
Set expectations for communication.
We recommend creating shared understanding for how the group is expected to communicate. If your class already has guidelines for conversation, this is a great opportunity to revisit them. In IDP, we begin sessions with a brief overview of community agreements to set both boundaries and aspirations for our communication. IDP’s Community Agreements handout lists the ones we frequently use. Some community agreements that can support candid, meaningful conversations include:
- Use “I” Statements: Speaking about our own experiences helps us connect with and learn from each other. Using “I” statements like “I think,” “I feel,” and “I believe,” helps us to avoid making generalizations and can alleviate the pressure to speak on behalf of an entire group one belongs to.
- Make space, take space: For some students, this agreement means pushing themselves to speak up (even if they feel a little nervous doing so), and for others, it means working more on active listening and holding back some contributions in order to make space for other participants to share. As the instructor, you can directly support equitable sharing by providing structure around conversation and encouraging quieter voices to be heard.
- Accept that things may remain unresolved: Your conversation will not be long enough to capture the entirety of students’ many experiences/opinions related to the election. Hopefully, students will feel empowered to continue exploring these themes after your conversation.
- Acknowledge judgments and assumptions, including your own: Students will enter the conversation with different perspectives and experiences, which underlie their views. The issues you surface around the election may be very personal and have tangible impacts for some students, while they may feel distant for others. For example, a discussion on different COVID-19 response plans may spark curiosity around policy interventions for some students and may remind others of the relatives they recently lost.
- Challenge the idea, not the person: In the context of our divisive and volatile political climate, strong emotions often lead people to blame and judge those with different perspectives. Instead, open up opportunities for connection, understanding, and critical inquiry by encouraging students to engage with ideas they disagree with and ground their position in their own perspectives, opinions, and experiences.
- Trust intent & name impact: In an open conversation about the election, students may say things which offend one another. These can be learning moments, so long as there is room to address the impact of what was said while also trusting the intent expressed by the speaker.
Provide a structure for the conversation which supports your goals.
Give yourself the time you need.
Meaningful conversation takes time and group trust. Make sure to plan enough time in your session to accomplish your goals. When deciding how long a conversation will take, factor in the group size, how long you anticipate each participant to speak for, and how structured or open you plan to have the conversation.
Consider group size.
We find that small groups encourage more openness and vulnerability. They also serve the practical purpose of allowing students to each have a chance to participate in a shorter amount of time.
- If your class is already small (<15 students) and has worked to build a sense of community, then you may want to keep the entire group together for much of the duration of your conversation on the election.
- In a medium-sized or lecture-style class, it becomes more difficult for all students to meaningfully share their perspectives in a single conversation. The challenge of facilitating engagement is exacerbated if your class doesn’t have an established history of engaging in open conversation.
- One possible solution is to hold parts of the conversation in breakout rooms. If your course already breaks into smaller groups where students have been interacting (e.g. project groups), that may work better than random breakouts.
- Though there are many benefits to breakout rooms, students in a lecture class who don’t know each other might find it difficult to talk about something so personal. If your course did not previously include opportunities for students to engage in smaller groups, we recommend thinking of alternatives to breakout rooms in getting students to engage with the election.
Structure & Content
Is your goal to support student well-being by creating a sense of community?
Provide an opportunity for students to share their initial emotions and reactions.
We give an example 3-step scaffolded process for this below:
Step 1. Allocate 5-10 minutes to reflect individually, in writing. Suggestions for reflection prompts:
- What are your initial reactions (feelings and thoughts) about the U.S. election right now?
- How do your past experiences impact the way you feel about the U.S. election right now?
- What issues connected to the U.S. election are most important to you? How do you feel about these issues? How do your past experiences or identities impact which issues you feel most connected to?
Step 2. Divide the class into small groups of 3-4 participants, and ask them to share something related to the previous prompt.
- You could choose to have them share what they wrote, or narrow in the scope by asking students to select one example to share.
- We encourage you to let students know that they have agency over what they share, and they do not have to share with the group everything they wrote.
Step 3. In the large group, ask students to share again, still relating to the prompt. This time, you can again surface specific examples students wrote about. You can also ask questions about what patterns and trends students noticed, what stood out to them, how it felt for them to share in the small groups, or what they learned from hearing their peers’ perspectives.
- You can help students draw connections and find opportunities to push the conversation forward into deeper questioning.
- In framing this large-group conversation, it is important to remind students to not share the specifics of someone else’s story to the large group.
- If teaching virtually, you can leverage Zoom functions like chat and polling features to quickly surface and share many different perspectives. If this is done in the large group, you as the instructor can then identify patterns or observations.
Create a space of curiosity rather than judgment.
As an instructor, actively validate different perspectives. Some students will not want to talk about some of their feelings for different reasons, and that is okay. We recommend modeling the vulnerability you want to see from your students, while also letting them know that your reaction is not the only “right” one. Invite different reactions, even if most students seem to feel similarly.
Is your goal to encourage students to share their different perspectives on specific issues or policy points related to the election?
Create boundaries around the conversation.
There are many important topics connected with the election. To have a meaningful conversation, it is best to articulate a frame of focus for students and allow students to share their own feelings, experiences, and perspectives within that focus. The University of Michigan’s “Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-Stakes Topics”, provides general guidance on discussing difficult and high-stakes topics with students. It provides advice on both spontaneous and planned conversations.
Create opportunities for common ground.
While some students may enter the conversation firmly set in their view with many opinions, others might be new to the topic and unwilling to expose their ignorance. You can make the conversation more accessible and encourage active participation by grounding it in specific content. You might share an article or video ahead of class for students to draw from, or otherwise provide some context to the topic of conversation. Courses in Intergroup Dialogue often challenge students to find common ground when speaking about divisive issues, so educators in the field have compiled a list of activities that have worked for them. Pages 97-101 of Intergroup Dialogue in Higher Education, a much longer introduction to intergroup dialogue, list some activities that may be helpful.
Is your goal to engage with the election as a way to connect with your course material?
Here, we defer to your expertise! You know best how to connect your content with the election. We have also included some resources for more sustained course engagement with the election.