Political Science Educator: volume 26, issue 2
James Steur, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
In the first year of Trump’s Presidency, I started graduate school and worked as a teaching assistant for Introduction to American Politics. I was anxious about teaching in the classroom for the first time, and I was especially nervous about facilitating discussion about contentious political topics during a polarizing presidency. In the first few weeks of the course, two students got into a heated argument about Republicans being heartless and Democrats being irrational. While I was able to diffuse the situation, I wanted strategies on how to handle contentious topics in the classroom. Five years later, I now serve as a graduate affiliate at my school’s Teaching Center and assist educators in addressing these types of issues. In this piece, I reflect on my journey and discuss the unique tradeoffs between passive and active learning for psychological safety in political science classrooms when contentious political topics arise. After, I discuss two active learning strategies I use to foster more constructive conversations in the classroom when conflict arises.
Passive vs. Active Learning: Tradeoffs in the Political Science Classroom
After the heated discussion about Republicans and Democrats, I sought advice from colleagues in political science. I asked them, “How do you handle challenging conversations in the classroom?” To my surprise, most of my colleagues expressed similar concerns with few solutions. While most teaching assistants and faculty members appear to receive relatively little training on pedagogy and other teaching related topics, there was an added complexity of teaching about politics during a polarizing presidency. Not only was I, as a teaching assistant, expected to teach myself how to teach effectively with minimal formal training, I was doing so on challenging topics like the Unite the Right event in Charlottesville and the proliferation of fake news on social media. Compounding this complexity was the reactions of students about these political topics. Some students were comfortable speaking their minds in the classroom; regardless of the negative impact on the learning environment.
The most common approach I heard to handle this type of contentious conversation was using passive learning styles, like lecturing, in order to maintain control of the classroom. When instructors are lecturing, it is easier to control the delivery of course content and flow of the class. Instructors can choose to lecture about parties, receive minimal or no discussion from students, and deliver the information to them as containers of knowledge. In class discussions that use active learning, instructors relinquish much of their control. When discussing parties in my own classes, students have had more freedom to add colorful political comments about how parties are evil, serve no purpose, or to make off-topic comments about their dad.
In this regard, political science instructors face a challenging conundrum. While lecturing allows for greater control of content and helps ensure that students do not have contentious debates that can create a challenging learning environment, a large literature suggests that active learning produces better learning outcomes in the classroom (Tutal & Yazar, 2022; Freeman et al., 2014). Active learning may produce better learning outcomes, but in the political science classroom active learning can produce psychological and emotional danger that impedes learning. How can instructors include both active learning of sensitive political material and maintain psychological safety in the classroom?
Metacognition: Debate vs. Dialogue
After being in the classroom for five years, I’ve observed that most instructors have the best of intentions when they ask students to discuss a topic. However, many instructors express frustration when the conversation devolves into a series of tangents and monologues that don’t further the discussion. In a worse scenario, students may commit microaggressions, or make even more blatantly insensitive comments about a student’s identity that negatively impact the student and classroom. In conversations about teaching, my colleagues and I have noticed that instructors often assume that students “know how to talk” in ways that are constructive to their learning. However, discussion is a skill that requires conversation norms and practice.
To foster respectful discussion, one tool I discuss with my students is remembering the key differences between dialogue and debate in the classroom (Zheng, Spence, & Cusick, 2022; Ferrer, 2020; Souza, 2016; United States Institute of Peace, 2015). In our discussions, I highlight that debates have winners and losers, glorify being right, and focus on identifying logical flaws without an intention to learn. I emphasize that dialogue involves collaborating with no clear winners or losers, understanding different points of view, and identifying assumptions and points of agreement to facilitate learning. We further explore these distinctions by watching Presidential Debates and discussing how these elements arise in a debate vs. dialogue handout. Students have acknowledged that it is clear that candidates are “trying to win” and are not interested in a constructive dialogue.
I also apply this tool by facilitating small debates in the class with low stakes questions like, “Why are dogs or cats better?” When students get into “heated” debates about dogs giving better snuggles and cats requiring less maintenance, I highlight that these smaller issues of disagreement are important to evaluate while thinking about the debate vs. dialogue mindset. Students can ask themselves metacognitive questions such as, “What is at stake in our discussion: why do I feel the need to be right?” Once sensitive topics like Presidential elections arise, I rely on these early conversations to scaffold to more-sensitive topics and remind students they shouldn’t make off-handed comments or disagree with people in class simply because they say the name of a political party or a Congressperson. Students often reference this framework in the classroom on heated topics and acknowledge when they are acting in a debate mindset.
