Teaching During an Election Season

We encourage all instructors to proactively think about how certain events, including US elections, may impact your students and classroom experience. In recent years, politics and elections have produced strong emotions and reactions among students, and political topics have entered classroom discussions even when not directly related to the course content.

The GSB and Stanford University now celebrate Democracy Day on US election day, and no classes are held. 

Should I bring anything up about an upcoming election at all?

Empirical research on classroom climates after events like the Boston Marathon Bombing, Hurricane Katrina, September 11 and others has shown that acknowledging a difficult event helps. Don’t feel you need to be a political expert or that you need to have perfectly-crafted responses. Here are some some ways to acknowledge the moment:

  • Begin by recognizing that it’s an emotionally charged week, that everyone is likely tired, and that it may be hard to focus.
  • Point out that different people may be experiencing emotions from a variety of perspectives.
  • Consider reminding people of the need for respectful dialogue as we work through our experience of the election.

Here is a sample statement you may use and adapt for your classroom:

With the midterm elections coming up, I recognize that political tensions and emotions may be higher than usual, especially after what has been a challenging few years for all of us. We all come from different backgrounds and from all over the United States and the world, so each of us will be thinking about and experiencing this election differently. I know all of this has an impact on me, sometimes making it hard to focus on my work. Since everyone is likely tired, it will be especially important during this time to treat each other with care and respect. If you are struggling, 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.
–Adapted from Teaching During a Crisis, IU’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning

What guidance has Stanford provided about political conversations in the classroom?

In a message to the Stanford Community about election season on October 8, 2020, President Tessier-Lavigne reiterated Stanford’s policy of academic freedom and encouraged rigorous debate on even difficult topics:

“At Stanford, we believe that facts and scientific knowledge should provide the basis for public policy decisions and ground our discussion of the issues. Because we value academic freedom and a diversity of ideas, disagreement is inevitable. But we aspire to be a community in which an intellectually rigorous and fact-based approach gives us common ground for fruitful discussions, even about the most contentious topics. Debating the issues in good faith helps all of us sharpen our ideas and how we articulate them, and gives us a stronger understanding of other points of view.”

President Tessier-Lavigne also encouraged the community to undertake such discussions sincerely and respectfully:

“As we debate the merits of our ideas over the next few weeks, it’s also essential that we do so with respect and care for all members of our university community. The pandemic, the national reckoning with issues of racial inequality, and the economic crisis have had dramatic effects on our society. Many are feeling the immediacy of how political issues and policy decisions can impact their own lives, and the lives of their loved ones and communities. In this divisive political season, when many feel worried and vulnerable, it’s more important than ever to extend respect and support to one another.”

Policies and resources:

How might I facilitate a useful classroom conversation on topics related to an election or other politically-charged events?

  • Anticipate disagreement and make clear in advance that it is an inevitable part of a democracy. Encourage students to listen to each other’s perspectives—particularly where they differ—and work to understand the experiences that generate these perspectives. Remind students of this as needed if emotions run high.
  • Remember that your role is to get students talking and thinking, not to have all the answers or to lead them toward a particular viewpoint. You can add information and context, but you are mainly providing an environment where all in the classroom are respected.
  • Let the students take the lead as much as possible; consider having a couple of students facilitate the conversation.
  • When discussing where election candidates stand on key issues of interest to students, be accurate and fair, whatever your personal views.

See more of our suggestions for managing classroom discussions that involve sensitive topics.

What other activities can I use to make space for students to think about an election or politically-charged event?

Discussions involving the entire class may not always provide the ideal space for students to share their experiences, particularly when emotions run high or the majority favor one perspective over others. Students with a different or minority viewpoint may decide to not engage in the discussion.

The examples of activities below provide a variety of spaces in which students can think, talk, and write about the election.

  • Provide space for informal conversation, such as a coffee hour, where students can discuss the election and its impacts. Professor of Political Economy Ken Shotts employs this strategy in his course, offering to meet students outside of class in small groups of 5–8 students.
  • Assign writing exercises addressing themes relevant to the election or political event. Consider how you might pose a question or offer an example to respond to through the lens of your discipline and the course content. A five-minute paper (an informal writing exercise in which students respond to a question in five minutes or less) can also offer an alternative if or when classroom discussions become overly heated.
  • Discuss election-related questions or case studies based on your course’s subject matter or the skills students develop in your course. This resource on Teaching and Learning During a Tense Election Season (University of Michigan, CRLT) provides questions to consider when choosing or developing such materials; see also the resources below on election research at Stanford.

How can I support students who are feeling distressed amidst the current political climate?

  • Stressful experiences can affect students’ cognitive load. Consider increased flexibility and leniency around introducing new concepts or collecting major assignments on the days leading up to and immediately after an election or significant political event.
  • You could also note the difficulty of focusing and of controlling strong emotions; let students know they can feel free to step away if they need a minute to refocus.
  • Be mindful that your Course Assistant/Teaching Assistant may also be stressed or anxious about current events, their course responsibilities, and supporting students in the class.
  • Often, students can benefit from reminders to attend to their basic self-care needs; however, there are times when students need more support. Remember that it is not necessarily your role to help students through a crisis. Make sure students are aware of University support resources available to them, including: Student and Academic Services and Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS).

Where can I find additional information about supporting students during election season?