Reflections on College Teaching in a Divisive Political Climate

14 Apr 2017 10:00 AM | Anonymous

By Ashley Davis

On October 13, 2016, the American Psychological Association (APA) detailed findings from a survey that indicated that the 2016 presidential election was a significant source of stress for more than half of American adults, both Democrats and Republicans (APA, 2016). Thirty-eight percent of adults attributed this stress to “political and cultural discussions on social media.” Long story short, we were all feeling the heat!

Last semester was different for me as well. I was finally feeling like I had hit my stride as an educator. Something no one tells you is that if you do it right and care for your students, the teaching becomes both your greatest joy and the thing you lose sleep over at night. Being a graduate student and an adjunct professor is like finding the balance between giving, and keeping enough for yourself.

I was assigned to teach Human Development, an introductory course in the Psychology Department that encompasses physical, emotional, and cognitive development from conception until death. The course is a lot of everything, but there are several dominant themes that run through a critical study of human development. Unfortunately, inequality is one of them. The text I was using for the course didn’t waste any time making that point. In chapter 2, students are introduced to how public policy decisions influence or intersect with human development, how developmental outcomes look very different across neighborhoods, and how a history of housing segregation in this country still matters today.

My students hailed from more than 10 different countries and spoke more than 10 languages as a group. They were Muslim, immigrants, young women and young men of color, and a major party candidate for president of the United States had already spoken of banning Muslims from the country, mocked a disabled reporter, and bragged about sexually assaulting women. They were young Americans who were suddenly questioning everything and they wanted to talk about it, to ask questions, to challenge each other’s ideas, but they were nervous. In the rest of their interactions, these conversations had not been going well. I endeavored to make our space safe enough for them to feel open enough to try. The research suggests that stereotypes and hatred are challenged in instances where people must take on another’s perspective (Broockman & Kalla, 2016). The election was stressful, but it also highlighted the fact that as a country we are not very good at talking.

I have a few lines I always say to my students in one form or another: “This classroom is a safe space where you are free to disagree with everyone, especially me, but you must disagree in a respectful manner. Nothing is true just because I say it. Disagreeing with me might feel weird at first, but it’s necessary.” I then make sure I create a classroom environment where it is clear that I don’t possess all of the knowledge. Once when we were discussing how education varies globally, I simply opened the floor to all of the students who completed their K-12 schooling careers in another country. I joked with them asking why they were asking me when there were experts present.

Another thing I did was set up an FYI folder on Blackboard where I gave them as many things to read as I could. In my experience, being exposed to the ways others craft academic arguments makes you better at crafting your own. When I brought optional articles to class I never had any extra copies to bring home. One of the articles I assigned for homework towards the end of the semester was a reading I had been assigned in one of my doctoral level classes: a chapter on linguistic domination (Heller & Martin Jones, 2001). A student wrote a reaction to that article that I’ll never stop thinking or talking about. Many nights they kept me on my toes and became formidable debate opponents.

A third thing that happened is that we found a way to keep politics out of the classroom. The way we accomplished this was simple, we critiqued policy, and policy decisions, societal characteristics and differential access without mentioning anyone by name. We realized that in reality neither candidate had done a good job discussing things like healthcare, public education, or environmental protections, things that our class discussions made us realize were important.

The final and most important thing I did was to try to see them as whole people and not just students. When something particularly difficult occurred like the dumpster bombing in Chelsea (Wilson, Schmidt, & Nir, 2016), we would talk about it. Instead of making my students request off for Eid-al-Adha (one of the holiest days in the Muslim faith, during a time of increased hate crimes against Muslims) I simply let them know that if they observed a religious holiday that the university did not recognize missing class wouldn’t be a problem. The day after election day, knowing many students would want to go protest and recognizing the importance of them doing so, I told them that I understood if there were other places they felt they needed to be. In my experience as an Early Childhood educator, we call this the whole child approach. This approach to early childhood seeks to offer cognitive, creative, constructive, and community engagement learning experiences to all learners everyday. Last semester I brought this approach to my college students because in the era of fake news my lecturing seemed incredibly insufficient; all of us are a part of this country’s future.

I couldn’t tell you one way or another if students liked this approach. I didn’t survey them at the end of the semester. There are, however, a few things I know for sure. The first is that their final presentations were phenomenal. The second is that the class did change perspectives. One of my toughest critics said that the class made him hopeful about our country’s future. Recently, I’ve run into a few of them on campus – the reunions are always joyful. Somehow, in all of that stress, we carved out a space of rigorous scholarship. A space where I learned more than I taught. A space where we managed to learn together and from each other.

American Psychological Association (2016, Oct. 13). APA Survey Reveals 2016 Presidential Election Source of Significant Stress for More Than Half of Americans. APA Press Release. [Online]. Retrieved from

Broockman, D. & Kalla, J. (2016). Durably reducing transphobia: A field experiment on door-to-door canvassing. Science, 352(6282), 220-224.

Heller, M & Martin-Jones, M. (2001). Introduction: Symbolic domination, education, and linguistic difference. In Heller, M. & Martin-Jones, M. (eds). 2001. Voices of Authority: Education and Linguistic Difference. Westport, Conn: Ablex.

Schmidt, S. (2016, Aug. 28). Muslim Holy Day on Sept. 11? Coincidence Stirs Fears. New York Times. [Online]. Retrieved from

Wilson, M., Schmidt, S. & Nir, S. M. (2016, Sept. 18). After Blast, New Yorkers Examine Themselves for Psychological Shrapnel. New York Times. [Online]. Retrieved from

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