Teaching the Election: Intro

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I remember back when I was in speech class in middle school our teacher told us there were two subjects one should never discuss in polite company: politics and religion. I’ve mostly stuck to that precept and it has served me well. But in the classes I teach I want to prepare students to participate in the world outside the classroom and this year that most definitely means participating in the upcoming presidential election. And that’s a challenge.

It’s not just that I want to be excessively polite in the classroom. It’s more that I don’t think it’s my duty (or right) to impose my own politics on students. The way I’ve pitched this when training new teachers is this: whatever politics you hold undoubtedly you believe it’s the position any rational, critically thinking individual would adopt. Thus, I don’t have to teach my politics; I just have to teach students critical thinking. Theoretically, if my political positions are simply the most obvious to any thinker, then my students will end up endorsing them through the skills I teach them.


Another reason I tend to eschew politics in the classroom is evident every day in my Facebook newsfeed: politics too often leads to polarization rather than discussion. Even with friends who mostly hold the same general political leanings as I do, there are posts every day not simply promoting Candidate X but also bashing Candidate Y of the same party as well as Candidates A, B, and C of the other party. I’ve found something similar happens in the classroom. Rather than engaging in a synthetic discussion that progresses in meaning and understanding, students, I find, tend to adopt a single view and feel the need to prove it’s right and, what’s worse, prove that every other view is wrong. In the process, all positions get flattened into simplicity and congealed as well. (If you want to foreground this process for your students, James Surowiecki’s “Committees, Juries, and Teams: The Columbia Disaster and How Small Groups Can Be Made to Work” discusses theories of group dynamics that explain how this happens.)

So, on the one hand I want students to be empowered agents in the public sphere and specifically the political process. On the other hand, I don’t want to talk politics since my experience suggests that doesn’t really get anywhere. And on the other other hand, I also don’t want to impose my political leanings on students.

In the next three posts I’ll look at some of the readings in Emerging that offer you the ability to resolve this thorny challenge. I’ll be working from the second edition, since my guess is that’s the one most people are using right now, though I will try to point to some good substitutes for those readings that didn’t make it into the third.

In the meantime, have you encountered this problem? What strategies do you use to negotiate this dilemma?

About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.