Teaching in the Era of Flux: Accept the idea that teaching is political, not neutral

Six Canadian academics reflect on the challenges of teaching in a world of fast-paced news and distrust of sources.

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April 29, 2019

Teaching politics is political. Teaching politics in the Trump era presents challenges: many established practices and norms of international politics are in flux. In addition to the effect these changes may have on course content and focus, rhetorical strategies of the Trump administration can seep into classroom conversations about politics in Canada and the world. I have noticed increased student demand for “both sides” of topical issues to be “presented equally” in the classroom. While instructors should cover various ideological perspectives on issues, the content we present is hardly neutral and the ways we teach and facilitate is inherently political. The ways that teachers facilitate discussions is as important as the content we include in the syllabus.

Topics in the contemporary classroom are not only informed by textbook readings, but also increasingly by digital media information on current events in foreign policy. Classroom conversations must navigate what are, and are not, legitimate information sources. Consider the recent Munk Debate on the “rise of populism” that featured Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist and the former executive chairman of Brietbart News, the darling of many alt-right groups. Bannon’s presence at the Munk Debates cast him as an authoritative political expert, and by extension, legitimized ideas and rhetoric used by Bannon and others that condones bigotry, racism and white supremacy. When discussing these concepts in a classroom, how are instructors to navigate this? Are far-right ideas simply “one side” in a debate by which “all sides” have inherent value and therefore should be respected equally?

While instructors hold a position of power and must exercise caution in abruptly shutting down students wishing to engage in fruitful debate, instructors must also recognize that dynamics between students contain power relations. The challenge, therefore, is creating a space for dialogue and discussion that is equitable. Instructors must consider how the presentation of “all sides” may be digested by various classroom participants.

While instructors should pay attention to their own biases when teaching material, instructors must also be aware of the ways that divisive and potentially isolating points of view have real-life, personal effects on our students with high risk of structural inequality.

While these challenges are not new, they appear more pronounced with the rise of Trumpian rhetoric. Teaching Canada in the world, therefore, must not only consider the sources we put on our syllabi, but also consider the ways that perspectives in classroom discussions are negotiated.

Also in the series

How to teach international affairs in an era of flux:

Six Canadian academics reflect on the challenges of teaching in a world of fast-paced news and distrust of sources.