By Dorothe Bach
The 2020 US presidential election has deepened old divides and opened new ones. The growing tensions have been further exacerbated by the heightened racial, economic and health inequities. Our students care about these issues and will be impacted by the results of this election regardless of which candidate they support. If you felt unprepared for the strong emotional reactions following the 2016 election, you are likely looking to the coming week with trepidation.
How are we going to teach and support our students while we are ourselves processing this critical historic moment that comes amid a multiplicity of crises? Planning for teaching classes right before and after the election is challenging and we recommend doing so in community with others. Effective ways for responding to the events in your classes range from naming the emotional impact of this moment, to helping students process their reactions through reflective writing, and discussing the issues within the context of your course content. Personal reflection on your level of skill, positionality, privilege, emotional capacity, and commitment to the community may help you and your colleagues make purposeful choices.
As you talk with your colleagues through your teaching plans, you may also want to discuss how your program, department, and/or school will leverage individual faculty members’ strengths effectively and equitably. You may want to strategize with colleagues about ways to ease the burden on faculty and graduate student instructors who typically provide a disproportionate amount of emotional labor and make plans for sharing the responsibility of helping students process the events in classes, and follow up with those who are especially taxed at this time, for example, colleagues and students of color. This is also a good time to consider how to recognize and reward those who do the critical and labor-intensive work of building emotionally supportive mentoring relationships with students.
In the following, we offer a sampling of strategies that you, your colleagues, or your program can employ to prepare and engage students before, during, and after the election.
Encouraging students to make a plan
Consider mobilizing students’ agency by encouraging them to vote and to develop a plan for how they will interact with news coverage, take advantage of University-sponsored events, process the election results, and connect with supportive family members and peers (Case, 2020).
Acknowledging the emotional impact
Not everyone is prepared to facilitate or participate in conversations addressing the election and the potential fallouts directly. There are other ways we can support students. Research suggests that the vast majority of students appreciate instructors' efforts to acknowledge the emotional impact of large-scale events before proceeding to teach their material (Huston & DiPietro, 2007). Instructors can note in person or in an email that this is a difficult time, that they understand that students may be struggling to keep up with school work. You may also want to remind your students that you will be available during office hours and are committed to their learning and well-being. A simple acknowledgment and reassurance that you care can normalize feelings of distress and ease a sense of isolation.
Inviting students to reflect and engage in self-care
If you teach immediately after the election, you may consider inviting your students at the beginning of class to free-write for a few minutes about a prompt such as the following: “How do you make sense of the current events and your emotions in light of your values? Who do you want to reach out to later in the day for more processing and support?” You can also give students the choice to leave class if they need to process differently and offer flexibility regarding assignment deadlines. We know from the research that allowing students to connect to their values and engage in self-care can increase students' sense of belonging and their ability to learn (Strayhorn, 2018).
If you are a skilled facilitator and/or your class content intersects with issues related to the election, you are likely already planning a discussion in response to the election. You will have established ground rules for conversation and this may be a good time to revisit them. If you are new to facilitating discussions involving controversial issues, thoughtful planning will help you avoid some common pitfalls, such as silencing participants, abruptly cutting off dialogue, or allowing the discussion to develop in an unproductive and potentially harmful way (Sue, 2013). If you want to build more confidence in facilitating difficult dialogues, you can explore the curated resources below or you can sign up for a related workshop or consultation with the CTE.
Although universities have a critical role to play in helping students understand the issues underlying this election, not everyone needs to or should open a space for discussion; election discussion fatigue is real. By actively encouraging students to vote and inviting them to join you in attending events related to the election, you can meaningfully contribute to students’ civics education.
Sharing responsibility for supporting individual students
Finally, we want to end by inviting you to take some extra time to (re)familiarize yourself with safety, health, and wellness resources for students, review CAPS’ recommendations for creating an emotionally supportive environment, or broaden your understanding of trauma-informed practices. It will help you respond with more confidence and connect students to the right resources in a moment of crisis. If you have not done so before, make a commitment to pay close attention to students who exhibit signs of stress and follow up with a personal email and take action as needed. This way, you can participate in caring for students’ well-being and helping them remain in college.
- Preparing to Teach about the 2020 Election (U Michigan)
The first of a three-part series that outlines strategies and resources that instructors can use to plan, frame, and facilitate conversations.
- Teaching in Times of Strife & Trauma (Harvard U)
Curated list of resources for teaching during the election, in addition to discussing difficult topics, trauma-informed pedagogy, and anti-racist and equitable teaching.
- Resources for Self-Care (Harvard U)
Strategies, readings, and organizations to support the well-being of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, part of a larger set of resources compiled in support of anti-racism work.
- Creating Identity Safety in the Classroom as the 2020 Election Approaches (Student Experience Project)
Strategies for ensuring that students experience identity safety—the feeling that they are welcomed, valued, respected, and recognized.
- Case, K. (2020). Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence Newsletter: 2020 Election Edition.
- Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students’ perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. To Improve the Academy, 25: 207-224. http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/tia.17063888.0025.017
- Strayhorn, T. L. (2018). College students' sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. New York: Routledge. https://doi-org.proxy01.its.virginia.edu/10.4324/9781315297293
- Sue, D .W. (2013). Race talk: The psychology of racial dialogues. American Psychologist: 68(8), 663-672. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033681