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Yes, Political Issues Can Be Discussed Civilly in the Classroom

Yes, Political Issues Can Be Discussed Civilly in the Classroom

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By Dr. Marie Gould Harper, Program Director, Management, American Public University, and Cynthia M. Gentile, J.D., Associate Professor, Management, American Public University

It’s not easy to discuss political issues at this moment in our deeply divided nation. The hottest topic at present is the upcoming mid-term elections, the outcome of which will have repercussions for years to come.

Other highly controversial issues such as immigration and border controls, minorities and voting rights, judicial nominations, and climate change are part of our public discourse.

Worse, politically and racially motivated bombings and shootings are now, unfortunately, almost routine occurrences.

In an era of heightened partisanship, fake news and a general distrust of politicians and the media, how can college instructors lead balanced and civil classroom discussions on these “hot button” issues without provoking the ire of one side or the other?

Today, social media allows us to feel comfortable in expressing our opinions freely to a largely unknown public audience. However, instructors must ensure that their online classroom is neutral territory for controversial discussions on political issues or other topics. Students must be allowed to express their beliefs, reasoning and conclusions, even though they do not know their classmates personally.

Educators say a first step is to create a climate of respect within the classroom and be prepared for numerous disagreements.

Creating a Safe Space in the Online Classroom for Discussions

While instructors want their students to come to an “aha” moment as part of the learning process, students need to feel free to discuss controversial events that affect society. In order to create a safe environment where students feel they can be authentic in their responses, instructors must:

  • Establish ground rules regarding behavior during the first week of class, so that everyone is on the same page and understands the expectations.
  • Insist on a climate of respect among the students that will allow them to disagree civilly.
  • Provide fictitious and real examples of problems and allow the class to develop solutions. Sometimes, we must remove ourselves from an actual situation and start with less controversial examples and then build up to a topic such as politics.
  • Develop a list of acceptable behaviors for the class so that no one crosses the line.

When controversial political issues are introduced into a discussion, one technique that can prove helpful for students, especially for adult learners, is to foster critical thinking skills and the use of fact-based sources.

Encourage students to pause before replying to a highly controversial or unpopular comment. For online students, it’s easy to step away from the discussion for a few minutes to formulate a cogent response. Often, well-reasoned responses will cool down what might have been turning into an angry classroom.

Reasoned responses will often prompt students to put aside their preconceived ideas if their belief system is sufficiently challenged.

An ardent supporter of the Second Amendment might come to see the validity of banning certain types of weapons when presented with statistics showing the harm these weapons have caused in mass shootings.

Statistics on the number of deaths from illegal abortions in the United States might convince a pro-life student to at least recognize that there is a legitimate opposing viewpoint.

Advocates of new immigration laws may be open to an objective discussion with students who oppose new policies being set.

Engagement Rules and Set Expectations Ensure that No Student Wonders What Is Acceptable

A recent New York Times article by Katherine Schulten, “Talking Across Divides; 10 Ways to Encourage Civil Classroom Conversations on Difficult Issues,” highlighted several techniques aimed at encouraging more civil discourse. Included in the article is a list of unacceptable responses to the thoughts of others that are especially applicable in online classes. They include no personal attacks, obscenities, vulgarity or SHOUTING.

Classroom engagement rules that are in place and set expectations will ensure that no student is left wondering what is acceptable.

Instructors cannot assume that students have been exposed to a particular theory or perspective. They should also not strive for total agreement on divisive topics like political issues.

Cultivating a culture of respect in the classroom is an ongoing process, one that must begin on the very first day of class. Teachers should look for opportunities to fill their lessons with voices from different perspectives, with a focus on often marginalized groups.

Instructors should feel comfortable challenging students to express opinions about political issues, even when those opinions are not generally accepted. Instructors must also know when to step in to defuse a potentially explosive situation. Doing so will aid all students in the class, not only those who have strayed from the confines of respectful online communication.

The online classroom is the ideal place to teach students that respecting another’s point of view on political issues or other topics does not mean everyone must agree with it. In the process, instructors can find commonality because we all seek understanding and respect.

About the Authors

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and influential leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.

Cynthia Gentile is an associate professor in the Management program at American Public University. She is also an adjunct professor of legal studies at Peirce College and the executive editor of the Atlantic Law Journal. Cynthia holds a B.A. in English and American Studies from Douglass College and a Juris Doctorate from the Rutgers University School of Law.



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