College Classroom Conversations In The Wake Of The 2016 Presidential Election

This semester, I am teaching a special topics course on "Religion in America." Every week, 28 undergraduate students join me in analyzing the complicated status that religion has held in the United States across time and in the contemporary world.
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This piece was written by Dr. Kate Yanina DeConinck, who teaches at the University of San Diego.

Like many Americans, I woke up on November 9th not knowing how to process the events that had transpired the previous night. Wednesday mornings are usually a time for me to prep my lessons for the rest of the week, make sure that I haven't left messages sitting in my inbox for too long, or catch up on grading. But that day I sat at my kitchen table for nearly two hours letting my tea grow cold as I read post after post of reactions to the election on Facebook.

Most striking were the conversations that developed among my old friends and peers from my childhood hometown in New Hampshire. "Conversations" in which it was obvious that neither person had heard anything that the other had had to say. One young, conservative, Christian woman I grew up with wrote that the results represented divine intervention, that God was rewarding conservatives after eight long years of difficult times under President Obama. Her post set off a series of responses--some encouraging, some critical--including comments from a young liberal man from our hometown, who responded that it was hard to take her remarks about freedom of faith seriously given that her candidate wanted to ban millions of people on the basis of their religion. They and others bantered back and forth for hours, only to conclude with the sentiment that they would have to "agree to disagree."

I watched dozens of exchanges like this one play out and the trend of talking past one another only continued in the days thereafter. Yet, frustrating as it was to observe these dynamics, they also partly inspired the lesson plan that I would use in my class at the University of San Diego that Wednesday evening.

This semester, I am teaching a special topics course on "Religion in America." Every week, 28 undergraduate students join me in analyzing the complicated status that religion has held in the United States across time and in the contemporary world. Our approach to the subject material is both historical and "lived," and we utilize a team-based learning model in our weekly sessions.

Before class last Wednesday, I emailed my class to let them know that we were going to discuss the presidential election in class that evening. I wrote:

"While we each hold our own opinions about what the results mean for our nation, I'm going to ask us to return to the academic question of "what is at stake" that we have been pursuing all semester. We will set aside time tonight to discuss why the election of Donald Trump is such a sign of hope for those who voted for him and also why persons who voted for other candidates may be feeling distraught about the future. In a way, this conversation will be a true test of what I've been teaching you all semester--how to step outside your own perspective for a moment to consider both sides of an issue."

To their credit, not a single student was absent from my class that night and I could not have been prouder of the generative discussion that ensued. My students were so thorough in analyzing the many issues at stake in this election from different perspectives that, by the end of the conversation, I had no idea which of them had actually voted for whom. In the days that followed, as I continued to hear horror stories from other teachers and professors about things that were coming up in their classrooms or on their campuses, I sent out a short follow-up survey to my class to find out more about how they thought our discussion had gone.

Here are some of their responses:

From a young man who voted for Gary Johnson: "The organization of our discussion helped make me feel safe in sharing my opinions without judgment. Because we didn't have to share our vote, we were able to discuss the things we have heard about both candidates and their supporters from an objective mindset."

From a young woman who voted for Trump: "Our discussion in class was the only conversation about the election that I had on campus in which I felt comfortable. I had discussed the election in most of my classes and it usually entailed yelling and name calling which made me feel very unsafe. It makes me sad that our community fosters this kind of hostility and animosity because I believe that Universities are a place of learning and in order to learn you must look at something from many different viewpoints and backgrounds. This is why our discussion in 'Religion in America' was so successful--because throughout the semester we have learned how to look at events thought different viewpoints, remaining unbiased and understanding of others. This is the only class in which I have learned this skill and I think that if other classes focused on this kind of behavior the attitude of animosity on campus would disappear."

From a young woman who voted for Clinton: "Had our class not focused so much at looking at things from all perspectives, I absolutely would not have been able to have a conversation about the election that was that civil. I could not completely dismiss my own biases, but our conversation helped me truly understand why so many people did not want Clinton as president. It is still very difficult for me to not judge those who voted for Trump, but it is definitely easier for me to see why people didn't like Clinton."

From another young woman who supported Clinton: "My opinion of the future president has not changed but I no longer see his supporters as unintelligent, racist, and evil humans. This discussion has reminded me that people have their own reasons for doing something and I cannot control the actions of others, but I can respect the process and continue to pray for the future administration."

Reading the comments that my students offered, I realized that the success of our discussion had not hinged on the specific lesson plan that I had come up with for that one particular day in class. Rather, it was the product of a semester's worth of fostering a classroom environment in which every student felt respected and heard. It was the product of ten weeks imagining what the world looks like for people with different life experiences. It was the product of trust and a willingness to listen.

As I look at the violence, argumentation, and hatred that have characterized American public life in the days since the election, my students give me hope. If these twenty-eight students whose political views ran the full spectrum were able to come together to listen--really listen--to one another, then perhaps our nation can find ways of healing the deep wounds that have resulted from years of talking past one another.

Kate Yanina DeConinck, Th.D., is a lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego. Her areas of specialization include the Lived Religion approach, religion in the United States, and religion in the wake of mass violence or tragedy. She is currently working on a book manuscript based on her dissertation that explores the significance of memorialization, storytelling, and walking at sites of 9/11 remembrance in New York City.

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