Identity, Controversy, Pedagogy: Teaching Contentious Issues in the Political Science Classroom

By John McMahon and Patricia Stapleton

As fall terms approach, one question seems to preoccupy political scientists more than anything else: how do you teach Donald Trump? At the least, this challenge has provoked blog posts, social media discussions, and conversations over coffee (and stronger fare). Benjamin Kroll of Centre College posed the dilemma thusly:

How does a college professor teach with a commitment to politically neutrality and objectivity under these circumstances? Is neutrality in the classroom even desirable or ethically defensible at this point?

I need to figure out… how I can, as a college professor, effectively teach about the presidential election and American politics while simultaneously 1) clearly demonstrating that many aspects of “Trumpism” are illegitimate expressions of American political culture and values, 2) raising awareness of the potential future spectre of authoritarianism that a Trump presidency might enable, 3) emphasizing that there are legitimate reasons to support Trump even if you do not accept the viewpoints and proposals that are not legitimate, and 4) making sure that all students, Republicans and Democrats alike, feel that they are welcome to express their views in classroom discussions, and 5) making sure to emphasize that despite many of Trump’s illegitimate views and that he is this year’s standard-bearer of the Republican Party, the “mainstream” GOP is still well within the traditional boundaries of American politics and values?

Although many of us are struggling with the issues Kroll raises, how to teach contentious topics in the classroom extends beyond the teaching of Trump. Amid incidents of gun violence and debates about campus carry, how can we facilitate productive dialogue on firearms, violence, and the Second Amendment? How do we address climate change denial or anti-vaccination perspectives? With overdue, increased attention to sexual violence on college campuses, what are our best practices for teaching about wartime sexual violence and gender-based violence? What pedagogies are most effective at teaching the political theory canon while not reproducing its hierarchies and exclusions? What role, if any, can content warnings play in the political science classroom?

In order to collaboratively explore these questions about divisive issues, objectivity, violence, power, and identity, we have organized a conference within a conference for the 2017 WPSA Annual Meeting. The mini-conference, “Identity, Controversy, Pedagogy: Teaching Contentious Issues in the Political Science Classroom,” will take up the 2017 conference theme on the politics of identity in a pedagogical context. The 2017 Annual Meeting CFP asks us to consider the multivalent effects of identity, bias, and conflict in the political world; this mini-conference will appraise the challenges and opportunities of identity and conflictual issues in the classroom.

As you begin to work on your proposals for WPSA 2017, consider submitting to the mini-conference by selecting Section 31 as your First Choice Session on the Participation Form. We welcome submissions of individual papers, panels, workshops, and roundtables, from all subfields, methodological and theoretical perspectives, and types of institutions. See you in Vancouver!

Patricia Stapleton is Director of the Science, Technology, and Policy Program and Assistant Professor of Social Science and Policy Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

John McMahon is Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Beloit College.

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