Post-election: Reaching Across the Table

–  Jeanne M. Slattery, Ellen Foster, and Melissa K. Downes

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Melissa Downes, Ellen Foster, and Jeanne Slattery

We value exploring ideas in the classroom. We value effective communication. We value making room for a variety of perspectives. Given these things, last fall’s election was personally challenging, but also an opportunity to grow.

Ellen had a student on election day crow about Trump’s surge in the polls – and another express concern about hearing racial epithets directed at her, about feeling less safe after the election.

One of Melissa’s students announced in an assignment – which was not at all about the election or US politics – that “the world” has to agree on a “right answer” and support the president as he makes “a better country.”

Jeanne’s interns, all senior psychology majors, were baffled and afraid after the election. Their values and career goals were challenged by the election, as psychology majors often want to “help other people,” to make the world a fairer place for all. Suddenly, for them, the world felt unsafe.

The three of us have had difficulty with the election results, but we also want to make room for multiple perspectives from both sides of the political aisle.

Teaching often takes courage. Ellen had been asking students to consider the meanings of a series of images. See Figure 1. Students expressed positive – and in some cases negative – reactions. She had planned on discussing the last of these three images on the Thursday after the election and considered dropping it to avoid a contentious discussion. She went ahead, reminding students that their classroom was a place to exchange ideas respectfully and build understanding. If not in a room where they’d worked well together since August, where could such conversations happen? As one of her students said, “You have balls, Dr. F.” (She took his statement in the spirit in which it was meant.)

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Figure 1. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, Photo by Joe Rosenthal/Associated Press; US Marine Corp Memorial, Washington, DC; and Photo by Ed Freeman/Getty Images.

* * *

It is easy to focus on the inaccuracies and outright lies that characterize some of Trump’s tweets and simply grow more and more frustrated by the whole idea of “alt-facts.” It might be easy to dismiss voters who voted differently as ill-informed. However, as teachers, we should be aiding students as they develop effective ways to both challenge and support their own values and perspectives. For example, in working with her composition students on building ethical arguments, Melissa plans to provide examples of what not to do that come from both sides of the ongoing post-election debates. Each of us is trying to pay attention to audience, to the many different values and perspectives that viewers bring to the Pride photo and other points of view (cf. Lamothe, 2015).

There’s an easy assumption that college faculty are trying to convert students to their own values and beliefs (e.g., DeVos’s comments; Jaschik, 2017). Each of us is more interested in strengthening our students’ critical thinking skills and their ability to understand differing legitimate viewpoints.

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Figure 2. Both people high and low in religiosity see the other as intolerant (Putnam & Campbell, 2010).

We have been reading some of the things about differences between conservatives and liberals.  Why would “hillbillies” see billionaire President Trump as a viable candidate and similar to them, but be put off by President Obama or Secretary Clinton (Vance, 2016a, 2016b)? Putnam and Campbell (2010) provide a fascinating account of religion in the US. People who are high in religiosity see those as low in religiosity as intolerant – and those low in religiosity see people high in religiosity as intolerant (see Figure 2). Much the same is true for selfishness (not depicted here). Haidt (2012) argues that liberals and conservative hold different moral values influencing how they see the world: liberals focus more on caring and fairness, while conservatives emphasize loyalty, authority, and purity to a greater degree (Haidt, 2012).

It would be easier and more comfortable for anyone to read perspectives that agree with their own, but we are attempting to go outside our comfort zone (and we should). And we want our students to also challenge their assumptions, though admittedly in “safe” places. Liberals and conservatives often see the world differently from each other (and similarly in others). We need to pay attention to both the similarities and differences.

We are in disciplines where audience and evidence matter. We each believe we must write and teach in ways that are convincing for our audience. Jeanne believes that her students will effect change more powerfully when speaking their clients’ “language.” Being a good teacher means emphasizing critical thinking and being aware of audience – recognizing the best ways to reach students, while challenging them to move beyond their comfort zones.

If we are going to be effective at our jobs, we need to help our students consider their audiences, evaluate their evidence, recognize that audience’s values and beliefs, and communicate more effectively. We want our students to develop a greater “empathetic logic” – the ability to communicate effectively using their understanding of another person’s worldview.

And we need to communicate. Whether we are conservative, liberal, or moderate, we should consider how to communicate more effectively. We all need to find ways to reach across the table.

We are living in polarized times, where we increasingly see the world in terms of good and evil, right and wrong. Duarte and his colleagues (Duarte, Crawford, Stern, Haidt, Jussim, & Tetlock, 2015) argue that our perspectives on issues may be enriched by making room for multiple perspectives rather than excluding some or creating caricatures of them.

The real advantage to having multiple perspectives is that we don’t become complacent. We are scholars and teachers; we value evidence and critical thinking. We plan to fight for what we see as fair and just and work hard to understand why different perspectives appeal to others.

References

Duarte, J. L., Crawford, J. T., Stern, C., Haidt, J., Jussim, L., & Tetlock, P. E. (2015). Political diversity will improve social psychological science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38, 1-13. Retrieved from https://journals.cambridge.org/images/fileUpload/documents/Duarte-Haidt_BBS-D-14-00108_preprint.pdf

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion.  New York, NY: Random House.

Jaschik, S. (2017). DeVos vs. the Faculty. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/02/24/education-secretary-criticizes-professors-telling-students-what-think

Lamothe, D. (2015). Iwo Jima Marines, gay pride and a photo adaptation that spawns fury. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2015/07/01/iwo-jima-marines-gay-pride-and-a-photo-adaptation-that-spawns-fury/

Putnam, R. D., & Campbell, D. E. (2010). American grace: How religion divides and unites us. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Vance, J. D. (2016a). Hillbilly elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis. Sydney, Australia: HarperCollins Publishers.

Vance, J. D. (2016b). Life outside the liberal bubble. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/opinion/election-night-2016/life-outside-the-liberal-bubble


Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

Ellen Foster is professor of English at Clarion University.  This year, she’s glad to be exploring new pedagogies through teaching an inquiry seminar (Who Might You Be If You Weren’t You?) for the first time and re-imagining her first-year writing courses (not for the first time).

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu

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