Why I Don’t Share My Politics With My Students (At Least Not Right Away)
Posted on January 21, 2013
I teach freshmen. That’s the first thing I need to tell you.
The next thing you need to know is that I teach freshmen at a Christian college in a significantly red state, where many of my students hold views that are pretty much directly oppositional to mine. (Overheard on campus: “Racism isn’t a thing anymore,” “Churches everywhere are way to accepting of homosexuality,” and “Sexism isn’t a big deal because only non-Christians are sexist.”)
Finally, you should know that I teach composition. I don’t teach history or political science or something where the politics of living are brought up every day in class. I teach students to write essays and think critically about their world. Politics come up, certainly, but it’s not the focus of the course.
Now that you know all of that, let me explain why I choose not to share my politics with students and what that means.
A composition classroom can be a hugely important part of a freshman’s academic life, even if they don’t realize it. (The usually don’t.) They are learning the basics of writing an academic essay, of course, but they are also learning to interact with and write about ideas and concepts. For some students, freshman year of college is the first place they encounter other types of thinkers and scholars from what they are used to, and the experience can be rather jolting. Students often wonder, “Why do we talk about racism all the time in all of these classes!” because they are not used to the discussions of privilege that naturally emerge out of liberal arts coursework. When they encounter a faculty that seems a bit more to the left than they’re used to, it can be really shocking and upsetting to some of them. Because of people like Rick Santorum, they may even think that professors are attempting to brainwash them.
I don’t want my conservative students to feel like they are under attack just because their beliefs are different from mine. I want them to know from the very beginning that my classroom is a safe place for them, even if their beliefs are totally outside my own.
The readings I choose reflect a variety of worldviews. Of course, the fact that I read a lot means I encounter a lot of good writing, and a bunch of it just happens to be from a more liberal perspective. When I introduce those texts, I make sure that the students understand the voice of the author who is speaking, not mine. I like to remain neutral in those conversations so that if they are leaning one way or the other, they don’t feel like I’m forcing anything on them.
I also try to include a few things which affirm the way most of them already see life, while also presenting them with things they have never encountered or thought of. We find ourselves discussing difficult topics like discrimination, violence, oppression, poverty, and sexuality. Sometimes we discuss politics explicitly, especially if we are addressing a specific policy and how it affects the world.
It would be really, really easy for me to preach my political views from behind my little podium. I could tell them about why I think Obamacare is a step in the right direction, or why our national dialogue on guns makes my skin crawl, or why my vote pretty much always goes for politicians with pro-choice policies, because I believe those policies save more lives.
None of this is because I think these opinions need to be hidden. I mean, I blog under my name with the tagline “Living and Parenting as a Liberal Feminist Christian.” I don’t care if they want to Google me and find out what I believe, because I don’t believe anything all that shocking or controversial. Let’s face it–a young English professor who drives a Prius, has a gay dad, and lists The Handmaid’s Tale as a favorite book is probably going to be pretty liberal. Anyone who is paying attention doesn’t need that professor to speak up and announce her beliefs.
When politics come up in the classroom, I am far more apt to ask questions to help them question their own political beliefs–even if those beliefs are very similar to mine! 18-year-olds need to be challenged to think harder about the things they believe. If I hadn’t been challenged by my English and history and Bible professors, I wouldn’t have been put on the journey toward the belief system I have now. But my professors never preached their beliefs at me. I’m following their model by asking questions, providing course content that encourages the asking of questions, and refusing to accept lazy answers.
In my experience, 18-year-olds tend to think in black and white. Absolutes are easy when you’ve only had 18 years of life, and most of those years have been spent in the company of people who believe the same way as you. This obviously doesn’t describe all freshmen, but it’s a lot of them. If part of my job is to teach them to interact with the grey areas of the world and still manage to feel like their feet are underneath them, then I don’t want to disadvantage myself by giving them the chance to see me as the bad guy. Once they start thinking critically and realize that people who are different them are not inherently bad guys, then we can start getting specific about my beliefs and their beliefs and all of the ways they overlap and differ.