2018 Election Reflection Series: Navigating Partisan Differences in Class Discussions:

2018 Election Reflection Series Background

Prior to the 2018 election, APSA’s Diversity and Inclusion Programs Office issued a call for submissions for a new PS Now series entitled 2018 Election Reflections. The views expressed in this series are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of the APSA. Read more about the Election Reflection Series below, after the feature essay.

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Navigating Partisan Differences in Class Discussions: Engaging Students’ Policy Recommendations

By Eric Schwartz, PhD, Hagerstown Community College 

People outside of the profession might think college teaching is staid and dignified. Lately, however, my classes have sometimes resembled something organized by Maury Povich. During the 2018 election cycle, I have literally had students rising from their seats in anger to respond to other students’ assertions.

Naturally, when we discuss public policy issues ranging from taxes to immigration, students’ responses often reflect the strong partisan currents that are flowing through the country as a whole. I do not ask them about their partisan affiliations, nor do I reveal mine. Nonetheless, I encourage all students to participate actively and openly in discussion, and most students are quite comfortable in expressing their political leanings. Most of the political conversations are comfortable, but sometimes deep divides in the class are exposed, divides that sometimes make civil conversation difficult. After one particularly divisive discussion a few weeks before the election, I decided to seek common ground.

As part of a focus group type exercise in mid-October, I asked my students to write anonymously three opinions or recommendations concerning public policy. These recommendations were to be sincere—meaning beliefs that they themselves held—and also recommendations with which they thought most people would agree. Then I asked them to write three more recommendations. These recommendations were also to be sincere, but they were to be ideas that the students thought would be controversial.

(…) when we discuss public policy issues ranging from taxes to immigration, students’ responses often reflect the strong partisan currents that are flowing through the country as a whole.

Honestly, I conducted this impromptu focus group survey without a clear idea about what I would do with the data. In the back of my mind, I was curious about what areas of agreement and disagreement I would find.

After students completed their lists, I compiled the data. There were 11 female responses and 12 male responses. Respondents were also ethnically diverse. This closely matches the gender split of the class as a whole. (Not everyone was present on the day of the exercise.) I found that the students took the assignment seriously and seemed to have a good idea about what would be widely acceptable, and what would be controversial. The overall partisan divide was clear on a number of issues, but the students also recognized that these were issues that would be controversial and prompt considerable dissent within the class. For example, some students thought abortion should be easily available, others thought it should be completely banned. Likewise, according to some students, guns should be heavily regulated. Others thought guns should be completely unregulated. These were the subjects I wanted to avoid. The challenge – both in teaching and in political discourse – is finding and developing areas of common ground. My hope was to demonstrate that progress is possible if we find these zones of agreement and build upon them.

But there were also areas of agreement that seemed to offer the possibility of fruitful discussion. For example, sizable percentages of students backed efforts to increase education funding, secure a cleaner environment, and take meaningful action on the opioid crisis. I decided this survey information provided me with the seeds of discussion, seeds that might grow and assist the students in reaching broader agreement.

In the course of the term, the students had also been closely following the progress of the political campaigns across the country and within our own state. We analyzed both the information about the political campaigns, and the method in which the information was presented. We discussed media bias, and how political tensions could be exacerbated when groups of people only obtained information from partisan news sources. The students were required to compile a “news journal,” compiled from weekly analyses of political subjects, based on articles from non-partisan media outlets (i.e. Politico, Roll Call, The Hill).

Toward the end of the term, we came to the chapter on public policy, which I thought was a good time to put the data I collected earlier in the term to good use. I had identified three broad policy areas that were the most often cited in the original exercise: environmental protection, support for education, and care for the poor. I put together four groups of students, diverse in ideology and gender. Each group had one of these broad policy areas to focus on. Their task was to prepare at least one policy proposal on their subject. The proposal had to be concrete and specific. The students’ proposal had to address the target problem in a meaningful way and the students needed to address the question of funding any proposal they suggested. Any proposal crafted had to be approved by a majority of the students in the group.

The students enthusiastically took up the challenge of reaching some sort of accord on these issues. We had often discussed the issue of hyper-partisanship, and many of the students expressed their frustration that the national politicians seemed unable to overcome partisan differences to create public policy. Here the students had a chance to try their hand at the task.

As they debated these issues, I circulated among the groups, inquiring about their progress and occasionally making suggestions. I did not give them detailed instructions about how they were to proceed with the task; I was most interested to see what methods they would devise to come to agreement on policy prescriptions. At the end of the class, each group  reported back. I was pleasantly surprised that each of the four groups had been able to reach unanimous consensus on their policy suggestions. Overall, the exercise was successful, but when I repeat this exercise, I will provide an opportunity for the groups to share their work with the whole class. I did not allocate enough time for this step.

With this exercise, I was pleased to discover that in these times of hyper-partisanship, my students were able to work together to find solutions on common problems. I am not sending their policy prescriptions to Capitol Hill, but I hope that the experience of working together on these subjects made some impact on my students’ perceptions and opinions. More important than the classroom learning is the behavior outside of the classroom. I hope to prepare students to participate fruitfully in a society that desperately needs individuals to reach across partisan, ethnic and racial divides.

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About the 2018 Election Reflection Series

The call asked submitters to respond to one or two of the following questions:

  1. Tell us about an original research project, article, or finding that you are working on, which sheds light upon political behavior and/or public opinion and the 2018 Campaign and Election.
  2. Tell us about how you have incorporated themes relevant to diversity, inclusion, equity, or representation and the 2018 campaign and election into your political science teaching, research and/or service? 
  3. What group(s) of the electorate does your research focus on and what policy issue(s) proved to be salient to them in the 2018 Campaigns and Elections? 
  4. What role can/does political science research play in helping to make sense of the 2018 Campaigns and Elections?

 All submissions were welcome. We were especially interested in featuring content that addressed the political behavior and opinion of individuals from the following groups: underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, women, individuals with disabilities, first generation Americans, Indigenous communities, and the LGBT community. All submissions were reviewed by APSA staff political scientists.

What resulted is a series, covering a diverse collection of political science topics ranging across such sub-fields as public opinion, political behavior, political parties, race, ethnicity and politics, gender and politics, Indigenous Politics, teaching and learning political science and classroom discussion strategies, and the complex intersectionalities contained therein. Additionally, a variety of research methodologies are brought to bear to address and shed light upon these topics and research questions.

We understand that this series is but a snapshot of the political science scholarship being done on the 2018 Campaign and Election. However, it is our hope that these pieces will contribute to election-related scholarship, critical thought, and informed discussion in the weeks and months to come. To that end, we invite your comments. You can find more information and the complete series at 2018 Election Reflections.

Kimberly A. Mealy, PhD
Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion Programs
American Political Science Association

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