American college campuses experienced an unexpected jolt -- unrest, even -- in the wake of the 2016 election. Heading into Election Day, Hillary Clinton was the presumptive winner; after all, the polls told us she would win. Yet, as East Coast returns started rolling in, it became clear that Donald Trump was soon to become our commander in chief.
Some (not all) campuses witnessed outright violence. Some (not all) students experienced distress. Some (not all) faculty members were asked to hold space in their classrooms for group processing. Some (not all) college administrators issued statements about the perceived challenges at hand.
All this because a duly nominated candidate had won, albeit unexpectedly.
While current polls suggest a widening lead for Joe Biden, we can’t know for certain who will win the election. But here’s something we do know: no matter who wins the United States presidential election on Tuesday, Nov. 3 (or perhaps months later, if we find ourselves in a state of postelection uncertainty), some (not all) students, faculty and staff on our campuses will be disappointed.
Here’s the thing about living in a pluralistic democracy and learning on pluralistic campuses: there are individuals all around us who think and feel differently than we do. While this viewpoint diversity is a net positive when it comes to learning, solving the world’s most pressing problems and exposing falsehoods, it can be difficult to understand or connect with political “others” who herald from an opposing tribe. But we must remember that, unlike many other places in the world, we have certain freedoms and rights that are protected by the very democracy that can at times be incredibly frustrating. And, yes, disappointing.
A few years ago, I walked away my tenured, full professorship as a social psychologist studying close relationships, collaboration and community building and made a cross-country move from California to New York as a single mom with an 8-year-old in tow. Why? To lead Heterodox Academy, a then-start-up nonprofit focused on improving research and education by advancing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement on college campuses.
All told, I have over 15 years of teaching experience, three years at the helm of a nonprofit thinking about viewpoint diversity and ideological polarization, and a lot of relationship theory at the ready. I also sit on the board of BridgeUSA, a by-students, for-students nonprofit that invests in the future of democracy by developing the next generation of engaged and constructive citizens.
It is within this context that I keep asking myself: If I were on campus this semester, how would I help my students develop more deeply the habits of heart and mind necessary to prioritize relationship and understanding in politically divided times?
I’m flashing back to four years ago, when my campus was in meltdown, even as some of the handful of conservative faculty, staff and students I knew were pulling me aside to share privately their enthusiasm about the outcome of the election. I’m flashing back to my office hours, where others were visibly shaken, in tears as they worried about whether they’d be able to stay in the United States or would be cast aside because of their gender, race or sexual orientation. And I’m flashing back to election night, as I sat alone on my bed watching the returns, drinking way too much wine and sobbing.
It didn’t occur to me then to draw on my academic training to offer my students tools for navigating the choppy waters -- in part, I suppose, because the storm kicked up suddenly while I was floating out at sea in a small rowboat.
If I were on campus this semester, virtual or otherwise, I’d invite students to a participate in an optional workshop on Prioritizing Interpersonal Connection Postelection.
The invite might read, “Students from a broad range of political commitments are invited to participate in a 2.5-hour workshop designed to prioritize interpersonal connection as a shared source of community resilience and personal growth postelection. This workshop consists of microlectures, self-reflections, partnered and group activities, and intention setting related to Election Day 2020.”
As an advocate for the value of learning outcomes, I’d list the following at the top of the workshop agenda: “Individuals who complete this workshop will be able to articulate their hopes and fears related to different possible election outcomes, forecast their needs in different outcome scenarios, understand the needs of others, and set intentions about what they will do and how they will be vis-à-vis their relationships with others on election night and beyond.” And here’s the agenda I’d suggest.
Settling in and welcome (15 minutes). On the day of the workshop, I’d start by reminding everyone why we’re here: to build interpersonal connection as a shared source of community resilience. I’d touch on constructive engagement across lines of difference as a necessity of citizenship in a pluralistic democracy and observe that the workshop is more about understanding others than trying to change anyone’s mind.
I’d underscore my expectation that we’re all heading into the workshop with good intentions, ready to listen and seeking to understand. After offering a few ground rules drawn from those offered by LivingRoom Conversations, I’d highlight recent research showing that feeling understood leads to more positive-action intentions.
Creating interpersonal connection (75 minutes). Next, we’d work to create interpersonal connection. This activity, based on experimental social psychological research, offers an effective approach for doing so. Ideally, participants would be paired with a political “other,” although I would work to minimize the salience of that goal in the minds of the participants to reduce the possibility of psychological reactance. If the makeup of the campus’s student body suggested there would be sufficient ideological variance among participants, I would randomly assign pairs for this activity.
That said, ensuring a wide range of political commitments in the room can be especially challenging on some campuses. If I anticipated political homogeneity among my workshop participants, I could imagine collaborating with a colleague from a more diverse campus or perhaps from another area of the country to co-offer a virtual workshop.
Reflecting on hopes and fears, forecasting needs (15 minutes). Next, in order to prompt self-reflection about possible election outcomes and anticipated reactions to them, participants would free write for two minutes on each of the following questions, with Zoom cameras and microphones off for privacy:
- Which candidate would you like to win the U.S. presidential election? Why?
- What are you most excited about regarding the election? Most worried about?
- How would you feel if your candidate wins? Why?
- How would you feel your candidate loses? Why?
- Imagine your candidate loses. How would you most want to be treated by supporters of the other candidate?
- Imagine your candidate wins. How do you intend to treat supporters of the other candidate? What’s a burning question you have about people who support the other candidate? What would you ask, if you could? Phrase your question with true curiosity, not judgement.
Seeking understanding and common ground (20 minutes). Next, after quickly revisiting the workshop ground rules, the original conversation pairs would come together again. Partners would interview each other; each person would talk for five minutes while their partner listened and probed for understanding. I’d provide sample interview questions, including:
- Personally, what’s at stake for you in the outcome of the election? Why does this election matter to you?
- Imagine you wake up on Nov. 4 (or several days later) to the news that your candidate won the election. How would you feel? What would you think?
- Imagine you wake up on Nov. 4 (or several days later) to the news that your candidate lost the election. How would you feel? What would you think?
- In an ideal world, how would you like to be treated by others if your candidate loses?
During these interviews, I’d encourage workshop participants to take some risks, to be vulnerable and to share what they’re really thinking and feeling.
In order to highlight that which unites rather than divides us, participant pairs would then identify a goal they share related to United States politics or the election. Examples might include, “reduce polarization,” “decrease political animosity” or “get more people to vote.” Pairs would share their commonality with the full group, and I’d point to research that suggests shared goals promote cooperation.
I’d also elevate positive intergroup contact as a known mechanism for reducing prejudice and would encourage participants to do the interpersonal connection activity above with as many political “others” as possible over the coming weeks.
Setting intentions (5 minutes). We’d then go back into a quiet reflective space. Participants would journal for a few minutes on each of the following prompts, setting their intentions for who and how they want to be in the days and weeks after the election:
- In order to prioritize interpersonal connection as a shared source of community resilience and growth postelection, if my candidate wins, I will …
- And if my candidate loses, I will …
- Regardless of who wins the election, what will I do and who will I be vis-à-vis my relationships with others on election night and beyond?
While my former students have mostly graduated by now, I know students like them are on every campus in this complicated country. And, regardless of the outcome of next month’s election, I know some of them are going to be disappointed and overwhelmed. Our opportunity as educators -- our responsibility, really -- is to help them, and ourselves, grow and engage regardless of who wins. As one step along this path, I invite others to adopt and adapt the workshop ideas above.