Advice for Teaching through the 2020 US Elections

We find ourselves in the midst of a heated election season, with much at stake on the ballot. As we think about how the outcome may affect our communities and world, we are reminded of the profound importance of our mission. As you plan your teaching in the coming weeks, you may wish to use class time, office hours, or other forums to create a space for students to process their reactions to current events, as well as to connect your discipline with relevant issues.

We have designed these resources to help faculty and graduate student instructors think about how to approach the events of November, given your own goals and your particular course and discipline.  We offer questions and ideas to consider in your planning, as well as advice from faculty colleagues. Through our teaching and scholarship, we can work collectively with our students to chart productive paths forward.

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Familiarize yourself with the November calendar
Consult with your teaching team
Consult with your students
Make a plan
Attend an event
Other resources for faculty and PhD students

Familiarize yourself with the November calendar

November 2020 CalendarWhile the US elections and the pandemic obviously loom large in our minds, they are not the only events that may affect students’ ability to manage their coursework during the final month of classes. For international students, for example, the switch to Daylight Savings Time within the continental US—happening just two days before the election, on 1 November—could be disruptive in its own right, particularly given how complicated some students’ schedules have become in this time of remote learning. Therefore, we suggest that you familiarize yourself with the November calendar more generally before you contemplate how you might adjust aspects of your course in response to the stresses that students may experience surrounding the election in particular.

Consult with your teaching team

Students in University HallGiven the number of important events happening in November, how can you and your teaching team respond? Start by asking these questions:

  • How are major, and potentially disruptive, events like the pandemic and the US elections connected to the goals and content of my course and/or my discipline?

  • How might these events be connected to the experiences and identities of my students—and of my TFs and colleagues?

  • What should I/we do as the teaching staff of my/our course?

While everyone, understandably, is thinking about how the election may affect students already under stress from the pandemic and the unfamiliar demands of remote learning, it is important to remember that we, too, as instructors are experiencing these same stressors in our own lives. We encourage you to include all of the members of your teaching team—be they your Teaching Fellows in a large lecture course, or faculty colleagues teaching in the same area of your department—as you consider how you might make adjustments to your course in the final month of the term.

Consult with your students

Student wearing "8 Demands" shirtIt is likely that many students will want or need a space to process the experience of the election (as well as the other milestones happening in November). Yet it is also likely that students will have different preferences about how or where that happens. In some courses, it may make sense for the instructor and the students to lean into current events, and incorporate discussions of the election and the pandemic into class activities. Some students may want space in class to process and discuss current events, especially given that the usual community spaces (talking in the dining hall over lunch, or in common spaces in the houses) are not as accessible while we are teaching and learning remotely. Other students, however, may find their academic work to be a welcome break from the stress of the current news cycle. Rather than make assumptions about the best response, we encourage you to check in with your students about their experience and their preferences for the last month of the term.

  • There are many ways to check in with students, whether you ask directly, do some small group discussions in class and have students share out, or have students fill out a quick Google form at the end of class, like a minute paper
  • Mid-semester is a great time to collect early feedback on how the course is going in any case, to have a chance to revisit course goals and expectations and make sure instructors and students are on the same page. You can read more of our advice on collecting early feedback.

  • It may be a good idea to solicit specific feedback on how students are experiencing the election and other November events. We have designed a sample form that interested instructors may adapt to their own courses and contexts. (Click here to make your own copy.)

Once students share their thoughts, it will be important to respond to them, to share what will be possible (or not) and why, and explain your plan so that students feel heard. If the feedback shows that students need more resources, or you are in any way concerned about the responses you receive, seek help and connect with other campus resources, starting with the Office of Undergraduate Education’s page on Supporting Students.

Make a plan

Eleanor Roosevelt
Once you have a better sense of how you may want to adapt your course, and of the experiences and preferences of your students, you can make a plan for the final month of the term. There is, we should emphasize, no such thing as the “perfect” plan; what matters is that you have the opportunity to make choices that feel intentional to you and to your students.

Will you make space in your synchronous class sessions to address current events directly?

It's normal to feel some anxiety about whether you're prepared for potentially difficult conversations about the election (and attendant issues like the stresses and structural inequalities of the pandemic, or racial injustice). Yet if you and your students have created some shared norms and practices (tailored to the online environment) that allow you to work through moments of stress and difficulty, they can be some of the most rewarding moments for all involved. Our resources on inclusive teaching include guidance on how to navigate difficult moments in the classroom. Remember as well that online participation might take many forms—are there ways that students who are more comfortable speaking and listening through alternative modalities like chat can enter the conversation?

Will you modify your assignments to incorporate current events?

In many courses and many disciplines, one of the most valuable things we can do is offer students scholarly frameworks through which to interrogate and interpret their lived experience. Creating opportunities for students to step back, reflect upon, and analyze the news (and/or their own reactions to it) is, in some sense, part of our job as instructors. At the same time, we suggest that you incorporate flexibility and student choice into any such assignments, as students may be uncomfortable or otherwise unable to share much detail about their politics or their local communities. As one faculty member noted, it is important that students retain the right to privacy with regard to their own beliefs even as we may invite them to adopt various points of view for the sake of understanding them more fully.

How might you provide flexibility for students immediately following the election?

If you wish to provide students with flexibility regarding course work during the week of election, we suggest that you read the guidance from the Office of Undergraduate Education.

How will you connect students who may be experiencing a particularly difficult time, for whatever reason, to other resources around the College?

In addition to the various student-support resources mentioned below, this Resource Guide for Remote Learning from the Office of Undergraduate Education provides up-to-date guidance on connecting students with mental health and wellness resources in this time of remote learning.

We’ve reached out to some of the many faculty whose courses touch on the topics directly relevant to our public discourse this November to hear how they are approaching these questions.

Why the Election Matters

Why the Election Matters

Types of Intellectual Responses

Types of Intellectual Responses

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Teach Enduring Skills

Help Students Manage Stress

Help Students Manage Stress

Plan for the Event, and Provide a Network of Support

Plan for the Event, and Provide a Network of Support

Attend an event

Instructors who wish to connect with colleagues about their concerns, hopes, and ideas for teaching this November are warmly invited to register for the hourlong conversations we are sponsoring during the week before the election:

Daniel CarpenterFaculty Conversation: Teaching through the US Elections
hosted by Daniel Carpenter, Allie S. Freed Professor of Government
Thursday, 29 October  |  3:00–4:00 PM  |  Register now

Navigating Classroom ConversationNavigating Classroom Conversation in Tumultuous Times [NB: open to all instructors]
featuring Linda Chavers, Meira Levinson, Timothy Patrick McCarthy, and Rachel Viscomi, with an introduction by Sherri Ann Charleston
Monday, 2 November  |  5:00–6:00 PM  |  Register now

Faculty and Teaching Fellows are also encouraged to visit our regular office hours:

  • For faculty, every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday 10:30–11:30am via Zoom.
  • For Teaching Fellows, every Monday 3:00–4:00pm and Thursday 11:00am–12:00pm via Zoom.

Other resources for faculty and PhD students

We have also curated advice from around Harvard and beyond for those who would like additional resources.

A number of our campus partners are sponsoring events that may be of interest to graduate students: 

Undergraduates can seek support before, during, and after the election from a wide network of advisers and offices. The Harvard College Dean of Students has posted a list of resources and advice for undergraduates.

You might also encourage students to also take advantage of the many election-related events hosted by offices across the College.