Talking about politics tougher than ever for professors and students alike

Posted February 22, 2018

For Neil Kraus, starting discussions about politics with students and talking about politics in general is one of the reasons he became a political science professor. Recently however, engaging in controversial classroom discussions with students is now not always an enjoyable aspect of teaching.

Kraus, who is the department chair and a professor of political science, has noticed that since the 2016 presidential election especially, he has had to approach talking about politics in his classes differently.

“There is definitely a strong perception that if you criticize the president, you are criticizing the president’s supporters personally,” Kraus said. “You can’t let that belief determine how we approach teaching.”

Feeling “excluded, intimidated or subjected to hostile conduct” due to their political views was a common bias expressed by students who participated in the February 2017 Campus Climate survey. One anonymous comment in the results of that survey noted: “Certain professors overstep their boundaries by being narrow minded with political views. I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my views in a certain class that required us to share opinions.”

Informing students of the facts of current events and of the current presidency and not having those remarks taken as biased is just another obstacle Kraus faces in approaching classroom discussions these days.

“It would be one thing if the president didn’t lie all the time. It would be a very different situation if the president adhered to conventional standards of truth and facts and science and history and events,” Kraus said. “But he doesn’t adhere to any standard conventions. And he does say things that are false repeatedly. Part of our job (as professors) is to try to inform students and get them thinking critically, and part of the way to do that is to correct things that are incorrect.”

Zach Bahr, a senior in one of Kraus’ political science senior seminar classes, hasn’t noticed a bias from his professors.

“You can tell which side of the aisle professors fall on,” Bahr said. “But they all do a good job of presenting it in an unbiased way, where you do hear the merits of both sides. They frame it in a way that does stir good debate, where you feel fine saying your opinion on either side of it.”

In regards to how he and his fellow students talk about politics in class, Bahr said everyone is pretty respectful.

“It is never hostile or heated or anything like that,” Bahr said. “Even if they are emotional topics. I don’t think anyone feels that they will be attacked by the other side.”

Kraus makes a point to include a statement in his syllabi for all his classes on the kind of behavior he expects his students to have when engaging with fellow students in his classes:

“Common courtesy is the rule for discussion.  Politics and government can bring out people’s strongly held views.  This is to be expected, as one’s political views often reflect one’s basic values. You should feel free to disagree with each other or with me, but at the same time, please do so respectfully.  We are all in this together, and it is important to remember that.”

It can be difficult to talk about politics with students who, like many other adults in society, do not always follow what is going on in the world very closely. Kraus said it is part of his duty as an educator and citizen of our democracy to keep students informed with facts that they need to know.

“It is difficult (to correct students),” Kraus said. “I try and make jokes when I do it, I try to keep it light. I thank students for participating, regardless of what they say. I am appreciative of everyone’s comments. From my perspective, I think it is going OK.”