On the first day of classes this fall, I was leading an icebreaker, trying to help my freshmen students get to know one another. I told them to pair up and start interviewing each other. They were then supposed to introduce their partner to the class. We had an uneven number of students, so one young woman was assigned to interview me. Her first question? “What do you think about Donald Trump?”
Of course my students want to know what I think about Trump. They also want to know my thoughts on Hillary Clinton. And I would be lying if I said it hasn’t been difficult keeping my opinions to myself, especially when I’m teaching my rhetoric class, which is all about persuasion and adapting arguments for a wider audience.
This election has affected me more personally than others. I’ve had dreams (well, nightmares) about certain outcomes. I’ve been more vocal on social media than ever before. I’ve even volunteered my time and donated my hard-earned money. I know exactly who I’m voting for.
But in the classroom, I try not to tip my hand. When it comes to my political leanings, I aim for opacity.
My reasons are both practical and selfish. There are aspects about this election and both candidates that infuriate me. And, frankly, I don’t trust myself to maintain my composure during a classroom conversation. Given the stakes of this election, could I even engage in civil discourse with a roomful of 18-year-olds? Would I lose control and undermine my credibility? I’m not sure. Whatever the case, I recognize that I’m too emotionally invested and, therefore, ill equipped for the job of moderating. Avoiding the subject is a small act of self-care.
And actually, I think it’s better for my students, too. My job is helping them become better writers and critical thinkers, regardless of their beliefs. So I encourage my students to vote, period. If a student approaches me one-on-one to talk politics, then sure, I’m more comfortable sharing my views. During class, however, I try to minimize any talk of the election. When it does come up, I try my best to avoid using evaluative language regarding Clinton and Trump. Does that make me ethical or cowardly? I’m not entirely sure.
My colleagues feel similarly conflicted. Some argue that this election is different. They feel we have a moral responsibility, as role models for young people, to condemn the ugly, hateful rhetoric that has characterized this presidential race. To paraphrase one professor in my department, we owe it to our students to explain our stance on certain issues.
Then there’s another colleague, the one who confessed to feeling relieved about taking a sabbatical this semester. She’s terrified about this election. Not talking about it would be “tantamount to asking me to relax and walk smiling through a grocery store while someone holds a loaded revolver to my temple,” she said.
I know how she feels. I am surrounded by impressionable first-time voters. They want to discuss what they’re seeing and hearing, and they often want to know what their teacher thinks. Sometimes I swear they’re trying to break my poker face with their comments about the candidates.
Yes, it would be ridiculous to ignore the election entirely. It is, after all, the year’s biggest news story. My solution has been to discuss the election strictly through the lens of rhetorical analysis. I direct my students to assess the candidates’ language and power. I ask them to consider how Clinton and Trump use words to sway voters. We recently had a lively debate about the two campaign slogans — “Make America Great Again” and “Stronger Together” — and what, exactly, the candidates are trying to convey.
This, I believe, is the best way to serve my students. I strive to give them the tools to deconstruct the barrage of information they consume. I guide them to cast their votes responsibly. And I try to help them understand the great privilege of participating in the democratic process.
Katie Vagnino is a poet, essayist and educator who teaches creative writing at the Loft and at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Learn more at katievagnino.com.