Mistakes Will Happen: Open The Front Door (OTFD) Framework
At the start of my classes, I emphasize that we are all human beings, and we make mistakes. We may unknowingly make a comment when discussing the measurement of race that impacts another student in the classroom negatively. At some point, most of us in the classroom will make a mistake. And it’s not a matter of if a mistake is made in the classroom, but when a mistake will be made and how we handle that mistake as a community. I tell students that making a mistake does not make them a bad person; mistakes are a changeable behavior that can be addressed individually or in the classroom, and they are not a reflection of who you are as a person. Importantly, I highlight that I am not immune to mistakes, and can also say things that negatively impact students and the classroom environment. I emphasize that when this happens, students should let me know how to correct this behavior in whatever way they feel comfortable doing so.
I acknowledge that most of us tend to get defensive when we make a mistake, which is why I discuss the “Open The Front Door” (OFTD) to communication framework with students (Ganote, Souza, & Cheung, 2021; Learning Forum, 2016.). OFTD gives students a framework to acknowledge how we can work through mistakes in the classroom when they happen in real-time. The framework, as adapted from Ganote, Souza, & Cheung (2021) and the Learning Forum (2016), looks something like this in my teaching.
Observe: Using your five senses, say what you observed as clearly as possible. The purpose of doing this is to establish a shared reality in the classroom. For instance, “I observed that some students gasped when Timmy said ‘cuckhold.’”
Think: From your observation, identify what you think happened. This can be what you think the classroom is thinking, how the classroom climate has shifted, or other thoughts you have that are related to your observation. For example, “I think that people in the class are offended by the term “cuckhold,” based on the gasps in the classroom.
Feel: State and explain your feeling about what is happening with an emotional word using an “I” statement. This could take the form of, “I feel confused about why this statement may be offensive and got gasps. My understanding of the term “cuckhold” is a married man whose wife cheats on him.”
Desire: Explain, in detail, what specific step you desire to remedy the situation. For example, “My desire moving forward is to allow Timmy to explain himself based on my confusion. If you feel comfortable sharing with the whole class now, Timmy, please feel free to do so. If you would prefer to check-in with me one-on-one after class, we can also do that.”
There’s an old saying that says you shouldn’t talk about sex, money, religion, or politics with others. However, as political science instructors, it would be impossible to take this conventional advice. In order to help create better citizens, instructors of political science should recognize that disagreement about politics should arise at some point in the classroom. Ultimately, discomfort from disagreement is an important step in learning, and instructors can mitigate harmful comments if we prepare ourselves and our students with the appropriate tools to handle mistakes in the classroom.
 For additional resources on handling challenging topics in the classroom, I suggest Indiana CITL (2022) and Vanderbilt Center for Teaching (2022).
Ferrer, John. 2020. “Debate vs. Dialogue: How do They Differ?” Equal Rights Institute Blog. Retrieved from https://blog.equalrightsinstitute.com/debate-dialogue-differ/
Freeman, Scott, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, & Mary Pat Wenderoth. 2014. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 111(23): 8410-8415.
Ganote, Cynthia, Tasha Souza, & Floyd Cheung. 2021. “Pedagogies of Micro Resistance for Equity and Social Justice.” In Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education (pp. 71-82). Cincinnati, OH: University of Cincinnati Press.
Indiana University CITL. 2022. “Managing Difficult Classroom Discussions.” Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from https://citl.indiana.edu/teaching-resources/diversity-inclusion/managing-difficult-classroom-discussions/index.html
Learning Forum. 2016. “OTFD: A Powerful Communication Technique.” Retrieved from https://prezi.com/tszt1slnknpa/otfd-a-powerful-communication-technique/
Souza, Tasha. 2016. “Hot Moments in the Classroom.” CETL Weekly Teaching Tips. Retrieved from https://oakland.edu/Assets/Oakland/cetl/files-and-documents/TeachingTips/2016/HotMomentsTT.pdf
Tanner, Jeseye. Debate vs. dialogue. PostSecondary Peer Support Training Curriculum. Retrieved from https://opentextbc.ca/peersupport/chapter/debate-vs-dialogue/
Tutal, Özgür. & Taha Yazar. 2022. “Active Learning Promotes More Positive Attitudes Towards the Course: A Meta-Analysis.” Review of Education 10: e3346. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3346
United States Institute of Peace. 2015. “Comparison of Dialogue and Debate.” Retrieved from https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/2017-01/Dialogue%2Bvs%2BDebate%2B-%2BUSIP%2BGlobal%2BCampus.pdf
Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. 2022. “Difficult Dialogues.” Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/difficult-dialogues/#tools
James Steur is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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)
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