This guide was prepared in advance of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Although it refers specifically to this election, we believe the content here is applicable to many conversations people may wish to engage in surrounding politics. We hope people continue to find useful ideas, questions, and suggestions in this guide.
The 2020 U.S. election is one that will impact all members of our community for at least the next four years. The strong emotions and memories from 2016 make addressing this election in classrooms, mentoring/advising conversations, and other educational spaces both more urgent and more difficult than before. The polarization of political discourse has also made it even more challenging to talk about the election, which makes acknowledging our own assumptions crucial. For this reason, the staff at IDP have put together a list of best practices that have worked for us when discussing emotionally heavy topics that impact differently across social identity groups.
For many, the 2020 U.S. election also feels like a referendum on so many critical socio-political issues, such as health care, free speech, racial justice, climate change, gun control, immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, religious freedom, gerrymandering, minimum wage, etc. Research on any one of these issues reveals the complex effects of specific policies on particular groups in our society and helps us understand how the results of this election will reverberate in different ways across our country’s diverse populations.
We recognize that many staff and faculty, because of their expertise or experience, already have a plan for bringing up and discussing the election with students. While we hope those faculty/staff will find at least parts of this guide useful, this guide is primarily written for staff/faculty who are unsure how to mention or discuss the election with their students. We also intend this guide to be helpful in case a student unexpectedly brings up the election. In our attempt to create guidelines for a wide audience, we also recognize that considerable adaptation will be required to suit any particular group of students or discipline.
- Brief Remarks for Your Group
- One-on-One Conversation
- Group Conversation
- Additional Resources
Self Assessment & Preparation
Before engaging with your students about the 2020 U.S. Election…
Read up on the election and the issues surrounding it.
We imagine many faculty and staff are doing this already. We encourage reading both news articles and personal pieces, such as op-eds or firsthand accounts. Reading personal pieces will help you better understand the emotional responses of your students. The goal of this reading isn’t to become an expert on these issues but to be working with awareness of them.
Consider the range of experiences that inform students’ positions on the issues.
Do not assume that all your students hold the same political views as you or each other. Students hold backgrounds and life experiences that are very different from ours. Because they are learning about themselves, others, and the world around them, students’ views and values are changing. The increasingly polarized conversation about U.S. political issues may also push students to outwardly retrench in inherited views that they may be internally questioning.
Research how the stakes of the election are different for marginalized groups.
As we expressed earlier, the election will impact students unevenly, and it is important to be aware of this for your particular group of students. For example, if you mentor/teach/advise international students, you may want to search for information on the proposed restrictions on F-1 visas. If you work with Black students, Indigenous students, and other students of color, we recommend searching for materials about the impact of the election on communities of color, as well as about racism in the context of the 2020 election. Your students may know more about some of these issues than you do, and we encourage you to be open to learning from them.
Consider the range of students’ opinions about the electoral process itself.
If you are reading this guide, it is likely because voting is important to you. Some students may not hold the same view, and there are reasons for not wanting to vote besides apathy and laziness. They may have lost faith in the electoral process because of our current socio-political reality, their experiences in countries where elections have lost legitimacy, or a history of their communities’ voters being actively suppressed. If you disagree with students who do not want to vote, you should express why you disagree with them. But, we ask that you do so compassionately.
Think about your own power as an educator.
As an advisor or course instructor, your words and your opinion hold much weight with students, so it is important to think carefully about what you will say and how you will say it. Students, especially during the pandemic, will likely appreciate an advisor/instructor acknowledging that national events can have profound impact on academic work. An instructor/advisor’s willingness to talk about the election can also underscore the importance of civic engagement.
Prepare effective questions.
One strong, clear, open-ended question with a well-defined focus can ignite an entire conversation. Clarifying questions can further the conversation by asking students to elaborate upon vague descriptors (e.g. “interesting”) and reflect on how an incident made them feel. When preparing questions, consider the way they will build upon one another. We also encourage the use of strategic questioning, a communication tool used by IDP to give students the agency to collaboratively examine an issue from multiple perspectives. IDP’s Strategic Questioning Handout provides an overview of some strategic question categories and lays out many different kinds of questions you could ask. We recommend focusing on first-level questions for in-class conversations about the election.
Assess your own readiness to tackle this topic with your students.
Do you feel equipped to lead a conversation with students on the election? Or, would you be more comfortable talking to students one-on-one if they need it? Are you working with students in settings/spaces that allow openness and vulnerability, such as an advising relationship or a small seminar? Do you feel comfortable responding to student needs when reflecting on these issues? We imagine that some staff/faculty will want to mention the election and its importance to students (e.g. in a large lecture class or event) while others will want to engage in a group or one-on-one conversations. The rest of this guide provides some guidance on both kinds of interventions.
A brief note on graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants & peer mentors.
Some teaching assistants (TAs) and peer mentors will be eager to engage their students about the election. Others will not be, and we recommend talking with your TAs and peer mentors to see where they are. Be especially open and understanding, since many TAs or peer mentors may not want to admit that they feel unequipped for any task from a supervisor. If you decide to have TAs or peer mentors address the election, we recommend that you provide resources for them to read up on the election and help them craft their plans to engage in this conversation. Do not require them to do any more than you would also be comfortable doing. For TAs, we also strongly recommend that the instructor bring up the election in class before the TAs do so in discussion sections.
Brief Remarks for your Group
If you decide to bring up the election without opening a conversation with students about it (e.g. in a large lecture or event), here are some guidelines:
Acknowledge and emphasize the following:
- The 2020 U.S. election has real stakes, and it is understandable to feel many different kinds of emotions because of that.
