Three Rapid-fire weeks of Teachable Moments

A guest post by Nancy Thomas and Adam Gismondi of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

The continuous succession of executive orders, public statements, policy proposals, nominations, and swift confirmation hearings in the first three weeks of the Trump administration have been dizzying for many, including educators. It is up for debate whether the “24-hour news cycle” style of major media outlets has sufficiently kept pace with these events and with the public, legal, and expert responses to them. How can faculty (who set syllabi months in advance) and administrators (who may be restrained by plans completed at the outset of the fiscal year) seize these teachable moments in ways that are timely, accurate, and fair?

Even in times of more moderately paced public events, academics may have avoided controversial political discussions, citing a lack of relevance to the discipline or the assignment of the day, insecurities over knowing enough to present informed and diverse perspectives, and even fear of being accused of bias. While understandable, these barriers do a disservice to the mission of higher education and the students we serve. Now is the time to speak out about issues in this national moment. Their relevance to student learning is clear, from foundational civic knowledge, to critical thinking, to media literacy, to applied subject matter across disciplines.

When raising these complex topics for discussion, it is essential that faculty foster an environment in which students of differing political perspectives feel open to share thoughts, creating productive discussion across lines of difference. Faculty members can provide an example for their students by listening carefully to all students, raising questions that respectfully challenge all ideas, and helping students identify common ground without avoiding  real disagreement.

 To offer a starting point for these critically important, but understandably complicated conversations in the classroom, The Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University is offering a series of resources that will act as framings for a few issues that developed over the past several weeks, including possible readings, sources, and discussion questions. Think of these as starting points for purposeful, educational classroom and co-curricular discussions.

Below, check out the first issue brief on leading a discussion on “Alternative Facts”.

“Alternative Facts”

In his first press briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer declared the crowd at January’s inauguration the largest in recent history and challenged photographic evidence to the contrary. Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway subsequently backed that claim as supported by “alternative facts.” Several days later, President Trump insisted that more than three million illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election; despite a lack of evidence, he called for an investigation. Questions to consider:

  • How do students, and all Americans, separate fact from fiction, fiction from opinion, and opinion from politically motivated distortions?
  • Where can students find reliable sources of information?
  • What role does (and should) higher education play in fact-checking and in the educational processes around media literacy?
  • Will media literacy work in today’s cultural context (see, for example, questions raised by Danah Boyd)?

The role of faculty members is not to treat students as empty vessels into which to pour expert knowledge. Students come to college and courses with knowledge, life experiences, and wisdom that, when shared in a learning community, can be enriching for faculty and students alike. Yes, professors need to ensure that “alternative facts” do not shape student learning, but they can share with students the responsibility for co-creating, through identifying inaccurate, politically motivated, or unethical statements. This is, after all, the meaning of college – sharing responsibility, among colleagues, for learning.  There are no safe enclaves in which to avoid politics, because civic and political actions affect us all.

Briefings on a variety of topics pulled to the forefront of national in recent weeks, from the Trump administration’s Executive Order Barring Travel from seven Muslim-Majority Nations to the role of a free press are available to read in a full IDHE Report here. Be on the lookout for more frames for important conversations from the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education in the Campus Compact resource library and on the IDHE website.

More on the In the News Discussion Guide Series from IDHE

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The Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University is offering a series of resources that will act as framings for a few issues th…

Three Rapid-fire weeks of Teachable Moments

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A guest post by Nancy Thomas and Adam Gismondi of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College o…

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Nancy Thomas and Adam Gismondi research college student political learning and engagement in democracy at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

 

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