With the 2020 Election nearing, we find ourselves navigating students’ (and our own) complex reactions to the leadership and direction of the country and preparing for what we can say and do to support students in the days leading up to and after Election Day. As college instructors, especially those not in disciplines like political science and law, we may feel relatively unprepared for conversations about the election, uncertain whether to bring it up when it is not linked to course content, and concerned about possible negative reactions to such a discussion.
In this blogpost and corresponding resource, I describe how this upcoming election can be an identity-threatening event to students. Moreover, I share how we can work to ensure that students experience identity safety— the feeling that they are welcomed, valued, respected, and recognized as having the potential to succeed in the classroom– in the coming weeks and provide specific scenarios that may arise and suggestions on how to implement these tips within them.
An identity-threatening incident is an event that makes an individual feel unsafe as a result of their membership in a particular identity group, or one that provokes social identity threat — the worry that one will be viewed and treated negatively because of their group memberships. The 2020 Election can be an identity-threatening event to students in many ways. In the classroom, students may be anxious to have conversations with classmates and instructors about the election because they fear biased comments, being asked to speak for their identity group, or having their lived experiences and concerns minimized.
Identity-threatening events can also occur on campus or in the community and involve individuals making derogatory statements, harassing or threatening harm, or exhibiting symbols that convey prejudice against particular identity groups. Students may also worry about how the election results can directly impact their lives based on their social identities. Although these events may not occur in the classroom, their effect on students’ mental health and ability to concentrate can extend into it by impacting learning and performance.
To begin preparing for how you might address the election in your course:
- Identify the campus resources where students can access services to support their health and well-being (e.g., university counseling centers) and can build community with other people who share their identities (e.g., identity-based student organizations, campus cultural centers, and offices involved in equity and inclusion efforts).
- Review your university’s student conduct and freedom of speech policies so that you know how to respond and who to reach out to if a student says something or behaves in a manner that may be against university policy.
- Prepare what you might say to address election-related identity-threatening events.
From conversations with students through my work at the College Transition Collaborative and with the Student Experience Project, here are key things to consider when preparing your response to an identity-threatening event:
- Do not make it overly complicated.
- Acknowledge the incident.
- Say explicitly that it was hurtful and harmful and affirm that it is not unusual for this incident to lower one’s sense of belonging, feelings of safety, concentration, etc.
- Connect students with campus resources for support, and if you feel equipped to do so, offer yourself as a resource if students want to talk about it after or outside of class.
- Reiterate your support for students as an ally and a partner in their academic success, and if applicable, communicate what you are doing to address the incident further.
As you prepare what you might say, it is important to keep in mind the distinction between feeling uncomfortable and feeling unsafe. Sometimes students who are members of majority identity groups may experience discomfort as a result of having conversations about identity or specifically about the experiences or perspectives of socially and structurally disadvantaged identity groups. Being uncomfortable hearing about the experiences of others is not the same as being unsafe in this setting. If students who are members of majority identity groups express discomfort or identity threat when instructors or peers point out or challenge policies, practices, or beliefs that are prejudicial or discriminatory, it is imperative not to equate the discomfort they might be feeling with the impacts of systemic oppression and prejudice for those who belong to minoritized or disadvantaged identity groups.
As an instructor, it is normal to feel some discomfort and anxiety when preparing and addressing identity-threatening events. It is okay that you may not be an expert in the issues students are facing. Practice what you intend to say. Reach out to colleagues about how they speak to these issues. Explore available resources. The resources available to instructors on how to navigate identity-threatening events have grown in visibility and breadth in recent years. I have found campus centers for teaching and learning to be valuable partners in this work and share a few other helpful resources below.
Instructors are impacted by identity-threatening events too. Look for resources and affinity groups that are available and decide how far to extend yourself when supporting students. For those in leadership positions, it is critical to acknowledge the amount, and oftentimes unequal levels, of emotional labor expended in these discussions and in these times and support colleagues when they discuss identity-threatening events in their courses.
References and resources:
- Bandy (2016). Teaching in response to the election. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/2016/11/teaching-in-response-to-the-election/
- Huston & DiPietro (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students’ perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. In Robertson & Nilson (Eds.) To Improve the Academy: Vol 25. Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development. Bolton, MA: Anker. Pp. 207-224.
- Kite, Case, & Williams (2020). Navigating Difficult Moments in Teaching Diversity and Social Justice. American Psychological Association.
- Locks, Hurtado, Bowman, & Oseguera (2008). Extending notions of campus climate and diversity to students’ transition to college. Review of Higher Education, 31, 257-285.
- Logel, Iserman, Davies, Quinn, & Spencer (2009). The perils of double consciousness: The role of thought suppression in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(2), 299-312.
- Major & Schmader (2018). Stigma, social identity threat, and health. In Major, Dovidio, & Link (Eds.), Oxford Library of Psychology. The Oxford Handbook of Stigma, Discrimination, and Health (p. 85–103). Oxford University Press.
- Murphy & Destin (2016). Promoting inclusion and identity safety to support college success. https://tcf.org/content/report/promoting-inclusion-identity-safety-support-college-success/
Kathryn Boucher, PhD, Assistant Professor, College of Applied Behavioral Sciences, University of Indianapolis, and Principal Investigator, College Transition Collaborative