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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022

Drawing near, 2020 election permeates classrooms across disciplines

In races as divisive as those in the 2020 general election, professors are faced with deciding whether to broach the topic in the classroom. 

This year in particular, the question extends to nearly every academic department. “I think that it is often a pedagogical strategy to think of your course material in the context of what is going on in the world… So if it means talking about the election, then I talk about the election,” said Professor of Sociology Jamie McCallum, who is currently teaching a first year seminar called “U.S. American Left.”

McCallum explained that in the classroom, there is no non-political way to broach the topic. “On one hand, you don’t want to make the lecture into a pulpit. At the same time, I think it’s important to be clear about where you’re coming from,” he said. He explained that some professors may choose not to discuss politics in class, and while he believes that to be a valid approach, it is nonetheless a political stance.

In humanities classrooms across campus, political discussions are an expected part of the package. “I address the election insofar as the various policy positions on each ticket intersect with themes raised in the class,” Professor of History Amit Prakash said. He explained that the past can — and must — be used to understand our experiences in the present. “Otherwise it’s just antiquarianism,” he said.

Jennifer Wang, a professor of English and American literatures, found elections to be equally pertinent in her courses. “Given the nature of what I teach, literature and literary study, I don’t believe I could keep politics — topical, electoral, and otherwise — out of my classroom,” Wang told The Campus. “It’s really not about me, it’s about [my students].”

Meanwhile, in the Department of Film and Media Culture, Professor Jason Mittell takes a different tack. In his current course, he has spent time discussing the connection between television and democracy, as well as campaign ads and the mainstream media. “I acknowledge my positions and beliefs but make it very clear that students will never be evaluated on whether they agree with me or not,” Mittell said. 

In his economic statistics class, Professor of Economics Akhil Rao finds that discussing the election allows him to touch on relevant topics like racial inequality, income inequality and public sentiment on climate change, although he does not believe that strictly addressing the election is necessary for his class. “I don't want to go too far afield from the important economic issues at stake,” he said.

For Mittell and many other professors, these conversations are not about disseminating ideology but rather acknowledging the effects of politics on their subjects. “I encourage them to argue for their own positions based on information and analysis,” Mittell said.

Professor Jason Mittell is The Campus’ faculty adviser. He is married to Vermont State Senator Ruth Hardy.