By Doug Ward

For many students and educators, this year’s election felt personal.

Women were ridiculed for their physical appearance. Mexican immigrants were called drug traffickers and rapists. Muslims were accused of hating the United States, and a ban on Muslim immigration was proposed. A reporter with a disability was mocked. Black Americans were portrayed as living in war zones. Supporters of one candidate were called “deplorables.”

Since the election, Muslims and students of color have been threatened and intimidated at some campuses, international students have wondered about their future in the U.S., and many students have feared for their safety.

This all runs counter to the inclusive nature of a university campus, not to mention an enlightened society. Higher education helps people discover their passions and build their intellect. It thrives when people feel safe to challenge conventional wisdom, examine assumptions and plumb the depths of understanding. Society at large thrives when its members feel safe.

words in sidewalk chalk saying peace & love
Messages like this appeared on sidewalks around the KU campus this week.

The election results have generated widely divergent feelings among college students and faculty, making some classroom conversations difficult. That is why at workshops this week at CTE, we have been discussing ways to engage in those conversations with students. Graduate teaching assistants and faculty members report anxiety in classes. Many students are afraid to speak even as others are in a celebratory mood. Some have retreated into themselves, needing time to comprehend the election results, while others have made inappropriate comments in classes.

This awkward environment challenges even experienced instructors. Participants in the sessions this week have provided some potential solutions (I’ll get to those shortly) but also asked many potent, difficult questions:

  • Where is the line between free speech and hate speech?
  • How do we make sure all of our students have a voice?
  • How do we help students who report disdainful interactions that aren’t crimes but that make learning more difficult?
  • How do we help students think more critically about the opinions they and others express?
  • How do we support students who feel threatened by the president-elect’s rhetoric without silencing the views of students who support him?
  • How do we help students become more comfortable with post-election ambiguity about the future?

The CTE website offers many resources for engaging in these sorts of difficult conversations and for creating an inclusive classroom environment. A handout created by CTE’s director, Andrea Greenhoot, provides additional guidance, and workshop participants offered more excellent suggestions. Among the advice:

  • Listen. Allow students to express their views in and out of class. Offer empathy and support while maintaining a civil, respectful environment.
  • Set ground rules for discussions. These are even better when students come up with the rules themselves.
  • Don’t force discussions. Some students may not be ready to engage in these difficult conversations. They need more time to process their thoughts and feelings.
  • Ask for evidence. Ask students to research the evidence they offer to support their points of view and to back up their assertions.
  • Find connections. Find ways to tie election discussions to the theme and content of your courses.
  • Look to your discipline. Consider how material from your own field can help promote civil discourse.
  • Practice respect. Ask students to listen to other perspectives and try to understand them before responding.
  • Use writing exercises to help students reflect and to help them step back from tumultuous encounters.sidewalk chalk message that says you are important

Unfortunately, divisiveness and alienation seem likely to continue in the coming years, given the rancor of the election, the deep political divide of the electorate, and the divergent worldviews of Americans. As educators, we simply cannot back away from controversial topics and difficult conversations. If anything, those conversations will be all the more important in the coming months and years.

At the same time, we simply cannot tolerate bigotry and hate. We must redouble our efforts to make facts, evidence and intellectual discovery the center of our academic journey and the political conversation.

Marta Caminero-Santangelo, who helped lead a workshop this week, pointed to the university mission statement as a means for guidance. That mission statement provides a reminder that even as we deal with attacks on our beliefs and our integrity, we have clear foundational principles to rely on as we move into the future.

“The university is committed to excellence,” it reads. “It fosters a multicultural environment in which the dignity and rights of the individual are respected. Intellectual diversity, integrity, and disciplined inquiry in the search for knowledge are of paramount importance.”

We have much work ahead to live up to that.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

“What just happened?” Carl Luchies asked his graduate teaching assistant.

 They stood at the front of a lecture hall in early 2013, watching as 120 normally subdued engineering undergraduates burst into spontaneous conversation.

Luchies, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, had just given the students a problem to work on and told them it was a collaborative quiz due at the end of class. Students could work with anyone in the room, he said.

