Teaching During the 2020 Election

Although the 2020 election process has concluded, many of the resources in this article continue to be relevant. In addition, Stanford’s election.stanford.edu site includes resources to help faculty, staff and students navigate challenging election seasons.

We encourage all instructors to proactively think about how the 2020 US presidential election may impact your students and classroom experience. In 2016, strong emotions and reactions were felt around campus following the announcement of the election results. The topic entered classroom discussions even in courses in which the election was not directly related to the course content. 


General Advice

To support your preparation, we offer ways to acknowledge the election, manage planned or unplanned classroom discussions, and help reduce stress on the part of students. 

Are there things that I should consider doing on election day?

The Faculty Senate at its October 8 meeting passed a resolution urging instructors "...to support civic engagement and reflection by students through such measures as: 

  • cancelling classes scheduled to meet on Election Day
  • recording lectures given on Election Day so that students may view them at a later time
  • to the extent possible, adjusting assignments so as to accommodate this civic engagement.

Note that these measures are not mandated, but strongly encouraged by the Senate. You can find the full text of the Senate resolution here

Should I bring anything up about the election at all?

Empirical research on classroom climates after events like the Boston Marathon Bombing, Hurricane Katrina, September 11 and others suggest 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.
What can I say to my students regarding the upcoming US election?

In a message to the Stanford Community on October 8, 2020, President Tessier-Lavigne wrote:

“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.

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.”

See more from President Tessier-Lavigne’s statement on Election season at Stanford here.

See Stanford’s policy on Academic Freedom here.

How might I facilitate a useful classroom conversation on topics related to the election?
  • 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 candidates stand on key issues of interest to students, be accurate and fair, whatever your personal views.
  • 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. 

This resource includes more of our suggestions for handling both unexpected and planned class discussions that involve sensitive topics.

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 on the day of and immediately after the election. 
  • You could also note the difficulty of focusing and of controlling strong emotions and let students know they can feel free to step away if they need a minute to refocus.
  • Be mindful that your Course 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, Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS), and COVID-19 support resources for students.

Resources You May Find Helpful

Below are additional resources to help you prepare to teach during the 2020 election. We’ve also included general information on the election itself and some previously published work on the 2016 election that remain applicable to this election season.

Supporting students’ mental health
Business, management, and the election
Learning exercises related to the election