Politics in the Classroom


The above link is to a 2015 interview of Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy (authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education), discussing the issue of politics in the classroom and how teachers can/should introduce and discuss the subject.

Personally, I regularly connect the work we do in class to the wider world beyond it, since I find that to be a key element in teaching critical thinking. Additionally, considering events over the last few months and especially the last fortnight, I think I would be remiss in not touching upon politics, since it directly pertains to the lives of my students and the world they (will) inhabit. Simultaneously, I am aware of the potential pitfalls of explicitly introducing politics into the discussions (I would argue that any classroom, by definition, implicitly engages with politics) and want the subject to add to and enhance the functioning of the classroom. To that end, the following are some of the strategies I utilize:

Make everything explicit: When I am going to discuss politics in the classroom, I invariably begin (often well ahead of time) by explaining that we are going to discuss politics in the classroom—and why we are going to do so. This ensures that students are not surprised when the subject shows up and also understand why it does. Similarly, when touching on individual subjects, I always spell out exactly how and why I am. That expresses a degree of respect for my students and shows them that there are always reasons for my approach, even if they are reasons they might not agree with.

Set the parameters: As part of being explicit and clear with my students, I begin the semester by laying out precisely what assumptions we will be working with. For example, I make it clear to my students that opinions (including mine) are irrelevant in our classroom; what matters are informed opinions and arguments that are backed up by reason, explanation, and evidence. Similarly, I explain that our classroom is one where exclusionary ideas, such as racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. are not welcome and, if expressed, will be critiqued. Of course, setting the boundaries clearly helps with every aspect of the class, not only the subject of politics.

Emphasize pedagogy: When dealing with politics in class, I always emphasize the pedagogical importance of engaging explicitly with the subject. In fact, I usually ask students to work out precisely how and why politics matters to our classroom. Invariably, some of them come up with relevant and thoughtful reasons—ones that I can later connect back to, emphasizing that it is not solely my opinion that this matters, but theirs too.

Contextualize and historicize: Whenever dealing with politics in the classroom, I attempt to provide appropriate context and historicize it. When discussing the recent “Muslim ban,” I did not comment on it being reprehensible, but instead drew out the connections between it and the Holocaust references in our text for the day (Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”), which then led to students building on the point. This approach works well because it reduces the chances of students taking this as a simple airing of my personal opinion, and also models the use of contextualization and historicizing as important critical tools.

Don’t make it personal: In keeping with the above, I usually present my interpretations of and responses to politics as one among multiple possible readings, often touching on other approaches. Simultaneously, I make sure to explain which interpretations and positions are stronger or more accurate than others, explaining the precise reasoning and underlying assumptions that I am using. This also applies when it comes to student opinions. If I have to address flaws in reasoning, I always phrase it as an analysis of the idea, not of the person expressing it.

…except when I do: While deemphasizing the personal can be useful, I do sometimes draw on my own identity where it helps illustrate or emphasize a point. As a foreigner who is queer and a person of color, I can utilize my background and personal experiences to shed light on a particular political position or issue, which serves to illustrate how the personal is political (and vice versa). It also allows me to illustrate issues such as empathy and intersectionality, and why individuals should care about groups that they do not belong to, such as why someone who is cisgendered and male should be feminist, be opposed to transphobia, etc.

Humor: Since I have a (un)healthy sense of humor about most subjects, I find it easy to bring that into the classroom. Dealing with politics in the classroom can often be difficult (not to mention depressing), so presenting the subject with a sense of humor helps students—and me. In keeping with the approach of making everything explicit, I do usually touch upon the fact that humor is a coping mechanism and that having a sense of humor does not mean taking the subjects we are dealing with less seriously.

Thus far, going by classroom behavior and anonymous evaluations/feedback, the combination of above approaches have worked quite well, with my students enthusiastically and critically engaging with the subject of politics, sharing different views, and seeming to have no issues with my clear statement of my own political positions.

What approaches do you take and how have they worked?


5 thoughts on “Politics in the Classroom

  1. Shil: I’m curious to know how you brought a discussion of the Muslim ban into an analysis of “Daddy”! Was it just a passing connection? As in the United States took in very few Jewish refugees for most of WWII (not sure if there was ever a full ban), similar to the way the nation is now closing its borders to many Muslim refugees? Or was there a full-fledged discussion? Was the conversation organic, or were you more specific in your questions, goal for the class, and how you wanted students to respond?

    On Monday, my classes discussed “Let America be America Again” by Langston Hughes, and I tried to tie it to our first class conversation about the different reasons writers write (critiquing the larger culture or political situation being one of those reasons). Our conversation was mostly organic, though I’d prepared questions ahead of time. I’d wondered if I should have had a related homework assignment. I thought it was a productive class overall.

    —Jen DeGregorio (pardon the weird wordpress name — it’s from the website I use at an arts class I teach at Hunter)

    • Hi, Jen! The connection to “Daddy” was fairly general and I touched on multiple elements, such as the way Hitler vilified the Jews as aliens whose persecution was justified as making the German populace safer, the way rhetoric and power had a role to play there, the issue of identity, issues of language and communication, etc. So it would count, I think, as a series of passing connections. The conversation was quite organic, which is my default mode for my classes. I may ask specific questions, but I rarely have a specific goal or particular responses I want. I did start the class by explicitly saying that we were going to touch on politics in the class, and then explaining how and why we would do so (but first asking students why they thought it might be relevant, and getting some good answers).

      Coincidentally, I’m going to be doing “Let America be America Again” too (next week), so I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.

  2. I did a research paper on tenure back in 1993. I came across an article in a Fortune style magazine from 1991. sorry lost the paper. But the article told its readers that the next best product to invest in was Education. In 1998 I started teaching high school in Newark and was introduced to standardized testing which had started in 1993. It had also become apparent that education was being controlled by big money. And nothing has improved; as a matter of fact, it has gotten worse in these particular district. I fought the system for 12 years and now teach as an adjunct with that service pension. I usually get around very early to apologizing to my students fro the education they received in high school. This sort of sets the tone for discussions relative teaching and learning while teaching a developmental reading course in Developing Analytical Thought I and II. I am not sure this relates to politics; but lately doesn’t everything. It seems that this course could go further into the discussion of politics but perhaps not as a English reading or writing course. My Master’s is in English. Great topic and thank you for the opportunity to speak my peace about how poor education really is.
    Tom Tilley

    • The deplorable state of US high school education is something I always touch on with my students. I also try to get them to think critically about the nature of the education they are involved in, what the system prioritizes and what it doesn’t, what the effects (on them individually and on the society/culture(s) they inhabit) are, etc. I generally find students pleasantly surprised at being encouraged to think critically about and critique education, and usually very quick to engage with the subject. And I’d argue that absolutely relates to politics. As you say, what doesn’t?

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