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Teaching Students to Engage with Opposing Viewpoints
For several years, I have required students enrolled in my introductory American government course at Chattanooga State Community College (in Tennessee) to identify and engage with the people who represent them in local, state, and national government. As part of a semester-long project on civic engagement, students learn how to be an engaged citizen by, well, being one.
The first semester in which I asked students to produce a list of their representatives, I confess that I was unprepared for how difficult this assignment would be for them. Although all Tennessee high school students are required to take a course in American government to graduate, my students were ill-prepared to see how they fit into the broader democratic system. This was especially true for students from more rural parts of the state, where many citizens cannot easily view how local government operates. Given that our community college has two campuses in quite rural parts of the state, as well as many students traveling to our main campus from outlying counties, this has been a real barrier to student awareness of and engagement with local government.
With the growing vitriol in American politics, we need to prepare our students to actively participate in their communities and know how to do so productively, including interacting with people who hold opposing viewpoints. So last fall, I added a new layer to the semester-long project. Students still find out who represents them and interact with those representatives in some meaningful way, but now they also engage in a series of self-exploration activities, followed by a listening session with someone who holds an opposing viewpoint.
In the first week of class, I ask students to read the chapter in Dr. Brené Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness, called “People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.” As a social work researcher, Dr. Brown focuses on creating more supportive communities. Her TED talks, books, and podcasts are widely praised for addressing vulnerability, courageous conversations, and deeper understanding. We then have a conversation — sometimes before we even start talking about the syllabus in detail — about what it means to have productive political discussions.
Given the tense political environment, it is no surprise that many of our students have fully checked out of the political world. They have no sense of what the labels “liberal,” “conservative,” “Democratic,” or “Republican” even mean. They have not figured out how they fit into this world. To help them situate themselves, I ask students to take a series of online quizzes in the second or third week of the semester, including the Pew Research Center’s Political Typology Quiz and Religious Typology Quiz, as well as the Chartsme quiz, which is based on some of the more cutting-edge public opinion research. I also lead them through the Social Identity Wheel exercise.
For many students, especially the significant number who are dual-enrollment teenagers still finding their sense of identity, this is the first time they’ve ever been asked to situate themselves in the political world. For the adult learners, these exercises can often ignite challenging conversations about why we need to think about “social identity” in the first place. As students engage in these explorations, the genius of the community college culture emerges as our conversation invites young and old, politically engaged and politically resistant, to talk about who they are.
We are all often surprised by the views that emerge during these conversations; college students have a reputation for skewing liberal, but my students live surrounded by a political culture deeply skeptical of government and are often conservative. The differences in age, life experience, and family structure at an open-access institution add additional layers onto these conversations. Suffice it to say, the community college classroom is one of the last places where truly different people can engage in meaningful dialogue around topics most of us avoid in polite company.
The conversations help us get started and build trust among the students. Later in the semester, I then ask students to identify someone who:
- They know personally
- Has a differing political belief on an issue they care about
- Is willing to explain why they believe what they do
The students interview that person, using the tools and strategies described in Dr. Brown’s chapter. They are directed to not share their own perspectives; their task is to listen, with the goal of understanding, and then reflect on the experience.
For some students, finding a friend or relative to have this conversation with is fairly easy. But not everyone has someone in their social circle with a divergent viewpoint whom they feel comfortable approaching. This is again where the magic of the community college classroom yields tangible dividends. For example, this semester a student asked me if I had any ideas about how to find someone to have this conversation with. I knew that one of his classmates, a young man who happens to be my advisee, has quite extreme views on issues related to national security. I suggested they have a conversation, and they ended up talking for more than an hour. These two students are different in nearly every way. That they were able to have this conversation, with one probing for understanding and the other having the freedom to really explain his thinking, is not something either would likely have experienced had it not been for this assignment.
Here are some representative excerpts from those reflections:
“I believe that I now understand him better as a friend because of this experience. I think that this experience has taught me how valuable it is to understand someone else’s point of view and I think I will seek conversations like this more often.”
“Usually, I am very outspoken and almost try to outwit anybody whose opinion differs from mine, but I actually enjoyed just listening to this person’s experiences and what has shaped their opinions. I often find myself alienating people with opposing views by labeling them privileged or uninformed. I discovered that this issue is not black and white, and people are not absolutely ‘for’ or ‘against’ abortion the majority of the time.”
“This experience was quite difficult to deal with, as I’m extremely used to voicing my opinion and contradicting those around me. For every point my uncle tried to make, I had a rebuttal, but I was unable to voice it. On the other hand, this experience allowed me to fully comprehend and understand my uncle’s perspective which would not have been possible otherwise.”
“I was just amazed that in my silence, while I wanted to tell why she was wrong, I actually got to learn more about her and why she feels that way about this topic. It was eye opening for me to realize that just like I have a story about something I strongly believe in, so does everyone else.”
“Hearing this belief from them that was so different from mine was shocking, but [it] also allowed me to reflect on how I think about people who disagree with me on topics such as this. Usually it’s easy to write them off as someone who is less moral and less kind. I cannot do that in this case because I know it’s not true. I know they are not advocating for discrimination of people, but instead hold religious values to a higher importance than I do.”
Ultimately, the learning in this project has been most rewarding when students are able to cultivate greater empathy for and understanding of a different perspective. The unique student population at a community college certainly makes the availability of diverse viewpoints greater. However, that diversity also brings cultural dynamics ― age differences, economic disparities, and racial experiences ― which make the discussion of any political issue more complex than it might be on a more homogenous college campus. This requires a good deal more intentionality in designing and ensuring a collaborative classroom culture built on a strong foundation of trust.
I’ve found Dr. Brown’s work to be an invaluable first step toward building that culture and trust. For anyone who wants their students to engage in this kind of empathy-building assignment or project, I encourage investing the time and effort to ensure that foundation is there before you ask students to communicate across important differences.
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