04/05/2012 04:24 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2012

Ideology in the Classroom: Teaching Politics During a Presidential Election

I began teaching in the fall of 2007, when the hype about the 2008 election was already well underway. As I approach my second presidential election as a professor of political communication, I'm reminded of a few things I've discovered about teaching politics in the college classroom.

Like many other "teacher-scholars," my research is a central component of my teaching. But as a political communication scholar, I know that many students look to faculty like me to make sense of a complex and often contradictory political world. But how do we make sure that politics don't enter the conversation about, well, politics?

I came to my first graduate course in political communication with a burning curiosity for why and how media cover politics. The hoopla over the Bush-Gore race and the tragedy surrounding 9/11 were in very recent memory, so I had a lot of criticisms of what I thought the media were doing right and mostly, what they were doing wrong. Part of me expected the class to be a critique of American media from some left-wing professor who preached about the way things SHOULD be. I believed I would discover solid evidence for why the media are biased; how content is systematically controlled by elites; and get all the inside information that would somehow magically reveal how this all worked.

I was surprised when my professor not only did NOT make his ideology known (even when asked), but that the content of the course far surpassed the superficial discussions we hear about politics every day. At the end of the semester, the professor gave extra credit to whoever could correctly guess who he voted for in the last election. Not one person got it right. (I still think this was an unfair question because it turns out he was Libertarian).

Regardless, I have taken that model into my own classroom and am always delighted when students can't guess my ideology. While some of my faculty colleagues completely disagree about keeping these personal views under wraps, I maintain that, when you put that monolith aside, when you tell students, "Hey, we're not talking about ideology here, we're not going to turn the classroom into a vitriolic discussion. Let's just talk about the hows and the whys so you can look at the phenomenon in a thoughtful, objective way." I don't deny that ideology drives a lot of what we think and do, but I do think it's possible to set it aside, and the benefits are great. So here's how I do it.

I teach several large lectures, where many students seem to think they can "opt out" of class discussion and just passively receive information for three months. I tell them right off the bat that they play a central role in the learning process. I also make it clear that we aren't here to talk about the reasons we are voting for one candidate or another. We aren't pundits fighting for our cause. Instead, we are social scientists, analyzing the campaign through the eyes of a scholar. Perhaps surprisingly, the students are always game, and there have been only a few times where I had to say, "Okay, let's not bring ideology into this... step back and look at it from a scholarly perspective." I don't prohibit students from expressing opinion (free speech is a right, after all), but I discourage them from relying solely on this kind of commentary. I often see students begin to offer an opinion, then check themselves... take a second to think it over... and offer a more critical and thoughtful comment. It's good practice for deliberative discussion.

In addition to getting students involved in the classroom, I also like to get them doing something outside the classroom. For many of my students, this is the first election in which they can vote. I try to create an environment that celebrates that milestone, but also emphasizes the weighty importance of that responsibility. I often require all students to attend one political event during the semester, then write about it from a scholarly perspective.

Adding this kind of structure to the course not only encourages involvement in the classroom and outside of it, but it makes politics real to our students. My discipline is ever-evolving, and my courses should reflect that. I find the most reward when I allow students to take ownership of their roles in the class and in a democratic society, even if that means modifying course content in the middle of the semester.

Admittedly, I'm an idealist and I'd love for every student to vote and get involved. But I'm also a realist. Civil discussions in the classroom will not magically lead to civility outside the classroom. Some of these students will likely become ideologically polarized, eternally questioning the motives of the other side. But I can at least introduce alternative ways of examining the world through critical and thoughtful lenses, and empower students in a world of information overload by giving them concrete tools for sorting through information. The reward? Students who tell me they still read the news years after taking my class. Students who go on to study in graduate school and law school. And students who have a changed perspective on what politics means in our everyday lives.