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.

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