You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

I haven’t taught Intro to American Government in a while. Watching recent events, I have to tip my cap to the folks teaching it now.

It’s a unique class to teach, in that so many students come in with preconceptions. More so than with other classes, it involves a certain amount of unteaching. People who assume that teaching “neutrally” is easy have never had to deal with committed ideologues in class; conveying openness to a wide range of perspectives while steering discussion away from disinformation or lunacy takes a bit of diplomacy. Too much leeway for the true believers and everyone else shuts down; too much restriction on the true believers and you get accused of bias. It’s not easy.

It’s my favorite class to teach, though. There’s never a shortage of material as long as you steer clear of most textbooks. (I once saw one that devoted an entire chapter to the vice presidency. I’m not making that up.) The key is to find ways to structure the material so that the most common reaction over the semester is “ohhhh, that’s why that happens!” The fall of 2000 was a great semester for that. That was the year when we didn’t know who won the presidency for about a month, due to the vagaries of the Electoral College and some hanging chads in Florida. Students came in wondering what the hell happened; for once, the Electoral College was a hot topic. That semester was a blast.

I always bring in a few super-basic facts on quizzes or tests just to see if folks are keeping up. (“How many senators does each state get?”) I’m sometimes surprised at what isn’t common knowledge, given that most of them had taken social studies in high school, but I want to ensure that they got a few basics. Maps are helpful, too, although sometimes in unanticipated ways. My introduction to universal design for learning came when a student indicated that the red state/blue state map I had on the screen didn’t help him because he was colorblind and couldn’t tell red from blue. I owe that student a debt of gratitude.

Now, teaching the basics must be dramatically harder. Basic facts are in dispute. The concept of the rule of law, which I take as foundational, is very much in question. In some states, students are primed to record classes and report on professors saying anything that sounds uncomfortable to them. Imagine answering a student question about racial patterns of voting without saying anything uncomfortable or controversial.

As fraught as it has become, though, the course is so much more important now. If I had my druthers, I’d love to run a section for the entire country. It’s time to review the ground rules.

I’d love to hear from readers who are teaching the class now, or who did this spring. How do you handle topics that have become increasingly electric recently? And how do you balance the few talkative true believers from the many who are terrified to say anything?

Next Story

Written By

More from Confessions of a Community College Dean