Suddenly Talking Politics? 5 Tips from a Poli. Sci. Prof

by Christopher Moore

The national elections this month were some of most surprising of our students’ lifetimes, and they capped off a controversial and sometimes painful campaign season. Students are processing their thoughts and have many questions. To help them think well together about politics, consider these tips:

  1. Remember it’s their first election. Freshmen were likely born right as the Monica Lewinsky scandal was breaking. George W. Bush left office when they were ten. Barack Obama has been the only President they’ve experienced as emerging adults. If they’re making a bigger deal about the election than you think is necessary, consider their novice context.
  2. Communicate that Bethel is a place to disagree. Bethel is not politically homogeneous, and it’s probably less politically homogeneous than they think, or than we think. We can remind students they’re going to encounter a variety of viewpoints here, and that’s a good thing.
  3. …but disagree without being disagreeable. Bethel’s irenic spirit and our pursuit of the truth are values that point us to respectful dialogue in our political disagreements. Many of our students learned more from the conduct of this brutal and acrimonious campaign than anything thing else in their political lives. Social media has only exacerbated this negativity. Use this  chance to show a different, more loving, and respectful form of conduct.
  4. Seek engagement over conversion. Students who ask us about politics value our opinions. Value theirs.  They also see us as authorities (at least in our fields), and responsible evaluators in the classroom. If you are strident in a political point of view, students might feel pressured to agree with you for reasons beyond politics. I prefer to approach political discussions with students as opportunities to discover opinions and verify facts.  It’s never about convincing them to vote the way I do.
  5. Don’t be afraid. Politics, money, and religion are the three things we shouldn’t discuss in polite company. (I do all three as part of my job). Discussing politics with students can cause apprehension. Will I offend them?  What if they punish me on my teaching evaluations because they disagree with my politics? These are valid concerns, but in my experience, our students are far less fragile than some reporting about Millennials suggests. If they’re asking, they want to know. And especially if we approach our responses with humility and civility, I think students respect that. Of course, healthy boundaries are always appropriate. I never endorse candidates or parties in the classroom, for example. You may want have other boundaries, too— but don’t be fearful.
Christopher Moore
Christopher Moore is an assistant professor of political science at Bethel University. His teaching interests include international relations, foreign policy, and political psychology.

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