“Anyone?” they asked.

carl luchies points to computer screen as he helps a student
Carl Luchies works with a student in a graduate-level biomechanics class

Anyone, he said. They could move wherever they wanted to move. Use Google if Google would help. Ask questions of him or the GTA. Do whatever they needed to do to find the answer.

After a few moments of uncertainty, “the class just came alive,” Luchies said.

Luchies was surprised at how successful his experiment was that day, especially because it was a spur-of-the-moment experiment to try to revive a mostly listless class. His willingness to experiment and to focus on the best approaches for students was nothing new, though. He received the school’s Louise Byrd Graduate Educator Award in 2010. And this fall, he received the Outstanding Teaching Award from the Midwest Section of the American Society of Engineering Education. He will now be considered for a similar national award.

Luchies looks at that day in 2013 when the class came alive as a turning point in the way he teaches. Robert Beichner, a professor at North Carolina State and an advocate for active learning in STEM fields, spoke to School of Engineering faculty members the week before classes started that year, urging them to try flipped and hybrid learning in large classes. Luchies was intrigued, but he didn’t think he had time to make changes.

In January and February, though, he realized that few students were listening as he lectured. After 15 to 20 minutes, students began checking their phones or staring blankly. He asked for questions at the beginning and end of each class. Students rarely responded.

“I tried to entertain them,” he said. “I tried to get excited about it. I was using an active display or I was writing out solutions and then automatically putting that on Blackboard so that they could see my solution. I was trying a lot of different things.”

It didn’t matter, though. Students had simply checked out. So he cut back on lectures, gave students in-class problems and told them to work collaboratively.

“All of a sudden, all the students were talking and asking questions, because now they needed to know – they wanted to know – because there was pressure to figure this out before they left the classroom,” he said. “That’s all I had to see. That was like a night-and-day difference between what I had been doing and what I was going to be doing in the future.”

Carl Luchies at his computer in a biomechanics class
Luchies answers a student question in class

Luchies describes his approach to teaching as one of engagement. He often demonstrates new material to students and then turns them loose to work in groups. He and a teaching assistant move about the room and offer assistance. Each student turns in an assignment, but he encourages the class to work collaboratively to find answers and learn from each other.

“If I explain how to do something, and then I say, OK, now let’s do it, then they have to now think about exactly what I said, what did I mean by what I said, and how do they actually use what I said to solve the problem, do the analysis, whatever it might be,” Luchies said. “That’s when the actual learning goes on. They are actually doing what I just taught them.”

Luchies has gradually expanded and adapted the in-class and out-of-class material for his class over the past few years. He recorded lectures and put them online, created online quizzes, and insisted that students come to class prepared to work collaboratively. He experimented with different types of peer-to-peer learning – pairs of students, groups of three, groups that change during the semester, groups that stay together – before settling on teams of five that work together the entire semester. Eventually, he was able to move out of the lecture hall and into the new active learning rooms at the School of Engineering, add an additional GTA and two undergraduate teaching fellows.

“Each semester, I just went further and further,” Luchies said.

That doesn’t mean that switching to an active learning approach was easy or universally accepted.

“When I first started off there was a lot of pushback,” Luchies said. “There were students who basically told me that for the last 13 years I have learned like a sponge and I don’t see why I have to do any work when I come to class.”

The numbers on Luchies’ student teaching evaluations dropped, and “I had some pretty negative comments.”

As students grew more accustomed to active learning in his class and in other classes, though, the pushback diminished. Most now like the approach Luchies uses, praising the variety of class activities and the ability to develop as teams. Luchies, too, has grown more comfortable with his changing role as a teacher, moving away from lecture and becoming what he described as a mentor or a coach.

“At the beginning I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I was just trying things. Now I’m much more intentional about it.”

He describes active learning as a continual learning process for students and instructors.

“Experiential learning goes both directions,” Luchies said. “I have learned a tremendous amount by trying new things and experiencing it and finding out for myself what works and what doesn’t work. Not everything I’ve tried works, but that’s OK. I don’t mind failing.”

Sometimes, though, those experiments pay off, leaving an instructor to ponder a delightful question:

“What just happened?”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.