Today’s post is a guest post by Michele Gillespie and the Associate Deans of the College
It’s been a rough year, to say the least. The upcoming election—just a few days away now—certainly adds to the stress and uncertainty so prevalent across the country. As the results come in, students are likely to experience heightened emotions such as distress, anxiety, disappointment, relief, satisfaction, triumph, defeat…the list goes on. We’ll feel some of these things too, and it might be difficult for all of us to manage and moderate these responses in the immediate aftermath of what has been and probably will continue to be a contentious and divisive political, social, and cultural environment.
As difficult as it is, however, this moment also offers an opportunity to practice civic engagement—not only in terms of voting, but also in our participation in dialogue that, while challenging and uncomfortable, allows us both to find common ground and to maintain divergent views. Such civic engagement resists the denial of substantial difference that results in shallow harmony, even as it also resists the demonization of differences that prohibits cooperative action. As educators, we can model for our students the practice of impassioned and reasoned discourse in the service of community building and democracy. We should not miss this chance.
While this moment calls for our acknowledgement, our responses will vary—and that is good and necessary. Some of us will not want to devote class time to discussing the election and all that it means, and that is okay. Some of us will want to do exactly that, and that too is okay. Likewise, our students will need and want different things from us. Some of them will need the routine of regular class time as a buffer against so much uncertainty. Others will need to process their experiences and will benefit from doing so with their classmates in a formal setting. While we cannot necessarily meet every student’s needs simultaneously, the key point is that we act with clear intentions around supporting their academic, mental, and social wellbeing as best we can. Below are a few ideas to consider as we decide how we might do that work. (While they generally assume these interactions will be in synchronous class meetings, the general principles hold true for asynchronous classes as well.)
Start by assessing your own energy and capacity for leading a potentially challenging conversation. Your wellbeing matters as much as the students’, so start with making sure you are willing and equipped to take on this work right now. Ultimately, you decide how much of this conversation you are ready to lead, and you should choose a path that you can confidently navigate.
- Do you have enough distance and perspective right now to facilitate an open conversation with and between students who may express ideas and opinions with which you adamantly disagree?
- Do you have tools to address “hotspots” that may flare up?
- Also consider your own positionality and identity: how do they influence your interactions with your students?
The election will be on everyone’s mind, so take a minute to acknowledge it and its impact. Even if you decide not to change your plans for the day’s class, taking a few minutes to address the obvious can reinforce a sense of connection with your students. Students may or may not want to discuss the election directly, but they do want to know that you care about them and that you recognize the challenges they are facing.
- Tell students the plan for the day; consider explaining why you think it is important for the class to continue as scheduled rather than focusing on the election.
- Students (and you) are likely to be physically tired, emotionally drained, and mentally distracted. Consider using the class session for review rather than introducing new material. If that is not feasible, draw on active learning strategies to help students focus. (Consider, for example, assigning mini-tasks throughout the class session for them to complete individually that you then discuss as a whole class.)
- Students are going to have differing needs, so remind them of the many campus resources (listed below) available to support them.
Directly discussing the election and its impacts (which will vary across groups and issues) will be important for many students. The space you create in your classroom may help them make sense of this moment by putting it in a larger context. That context might be academic content such as political theories, historical influences, artistic representations, etc. It may also be personal experiences and reflection. However you choose to frame it, be thoughtful about how you invite students to think together.
- Be clear about your intentions and desired outcomes for the class session: what do you want to accomplish with your students?
- Tell students the plan for the day; explain your goals so that they understand what to expect. Be explicit about what you want them to take away from the class session.
- Likewise, be clear about the parameters and expectations for the discussion. Consider working with students to establish some “terms of engagement” so that everyone knows what is communally acceptable and unacceptable. Showing this short video about empathy by Brene Brown might be a good way to set the tone for the discussion.
- Remember that students will want and/or need different things, and give them multiple ways of participating in the discussion. For example, especially if the conversation focuses on individual concerns and responses, consider providing an option for students to “pass” on answering certain questions. Think about how you might incorporate writing exercises and/or sharing in pairs or small groups as additional ways of encouraging participation.
