Cultivating Political Discourse For Our Democratic Futures

Political Science Educator: volume 25, issue 2


Kayla C. Isenbletter, Indiana University South Bend, David J. Hurley Indiana University South Bend, and Elizabeth A. Bennion, Indiana University South Bend

Exposure to political beliefs different from one’s own is vital to maintaining a “well-functioning democracy” (Caughell, 2018; see also Arendt, 1968; Aristotle, 1998; Habermas, 1989; Mill, 1956). However, simple exposure is not enough to build healthy, cooperative, and productive discourse; rather, individuals must engage with these beliefs through debate, research, and an intent to compromise for achieving political goals (Caughell, 2018, p. 660). This essay draws upon a review of articles on cultivating civic discourse17 appearing in PS: Political Science & Politics over the past decade (Hurley, Isenbletter, and Bennion, 2021) to provide pedagogical techniques to help educators teach students how to engage in ‘civil’ civic discourse and move beyond point-scoring and adversarial debate. These approaches teach active listening, cooperative solutions, and problem-solving rather than teaching how to “win” an argument.

Given the current state of political discourse, we argue that emphasizing such skills is critical to preserving democratic governance.

Rinfret (2019) describes a semester-long debate series on popular political issues where students use peer-reviewed research to defend their positions (p. 528). This debate panel offers a form of experiential learning that models the value of healthy discussion, research, and cooperative problem-solving. Students work in groups to research a debate topic. Using peer- reviewed resources, they create an outline in preparation for discussion. The debate panels consist of four students, with teams of two defending their solution to the assigned issue. Non- participating students comprise the audience and submit questions as their means of participation. The instructor acts as a moderator, posing these questions during Q+A. After Q+A, the instructor leads a discussion among the audience where students repeat the facts presented and brainstorm solutions that incorporate ideas and values from multiple perspectives. Finally, the audience votes on which panel team presented a more persuasive argument. (p. 528-530).

As Rinfret acknowledges, debates are an oft-contested mode of political learning for the precise reasoning she chooses to employ them in her classroom. As they are structured, debates force the participants to take one of two potentially reductive positions on an issue: for or against the proposed solution. These dichotomous remedies advocated by the debate teams do not always offer the best solutions; however, the audience offers a perspective that incorporates solutions with elements from both “sides.” Rinfret suggests that class debates accompanied by research and deliberation encourage students to pursue compromise and collaboration to find solutions

that benefit all stakeholders. A post-project survey shows that debate panels increase openness to ‘active listening’ and ‘comfort with discussion’ in over half of participating students, make them more aware of the policy making process, and encourage compromise—all essential to the development of healthy and productive political discourse (p.529-530).

Leslie Caughell (2018) proposes an alternative way to engage students in contentious political topics while building empathy and discussion skills necessary to participate in all facets of civil discourse. Caughell seeks to promote political empathy by requiring students to research and market opposing political beliefs through a campaign website (p. 660). Caughell assigns each self-identified liberal student a 2016 Republican Presidential candidate. Students research their candidate’s background and policy positions and make a WordPress campaign website that reflects these values and markets them to the public. Caughell assigns readings on the psychology behind political marketing and voter decision-making and expects students to use these learnings to inform content and design decisions. Caughell provides a brief introduction to WordPress mechanics but encourages students to learn more about web design, the platform, and their candidate. The project is followed by a paper defending content and design choices citing principles from the assigned readings (p. 660-661).

Caughell finds that marketing the political beliefs of candidates in an opposing political party fosters students’ empathy for those aligned with these candidates while developing useful professional skills. Through pre- and post-test surveys, students show increased favorable attitudes toward their candidates, and they express more confidence in their ability to secure a nomination and their competency to implement their party platform. While some students’ perceptions of each candidate become less favorable throughout the semester, the student tasked with creating that candidate’s website almost always has a more favorable perception in the post-survey. Furthermore, students display increased confidence and competency with the WordPress medium, a skill many eventually include in resumes. Such assignments require students to put themselves in the mindset of differing political positions and acknowledge these positions may have merit. This is key to increasing empathy and productive political discourse (p. 661-662).

Face-to-face communication skills are essential to civil discourse; however, the increasing reliance on digital media for research, discussion, and political decision-making necessitates incorporating the digital sphere into political conversations. Jennie Sweet-Cushman addresses this need in “Social Media Learning as a Pedagogical Tool: Twitter and Engagement in Civic

Dialogue and Public Policy” (2019). She develops a media literacy and political engagement education framework using Twitter as a Personal Learning Environment (PLE). Students create a list of political stakeholders to “follow” that will help them learn about current political issues. A core element of this experiment is the Class on Twitter model, in which the instructor leads the class through a Twitter comment thread discussing a political issue based on an assigned reading. Students share reliable sources on the topic to substantiate their positions, then reflect on their experiences in a blog post (p. 764-765).