- The election will have uneven impacts on different populations in this country. Some people have more at stake than others, including many people who cannot vote.
- People hold different views about political and social issues, and our democracy is built on our capacity to communicate, collaborate, and live across differences.
- Voting is an important form of civic engagement. You can explain why you think those who can vote must do so.
Talk about one or two concrete ways the election has been impacting you. What kind of emotions are you feeling? What issues are you most worried about? How has the prospect of the election affected your day-to-day routines?
Offer resources for students if they want to talk to someone about the election.
- If you feel comfortable discussing the election with students one-on-one, offer time in office hours or another set time where you will be available.
- Mention the importance of sharing thoughts and emotions with friends, as well as the profound role of communities in times of social and political distress.
- Mention that students can also reach out to their advisor, resource center staff, and their residential staff. If they want the guidance of a mental health professional, they can turn to Counseling & Psychological Services at Cornell Health.
- If you have a small enough class or advising group and want to gauge how students are feeling about the election, you can ask students to complete a reflection assignment. These should be short or in class so as not to burden students.
- If you collect assignments from students, it is crucial that you respond to them in a substantial way.
If you decide that you want to speak with your students about the election one-on-one (e.g. in office hours or an advising meeting), here are some guidelines:
Meet students where they are.
Try to understand what the student feels, thinks, and needs, as well as what informs their emotions and perceptions. It is especially important for faculty and staff to actively listen, withhold judgement, and encourage dialogue about areas of agreement and disagreement.
Allow the student opportunity to break silence.
Because staff and faculty are authority figures, students sometimes pause in thought to defer to the opinion of “the professional”. Waiting through the pauses often gives space for students to share more details or better articulate their perspective.
Use the “LARA” Method when appropriate.
We find that use of this communication tool facilitates understanding and empathy when communicating across differences of perspective, opinion, or identity. It is especially helpful in high-stakes, emotional conversations and reminds us to commit to maintaining a relationship with the student before responding to what they have to say. We encourage you to adapt LARA to your conversational context — you do not need to proceed through steps in a regimented way.
Ask effective follow-up questions.
As we mentioned earlier, one strong, clear, open-ended question with a well-defined focus can ignite a conversation. For one-on-one conversations, we often find ourselves using clarifying questions to follow up on what a student has said. You can ask students to elaborate upon vague descriptors (e.g. “interesting”) or reflect on how an incident made them feel. We also encourage the use of strategic questioning, a communication tool used by IDP to give students the agency to collaboratively examine an issue from multiple perspectives. IDP’s Strategic Questioning Handout provides an overview of some strategic question categories, which lays out many different kinds of questions you could ask. First-level questions often make very effective clarifying questions.
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.
Resources Included in this Guide
Strategic questioning is a communication tool that gives students the agency to collaboratively examine an issue from multiple perspectives. This handout provides many different kinds of questions you could ask. We recommend focusing on first-level questions for in-class conversations about the election.
LARA is a communication tool that facilitates understanding and empathy when communicating across differences of perspective, opinion, or identity. It is especially helpful in high-stakes, emotional conversations and reminds us to commit to maintaining a relationship with the student before responding to what they have to say. We encourage you to adapt LARA to your conversational context — you do not need to proceed through steps in a regimented way.
Community agreements at the start of a conversation help set expectations on how a group will communicate. They set both boundaries and aspirations for the ways we’ll communicate with each other about any given topic. The ones we use most frequently are on this handout.
This website, developed by the University of Michigan, provides general guidance on discussing difficult and high-stakes topics with students. It provides advice on both spontaneous and planned conversations.
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 in this resource, a much longer introduction to intergroup dialogue, list some activities that may be helpful.
Excerpt from article: “We, then, must see our roles as cultural navigators who help students negotiate higher education successfully. We must see students as actors, agents of their own destiny in this cultural space. Students bring cultural wealth—not deficits—with them. Our job as cultural navigators is to see them as glasses or vessels partly full, not empty. We must help them with a cultural excavation of sorts by working together with them to dig deep into their cultural repertoires and identify the wealth they bring to campus and the ways to deploy it in this setting that may be decidedly new to them. That is what cultural navigators do.”
Theory Into Practice Strategies: Teaching and Learning Inclusive Practices for Managing Controversial Issues
This resource gives in-depth guidance on using controversy in classrooms effectively.
This resource on talking about the elections in classrooms is geared towards getting students to vote. If this is an explicit goal of yours, we recommend consulting this resource as well.
This resource gives concrete ideas for class activities that engage with the election.
This resource, developed by CTI, is also more general and geared towards any incident that can impact the classroom learning environment. Especially useful are the list of Cornell resources for students and faculty at the end.
A Note About IDP Guides
Members of the Cornell community are welcome and encouraged to use IDP Guides for educational purposes. This representation of IDP intellectual property is provided for noncommercial, educational use by the Cornell community only. Permission is required from IDP to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of our materials for commercial use. For information on reprint and linking permissions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cite this Guide:
- APA: Intergroup Dialogue Project. (2020, October). IDP Guide: Political Conversations. Intergroup Dialogue Project – Dialogue Across Difference. https://idp.cornell.edu/idp-guide-political-conversations/
- MLA: Intergroup Dialogue Project. “IDP Guide: Political Conversations.” Intergroup Dialogue Project – Dialogue Across Difference, Cornell University, October 2020, https://idp.cornell.edu/idp-guide-political-conversations/
- Chicago: Intergroup Dialogue Project, “IDP Guide: Political Conversations,” Intergroup Dialogue Project – Dialogue Across Difference, Cornell University, October 2020, https://idp.cornell.edu/idp-guide-political-conversations/