- Be intentional about your level and method of engagement in the discussion; consider the degree to which you want to guide the conversation toward a particular outcome (such as relating the election directly to class content, or encouraging students to practice exploring differences constructively, or inviting them to do some self-reflection, etc.).
- Manage the time so that you can end purposefully. While the goal is not to get everyone thinking the same things, ending with a sense of clarity and completion is important. Save time to reflect back to the class (or, better yet, have them do it) the major ideas and issues of the class session; perhaps give them time to write a short reflection or summary for themselves, for example. Remind them of the goals for the day and explain how they fit into the larger learning goals for the course. Hopefully, they’ll walk away with plenty to think about without feeling that the conversation was rushed and left unfinished.
Given the many challenges students are facing right now, supporting them in systemic ways remains important. Making multiple pathways to success available is still compatible with rigor and meaningful learning.
- Be flexible wherever possible. Consider options such as extending deadlines or making a smaller assignment or two optional.
- Provide options for completing assignments, when feasible. Consider one additional method through which a student could demonstrate having learned the core material and/or skills and offer that to students as an alternative. Having a degree of choice may help them navigate multiple demands more successfully.
- Continue to communicate regularly with your students. Certainly, you do not need to serve any role other than a concerned educator, so maintain your boundaries. At the same time, check in with students who seem to be missing, or whose work is dropping in quality, or who seem to be struggling in other noticeable ways. Connect them with campus resources when you sense they may need more support than you can provide. If you are worried about a student’s wellbeing, consider reaching out to the CARE Team.
A Final Note
We know this semester hasn’t been easy and that you have been stretched in a million ways. We know it will likely get a little bit harder before it gets better, daunting as that may be. Even so, you have done so much so well, and we are deeply grateful for your commitment, excellence, and steadfastness. Our students are fortunate to learn from you. Your support and guidance will help them get through this challenge, and that is no small thing.
The conversation about helping students during this tumultuous time is broad and ongoing, and many faculty and pedagogy experts have provided rich content and guidance for those of us looking to engage students around these issues. We have listed a selection of them below for your reference.
Cornell University, Intergroup Dialogue Project: IDP 2020 Election Guide.
Tufts University, Institute for Democracy and Higher Education: Facilitating Political Discussions: A Facilitator Training Workshop Guide.
UNC Greensboro, University Teaching and Learning Commons: Election 2020 Faculty Support – University Teaching & Learning Commons.
University of Michigan, Center for Research on Teaching and Learning: Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-Stakes Topics.
University of Oregon, Teaching Engagement Program: Teaching and the Election.
Campus Resources to Support Students
- Office of the Chaplain, MINDFULWAKE
- Office of Community and Civic Engagement, Deacs Decide Election Resources
- Office of Diversity and Inclusion
The Intercultural Center, the LGBTQ+ Center, and the Women’s Center offer welcoming and supportive spaces for students. The LGBTQ+ Center has also provided a Community Care Post-Election Toolkit
- Office of Wellbeing, ResilentWake
- University Counseling Center
UCC Tips For Faculty Supporting Students: Election season, Racial reckoning, CoViD-19 and beyond
Acknowledge the Abnormal: Faculty may believe that their role is to focus on the subject at hand or worry that naming the layers of difficult contexts in which many are living (politics, race-based stress, pandemic) is outside their purview. Because faculty are important figures in students’ lives, ongoing and consistent acknowledgement from you verbally expressing awareness of environmental stressors can help students feel better understood…even when you can’t adjust assignment due dates as a result.
Foster Flexibility: Students are particularly asking for flexibility as they navigate these times. Election distress, racial micro/macro-aggressions, and personal or family member CoViD-19 status are all dynamic variables that can impact a student’s performance. The layering of multiple stressors can be particularly deleterious. Be clear about which course expectations you can offer flexible due dates for and which you cannot.
Vie for Vulnerability: While you might not choose to share that your kids are driving you up a wall or that you haven’t showered for an undisclosed amount of time; finding accessible ways to communicate shared humanity during overlapping crises can help build the professional relationships necessary for students to feel invested in your course. During this time of Zoom fatigue and social distancing, shared vulnerability is still our best route to cultivating fulfilling personal and professional relationships. Those relationships are necessary for our survival and contribute to our ability to thrive.