While Caughell demonstrates the benefits of technology and social media on political empathy, Sweet-Cushman expands this idea by suggesting that it is the quality rather than quantity of online political engagement that determines both the degree of learning and engagement with multiple political positions that differ from one’s own. Students are chronically online, exposed to political messaging daily, especially during contentious election cycles. Exposure does not guarantee increased empathy or understanding; students must be given the tools to critically examine political claims, determine their validity, and understand underlying motives.

Increased emphasis on such engagement may reduce toxic political interactions online and lead to a more informed and empathetic citizenry. Through pre-test and post-test surveys, Sweet- Cushman finds that students gain competency in finding reliable political information online and summarizing key points in online discussions. They do not rely solely on their political predispositions that the instructor asked students to reveal early in the course, and a Twitter poll constructed by Sweet-Cushman finds that many students develop opinions inconsistent with self-reported party affiliation. The one-time “Class on Twitter” discussion results in conversations between students that extend beyond allotted time and engages students that do not normally participate in class (p. 766-769).

Caughell, Sweet-Cushman, and Rinfret provide valuable tools to increase political empathy and lead civil discussion. However, the current state of political discourse forces us to consider their limitations and address the reality of ever-increasing polarization. With the rise in extreme politics, should educators encourage students to empathize with these positions? Nancy Thomas (2019) poses several questions for instructors wrestling with such issues. She challenges educators to reflect on how they conduct political discourse in the classroom. For example, instructors must determine how classroom political discourse should accommodate

‘feelings,’ beliefs that defy evidence, and statements that defy institutional values (e.g. diversity, equity, and inclusion) that are promoted by the university. How should instructors address the fact that calls for “civility” are sometimes used to shut down dissent, ignore critical social issues, or silence the powerless? These practices set an invaluable foundation for civic discourse, including helping students build trust and community, establishing ground rules for discussion in a democratic manner, and encouraging thoughtful inquiry and shared responsibility. Educators should be hesitant to censor speech or political views, but should also not allow hateful or harmful rhetoric to derail what would otherwise be a productive discussion (p. 1-11).

Teaching students to engage in productive civic discourse is essential to cultivate a citizenry capable of cooperatively identifying and working toward solutions. Best practices and new methods must evolve with political reality. As a 2019 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education18 noted, Professors nationwide seek ways to help students understand and communicate with people who think differently (McMurtrie, 2019). But exposure to different views is not sufficient. Educators must teach a broader set of skills, such as fact-checking, critically researching multiple perspectives, and the ability to verbally communicate with those holding differing views. Fortunately, resources abound to help educators meet this challenge.19 Educators need to be intentional in deciding how to encourage healthy disagreement without alienating students or stifling discourse. Students will face political debates and disagreements their entire lives. This requires that they learn skills to discuss differences and work toward collaboration and compromise if we are to realize our aspiration for a more civil political environment.


Caughell, L. (2018). Teaching Students to Hear the Other Side: Using Web Design and Election Events to Build Empathy in the Political Science Classroom. PS: Political Science & Politics, 51(3), 659-663. doi:10.1017/S1049096518000082

Hurley, D., Isenbletter, K., & Bennion, E.A. (2021). Civic Engagement Scholarship: What We Can Learn from the Research [Conference presentation]. APSA 2021 Annual Meeting, Seattle, WA, United States.

McMurtrie, B. (2019). These Professors Help Students See Why Others Think Differently. The Chronicle of Higher Education. help-students-see-why-others-think- differently/?cid2=gen_login_refresh&cid=gen_sign_in

Rinfret, S. (2019). Debating the Issues and Finding a Middle Ground. PS: Political Science & Politics, 52(3), 527-530. doi:10.1017/S1049096519000076

Sweet-Cushman, J. (2019). Social Media Learning as a Pedagogical Tool: Twitter and Engagement in Civic Dialogue and Public Policy. PS: Political Science & Politics, 52(4), 763-770. doi:10.1017/S1049096519000933

Thomas, N. (2019). Politics 365: Fostering Campus Climates for Student Political Learning and Engagement, in Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education, eds. Nicholas V. Longo and Timothy J. Shaffer. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2019




David J. Hurley, Kayla C. Isenbletter, and Elizabeth A. Bennion are guest contributors to APSA Educate. The views expressed in the articles featured on APSA Educate are those of the authors and do not represent APSA’s views.

Published since 2005, The Political Science Educator is the newsletter of the Political Science Education Section of the American Political Science Association. All issues of the The Political Science Educator can be viewed on APSA Connects Civic Education page.

Editors: Colin Brown (Northeastern University), Matt Evans (Northwest Arkansas Community College)


APSA Educate has republished The Political Science Educator since 2021. Any questions or corrections to how the newsletter appears on Educate should be addressed to

Educate’s Political Science Educator digital collection. 


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