Checking Ourselves: Political Opinion in the Classroom

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“…There is a shift in which universities are trying to be politically correct, but the contradictory discourse conversations may be lacking. I am concerned that being too politically correct in the classroom may silence those who have non-liberal views….” Widener University Graduate Student, 2015 – Widener Student Campus Climate/Diversity Survey

The following is an SHSP faculty member’s perspective on political beliefs in the classroom:

Academics have long been accused of holding and perpetuating left-leaning political beliefs and ideologies. Dubbed “liberal bias,” the instructor’s personal political opinion manifests in a lack of balance in the information provided, efforts to directly influence impressionable learners, and an overall intermingling of personal opinion and “fact”. Some critics on the right highlight the perils of personal politics in academia, while others have suggested that the liberal academic may be more myth than reality. I usually roll my eyes when the topic of liberal bias comes up (being a liberal myself). However, the above student comment gave me pause. To what extent do our personal views influence our teaching? Can this consequently silence some of our students who may not agree with those views? And, what can we be doing to check ourselves?

As faculty in the School of Human Service Professions, we are charged with training future practitioners in the tenets of our specific professions. Each profession has ethical codes that call upon us to fuse together our professional values and practice. Our own professional backgrounds have been informed and enhanced by key texts, ideas, and paradigms, and we draw on these as teachers. And our own political beliefs may have influenced, as well as been influenced by, our professional beliefs. Given this, are we ever truly able to distance ourselves from our beliefs and opinions?

Assuming that our teaching will be informed (even in a marginal way) by our personal beliefs, then the question becomes how these beliefs may influence the classroom. In my opinion, there are three main ways in which this could occur: selected course material, class discussions and lectures, and grading.  We make choices in selecting course material, and could easily choose to highlight some perspectives over others. In this same way, class discussions and lectures may also be used to “lift up” topics that are reflective of our beliefs. Finally, our beliefs and the threat of confirmation bias can certainly be influential in our grading. Each of these areas has the potential to silence our students, largely through the power and influence we hold as teachers.

So, what can we do to keep ourselves in check? First, we need to practice what we preach: reflective practice. If we accept that our efforts to be objective may be unconsciously undermined by our own beliefs, continued reflection on our teaching methods and classroom environment is essential. The use of peer consultation and rubrics are also two commonly used ways to check our assumptions. In addition, consideration on whether and how we express our personal views in class discussion is also important. If you are like me, it is difficult to remain quiet in a discussion, so I opt for transparency- about what my beliefs are, how I got to them, and where others may disagree with my perspective. Lastly, when in doubt, ask the students. Student feedback on the class environment (perhaps as anonymous, written form to elicit honest feedback without concern for repercussions) may help to bring in student voice, especially in cases where we are concerned that students may feel silenced.

What is your stance? How to you approach political opinion and the notion of liberal bias in the classroom? Tell us below!