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How Should Online College Students Talk about Politics?

How Should Online College Students Talk about Politics?


By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

Should politics be discussed in college? Rather, should we talk about politics in online lower-level, non-political science undergraduate classes? Perhaps.

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I have taught entry-level online courses for over a decade. I know that avoiding unnecessary political discussions in class is a good way to ensure that students:

  • Focus on the course content
  • Cover the desired topics and objectives
  • Do not get bogged down on tangents, hyperbole or political tribalism

Students new to college or who are not in the habit of communicating through the written word should first focus on improving their reading and written communication skills, and getting used to the online environment. Political discussions can wait.

Dealing with Tangents, Hyperbole and Political Tribalism

Is it important to be able to talk about politics in an open, straightforward and constructive manner? Yes, of course! One of the most important aspects of political discourse is the ability to have a conversation that is constructive even if you disagree with the opposing views.

The ability to talk and find commonalities even when there are few or none is an essential skill and a differentiator in the workplace. However, when some people talk about politics, they find it exceedingly difficult to talk objectively. They go off on tangents, use hyperbole or subscribe to political tribalism.

Everyone can go off on a tangent. Some do it because they like to talk excessively about an issue that is near and dear to them; others do it without realizing it. Nevertheless, going off on a tangent about politics in non-political science online courses is not constructive. That could sometimes lead to a poor grade.

When instructors grade student forums and engagement posts online, they grade on a few common criteria, such as:

  1. Did the student follow instructions?
  2. How well did the student support the thesis statement with quotes, citations and references?
  3. Did the student’s contribution align with all the course objectives?

When students write posts that go off on a tangent, they could lose points or not get credit for not following instructions or not meeting the week’s objectives. It is important that discussions align with the course and weekly objectives to ensure that the learning is focused and aligns with the course content.

Students Need to Learn How to Use Information in a Responsible and Reasonable Manner

Next, as part of information literacy education, students need to learn how to use information and facts in a responsible and reasonable manner. When some people, willingly or unwillingly, contribute to hyperbole during a political discussion, they cause confusion and even angst among their listeners.

If someone states, “The country will fall apart if Joe Blow is elected,” the speaker is resorting to hyperbole by exaggerating the topic at hand. That hyperbole can easily be debunked by simple logic and critical thinking. Unfortunately, hyperbole is common in today’s media because of the spate of political opinions that we have to either defend or refute.

Another reason not to talk politics in non-political science online classes is some people hold tribal political views. An example of tribal politics is when someone espouses talking points that are usually based on misinformation or disinformation, have a dogmatic approach firmly on one side or the other, and are really coming from a place of fear.

For these people, everything is politics. What grocery chain you choose to frequent is political or where you choose to live is somehow a political statement.

Political tribalism is evidenced by biased and uncritical thinking that will probably annoy fellow students. In addition, these dogmatic and opinionated students will get angry when their forum posts lose points for not contributing to the week’s discussion, although they believe their writing is brilliant, insightful, and hard-hitting.

There Are Places to Talk about Politics

Are there any places where politics, current events and controversial topics can be discussed in online courses? Certainly! As APU faculty members Marie Gould Harper and Cynthia Gentile state: “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.”

To talk politics in non-political science classes, you need to have established, well-defined guidelines. Be wary of talking politics in lower-level courses because students need to work on this type of communication before they become juniors and seniors.

Conversing about Divisive Topics, Including Politics, Is an Important Part of the College Experience

Talking about politics online can be informative and interesting, and it can expose students to new ideas and concepts. Being able to talk about divisive topics is an important part of the college experience. It is a skill everyone should develop and refine.

About the Author

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.



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