How to use technology to improve political discussions in the classroom (opinion)


As a professor of U.S. history, I’ve never hesitated to discuss politics in the classroom. Politics is stitched into nearly every historical event. History for me is full of insights and lessons, and I love teaching students how to see the connections between our past and present.

Still, I know today’s rancorous political environment makes discussing politics in any setting hazardous. If I do not approach conversations in my classroom intentionally and thoughtfully, I may have an adverse effect on my students’ ability to learn important lessons. This is why I turn to technology to help guide those conversations and separate personal feelings from academic analysis. While using technology to engage in political discussions might call to mind trading barbed posts on Facebook with an old high school classmate, in the classroom, I’ve found it can be used to foster objectivity and engage students.

Some faculty members might shy away from potentially divisive conversations. In an era of Professor Watchlist, the inclusion of political bias on Rate My Professor reviews and cases like Texas A&M University’s Tommy J. Curry, it is easy to see why some of my colleagues hesitate to engage in these conversations.

Adding to the apprehension is a changing environment on campuses. In the past few years, student criticism and backlash against certain campus speakers have increased, leading administrators to apply more caution when inviting public figures to campus. In some cases, college and university administrators are issuing guidelines on how faculty members can and cannot engage in political conversations. Right after the 2016 presidential elections, there were so many questions about what faculty members could and couldn’t say that the American Association of University Professors published an FAQ to help academics understand their freedoms.

Student attitudes toward such conversations in the classroom also seem to be shifting. I’ve noticed more students assuming my colleagues and I are trying to indoctrinate them to some worldview. This belief is held so deeply that it sometimes seems I can’t overcome the suspicion that I have some political agenda. I personally have been accused of being a liberal Marxist and a conservative Reagan apologist.

Despite this environment, I remain steadfast in my commitment to talking about current political events in class. Engaging in conversation about politics and the implications of campaigns, voting, election results and different policies is immensely critical for students. I see it as my job to teach my students to think about, engage in and better understand the world around them through the lens of history.

Furthermore, I can’t picture my class without these topics. Recently I taught a section called U.S. History Through Film. When we watched and discussed the movie Selma, the conversation would have been incomplete if we didn’t talk about the ways voter suppression did and didn’t show up in the 2018 midterms. I know I am not alone in this sentiment.

Yet making the commitment to integrate political conversations into the classroom is only half the challenge — the other is getting students to participate. Across the United States, call-out culture is impacting discussions on college campuses. More students are hesitant to speak up because they fear saying the “wrong” thing. This trend exacerbates a problem that has long existed in classrooms: a handful of the most extroverted students dominate the conversation.

But I’ve found a solution: technology.

Technology can anonymize discussions and foster an understanding of the importance of analyzing ideas and their implications, rather than pushing an agenda. We can use a whole host of platforms to accomplish this separation between feelings and analysis, but in my classroom, I’ve used Top Hat. There are two incredibly helpful — and effective — features that I’ve used regularly in class.

Polling questions to prompt discussion. Some faculty members may be accustomed to using polling questions during class to check for understanding. I’ve done this as well. I’ve also found that asking students to respond with their personal devices to a question I posed can be a way to deepen our conversation, especially when tackling topics they are reticent to discuss in public.

For example, asking students how they voted on a particular state amendment or proposition could be interpreted as me judging their vote or a violation of their privacy. Students could also be wary of how their peers would judge them. To respect student privacy and to encourage more honest answers, I’ve masked the identity of responders when I used polling questions in class. I also used a double-blind process, so the answers are unidentifiable to me as well as other students.

Polling is useful for asking questions that help students ponder the complexity and ambiguity of certain topics. For example, I’ve asked what words describe a certain political party. Using the technology, my class can look at everyone’s anonymous answers individually or aggregated as a word cloud. These results can reveal common threads as well as a range of opinions the students may not have considered before. It’s an effective way to help the class think deeper and challenge their own assumptions.

Discussion questions to prompt reflection and analysis. I’ve also used the platform to ask questions about complex topics. I’ve posed these questions in class as well as in my online textbook. Using in-class questions gives me a chance to draw out responses from students about topics they might have trouble answering off the cuff. An example of leveraging technology in this way is a discussion I had with my students about which sources of information are reliable. I was surprised to learn that many of my students thought all news organizations have a political bias. So I used anonymous in-class reflection and analysis to ask them to unpack that idea and dive further into the question of whether or not journalistic objectivity still exists.

Having students reflect and write gives us a chance to examine where class members are in alignment and where they differ, again removing personal attributes and judgments from the equation. Approaching discussions in this way sets the understanding that we are analyzing arguments without bringing personal impressions of each other into the conversation. This is a life skill I think more people could benefit from.

I have also used discussion questions in the textbook to continue the conversation after class or prime it before we meet. This added opportunity for engagement, combined with the ability to update the text as new events take place, makes our conversations more relevant and meaningful. If I were using a static textbook, it would be much harder to show students how history happens every day and the role politics plays in shaping those events.

Using technology in such ways encourages students to engage in diverse and challenging conversations that can enrich their educations. And while political conversations will always include some risk of potential land mines, I know they have a place in my classroom. Without integrating these discussions as part of the learning experience, I can’t create the open-minded intellectual environment that I believe students need — and deserve — in order to understand the world around them.

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