Talking About Politics with Students

So I've been stewing a bit about the implications of this story from Insider Higher Ed about the University of Illinois policy against faculty displaying any signs of political allegiance.

Last night, instead of live-blogging the debate with folks over at Organizing Grievances or posting something here, I spent the evening watching a colleague from Women's Studies talk about the role of gender and sexism in the election. And when that was done, I sat with a few colleagues and watched the debate with a group of students. I didn't wear my Obama button, and I didn't bust out my Kinky for governor memorabilia, but I don't imagine I'm quite so crafty as I'd like to be about my leanings. Students don't get the intensity of my "leftiness" but the do get the general direction right. So far, it hasn't seemed to be a problem, even though I'd describe most of our students as having a fairly conservative view.

The pervasiveness of views that would make that sort of policy isn't something that can be ignored, but so far in my case, it hasn't been much of a problem. Mostly it seems to be a matter of framing. I've started to tell my students - particularly the intro groups - that part of what I think college is about is confronting unfamiliar ideas and trying them on. And so I'm not going to hide my views from them because I respect them enough as adults (or soon-to-be-adults) that I assume they can handle hearing things they don't agree with. We just have to agree on some rules about how to handle those moments where we disagree.

With some discussion along those lines last night - that everyone involved would have to offer their evidence and let everyone talk without interrupting (a point the students all seemed to wish the debaters would take to heart) - we made it successfully through the debate. And I think the students enjoyed it for a few reasons. First, because it let them feel like they had equal ground with those of who were faculty - they could speak and have opinions. The biggest problem with the Illinois problem is that it turns college into one more version of the kid's table. And second, it allows for some humanization of the issues. One of the things a student said on the way out the door last night was that they'd essentially had their first moment of putting a human face to a policy they'd always heard - and so, believed - was ridiculous. And in thinking and talking about it, some of the rough edge of politics was smoothed out.

For me, it was a moment not just a refutation of the U. Illinois policy but also a brief moment of hope about the future of politics.


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