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How to Teach Politics (or anything) in a Hyper-Partisan World

How to Teach Politics (or anything) in a Hyper-Partisan World

by Tara Ross
October 16, 2017

It's no secret to anyone who knows me that I love politics. I love reading about it; I love talking about; I love teaching it. In our hyper-partisan world today, though, it can be hard for instructors to teach it without worrying about accusations of bias, or getting into political arguments with students. Given that American Government and other Political Science courses are quite popular as online courses at US universities, instructors need to approach the topic with some idea of how to teach it with integrity.

Teaching Politics in an Authentic way

Consider these tips as a way to teach politics with authenticity while avoiding the clown show that politics often becomes in our news and in our society.

  1. Remove your own bias as much as possible. We all have one. It would be ridiculous to assume that we don't. However, it's important that your bias, your outlook, and your opinions not become the focal point of the class. Think of yourself as the person asking the students the questions. If you want them to see an issue more fully, or if you feel they are missing the forest for the trees, it is not your job to tell them how to view it. You assess their understanding of the facts and the content as well as their analysis. Ultimately, though, your job is to ask them the next question, and then the next, and the next. In educational theory, this is called cognitivism. Learning through discovery enables students to become critical thinkers. This is your purpose as an instructor. Leave your views out of it. (You may also find that in doing this, you change your mind on some issues!)

  2. It's not a call-in show. Politics is too often debated and discussed within the realm of cable news or talk radio. We need to bring rational discussion back to the mainstream, and back to our classes. One of the first things I do with a new class of students who have not taken political science before is to let them know that the course is based on research, scholarly sources, and the presentation of facts. It's not a call in radio show.

I usually get tipped off to what students think the class will be like when a student introduces himself or herself as someone 'who loves arguing politics' and "can't wait" to do so in the discussions. My reply is first to welcome them, but then to redirect their enthusiasm toward learning something new. My next point is to remind students that that we use informed opinion to discuss selected topics. They are not graded on their viewpoints, but they are graded on their ability to synthesize the information and use data to guide their answers.

  3. Commit yourself and your class to using only top-tier sources. One of the hallmarks of my political science classes is that I do not permit students to use open-web sources (aside from scientific survey data, court cases published on the web, and well-known newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times.) Unless open web sources are specifically required for an assignment, or if the point of the assignment is to evaluate an open-web source, students must contact me to if they want to use one. Typically this allows students the freedom to peruse the open web for information, but to recognize that they will have to get permission to use what they find. Such an approach also forces students to learn how to use the online library, a skill so critical to their educational development that I'm always crushed when I get a student who is taking my class toward the end of their educational career telling me that they've never used it before.

Of course this goes two ways – as an instructor I have to use only quality sources as well. I'm not setting a great example if I'm using links to political blogs or cable news websites to make a point in the discussions. And I've established a no-TV news policy in order to mitigate the "but it's right wing!" or "it's so left wing!". If they want to share the news, it has to come from a newspaper that is well established, has a print component, and has editorial standards. This system is not perfect, but it prevents a great deal of conspiracy theory debates in the class, while still providing students with a wide range of sources to use. As I tell my students who are intensely observant of any hint of bias, no one would call the Wall Street Journal liberal nor would they call the Washington Post conservative, and they are free to use those. The best that we can do is use sources that have systems in place that provide some editorial standards.

  4. Opinion doesn't matter. Napoleon Hill used to say, "Opinions are the cheapest commodities on the earth." Frankly, I don't want to know my students' opinions. In politics, everyone has one; they are rarely fully formed, and can often be upended with a little bit of discussion. What I want to observe is how my political science students have synthesized the sources they have read, discussed the key themes across those sources, examined the contradictions, and drawn conclusions. Those conclusions are their own, but that differs pretty remarkably from "personal opinion" once the students have done the previous steps. 

  5. Reject discussion questions, assignments, and project designs that feed into existing biases. If you are teaching a class that you have not designed, you will likely come across poorly designed discussion questions or assignments. Discussion prompts that seem destined to get students to reach the same conclusions are common. 

    • In what ways has the Supreme Court over-reached its authority?
    • Do you believe the federal government is taking too much power from the states?
    • Are illegals taking jobs from US citizens?
    • Is global warming a hoax?

Yes, these are all questions faculty peers at other institutions have shared with me. Yikes! They are all yes/no questions, too, which limit discussion. Fortunately I was able to design the courses at my university and never had to deal with questions like this, but sadly, many adjuncts and full time faculty members are not able to control the content.

    If you have editing rights, change the questions! How much better would it be to ask students to explain judicial activism versus judicial restraint…or better yet, to even explain the basics of judicial review? Why not ask students to explain federalism, why our founders established our system of government that way, and where it works well and where it does not work well? Ask students to examine employment trends, and how undocumented immigrants impact those trends in the United States. Is there truly a need for their services, and if so, what can be done about the issue? On environmental issues, I've found it immensely helpful never to use the term 'global warming' but rather talk about policy such as the Clean Water Act, or spark a discussion on the future of electricity and a smart grid, and the purpose or lack of purpose of environmental treaties.

  7. You can't teach everything, so teach critical thinking. Students love that term 'critical thinking' about as much as you probably loved Brussels sprouts as a kid. Critical thinking as a term is also overused and tends to lose its impact. Ultimately, though, if you love teaching, you may often lament that you don't have enough time with your students to teach them the subject. In political science, I've found it exceedingly difficult to teach all aspects of American Government in one term. I have to pick and choose my topics.


However, what if you were to make a few topics and tasks the lynchpins of your class, thus ensuring that students learned those few things well? Ideally, those lynchpins would be elements that would develop students' skills in finding reliable sources, in asking questions that brought them deeper into a subject, or developed habits that would last forever. One of the habits I try to get my students to establish is to turn off the television news. That's not political bias; I'm an equal opportunity basher of all TV news. I explain to my students that in the mid-1990s, television news at the networks came under the purview of the entertainment divisions and from then on had to be more concerned with entertaining us than with delivering news on issues that may just be slightly more boring but infinitely more important than the diet of pre-digested infotainment we're fed daily. If I can get them to change just one habit – to watch TV news less, and read quality news more – then I feel like I've accomplished something greater than just covering the content for the short time I have them.

  8. Get off your soapbox. Chances are that if you teach politics you might have found yourself on a soapbox…or two…or ten. My family is used to it, and we have a no-politics zone at the holidays. But in my online classes, the only soapbox I stand on is civic engagement. However, I know of universities where instructors are required to have paragraphs-long replies in online discussions. Such a policy is not conducive to student engagement for a few reasons: First, when every reply has to be that way, students will tune out the instructor. Verbosity is not your friend. Second, when writing that much it's typically the case that the instructor is shedding light on something, which, frankly, is not what the instructor should be doing with every post. When we provide the answers, we limit a student's learning potential. Occasional descriptive answers that are paragraphs long can be great when relaying a personal experience that is relevant or even explaining something obtuse like the Electoral College, but I've found that such posts get lost in the threads, and don't typically get a lot of follow up.
Instead, use the Socratic method. Ask a lot of "why" questions. If appropriate, ask "what if" questions. Let the students discover the answers. Their learning of the material is far more complete when they discover it for themselves rather than when someone tells them the answer.

Teaching political science engages college students in the critical questions of our time. We need to show our students and universities that we are up to the task. Teaching is more than getting feedback turned in on time, or how many posts you've made in the discussion board. Teaching is about creating independent thinkers, and providing them with the skills to be engaged citizens.