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Facts and Feelings: Teaching Elections in an Election Year
What’s it like to be teaching about elections in an unprecedented election year? Smith professors Anna Mwaba ’10 and Howard Gold have occupied just such a front-row seat to history in their courses this semester.
Mwaba, a lecturer and McPherson/Eveillard Postdoctoral Fellow in Government, is teaching “Elections Around the World,” for the first time during a U.S. presidential election.
“I think my students have been surprised at the parallels between U.S. and global elections, including some of the behavior we’re seeing now from President Trump refusing to concede,” says Mwaba, who is an expert in African politics. “They weren’t expecting the U.S. to be a case study.”
Gold—a professor of government who has been teaching “Elections in the Political Order” since 1988—says he has never experienced a time when “democracy and authoritarianism were on the line” as much as during this year’s presidential balloting.
The two faculty members recently led a discussion for the Sherrerd Center for Teaching and Learning about classroom strategies in the wake of the presidential election.
Here are some insights they shared in an interview a few days after the election was called for Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
What happened in your classes right after Election Day?
Anna Mwaba: “I taught the day after the election. We didn’t have a final [vote] count, and a lot of my students were tired and distracted. For that class on Wednesday, I left space at the beginning and let them direct the class. They asked some questions, and we tied it into our discussions about election monitoring. This week, we’ll be talking about campaigns and representation—which is perfect! We’ll talk about [vice president-elect] Kamala Harris and biases toward female candidates, and more about how the candidates behaved.”
Howard Gold: “I taught on Election Day and then on Thursday, Nov. 5, when we still didn’t know a lot about the results. We devoted the full 75 minutes to discussion, and of the 48 students in class, everyone had something to say. There was a lot of anxiety still, a lot of upset—especially at polls that appeared to have gotten it wrong. There were a lot of questions about what will happen now.”
How does teaching about elections this year compare to your experience in previous years?
Gold: “I’ve taught this class since 1988 and have always loved teaching during a presidential election because students are so excited and engaged. Using the election as a lab for teaching is great. But I almost dreaded it this year—I felt far more stress and anxiety. I’ll never forget teaching class the day after the 2016 elections. That was one of the worst experiences of my life. Students were shell-shocked and sobbing. I felt I’d contributed to a sense of overconfidence that Hillary Clinton would win. This year, I was way more balanced and circumspect in expressing what I thought would be the outcome.”
Mwaba: “This is my first time teaching this class during a major U.S. election. Last time I taught it was during the 2018 midterms. Compared to last time, there’s been a lot more interest and concern among my students—especially the international students—than when the focus was on the respective states. The presidential election comes up a lot more in conversations and is tied in to so much of the class material.”
What are some specific strategies that have worked well in your classes?
Gold: “I showed a three-minute clip of Trump voters explaining why they supported President Trump and students reacted very strongly and intelligently to it, talking about their own experiences growing up. Students appreciated the clip because it was not mediated by a reporter; it was real people talking. We also talked a fair bit about why the polls were off in 2016 and what that might mean for 2020.”
Mwaba: “One thing that’s helped is having students stay connected to what’s happening in the news; what’s in evidence. We stay grounded in fact, which helps them understand the material—especially those who never thought of the U.S. as an elections case study. I have a section called ‘What in the Electoral World?’ where I pick different themes each week. Last week we did election monitoring, looking at statements by election observers and issues of election fraud. In two weeks, we’re talking about populism, and I am definitely bringing the U.S. into the conversation as part of our core readings.”
What have you learned from teaching about elections in this unprecedented year?
Mwaba: “The experience has taught me the importance of maintaining a neutral class environment. You don’t know where all of the students are coming from, and it’s important that everyone feels comfortable participating. Zoom makes everything harder. You can get a sense of what students are thinking, but not a 100-percent feel.”
Gold: “This election has been unlike any other. There was too much at stake not to express my opinions about some of the things that President Trump said or did. I didn’t view it as a partisan argument, but one of fundamental values. We all share values of respect, decency, democracy and racial justice. I had no qualms about the way I approached it—and I hope I never have to do it again.”