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“Politics in the Classroom” the focus of student-faculty discussion

On Oct. 29 from noon to 1 p.m., Susan Gardner, professor and director of the women’s, gender and sexuality studies program and the Rising Tide Center, and Karen Pelletreau, manager of programs, workshops and training at the University of Maine’s Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning hosted an event, “Politics in the Classroom, ‘strategies and opportunities’” in room 424 of Dunn Hall at the University of Maine.

The Department of Communication and Journalism holds a weekly colloquium series that features speakers from UMaine and the outside professional community. This colloquium series presents topics related to communication and journalism research, pedagogy and practice.

The goal of the presentation was to characterize the boundaries between academic freedom, freedom of expression, critical content, personal beliefs and positions of power in the classroom, as well as practice appreciating and welcoming diverse opinions.

The speakers emphasized that the ideal was for participants to leave with tools and experience to facilitate discussions respectfully and without shutting down those who are outnumbered and underrepresented.

“We live in increasingly polarized and partisan times in this country,” Gardner and Pelletreau said. “Faculty want to ensure that important topics can be discussed, different viewpoints can be shared, and students can have an open and safe place to do so in their classrooms. At the same time, these conversations can sometimes be fraught and heated. We wanted to give faculty some tools on how to best structure dialogues in their classrooms.”

The issue of politics in the classroom is becoming an increasingly important discussion at universities nationwide. According to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at the University of California, Los Angeles, 2016 brought the most polarized student body in the United States in 51 years.

In December 2016, UMaine’s Board of Trustee Executive Committee held a committee meeting to “review and recommend, as it deemed necessary, changes to Board and System policies on freedom of speech, civility, and political impartiality.”

It was decided that as long as any faculty, staff or student does not claim to speak for their campus or the University of Maine System, unless specifically authorized, then they are not restricted from speaking on political matters, including testifying before or speaking with legislators about the teaching, research expertise or personal experience.

According to Pelletreau, the exercises and resources that were discussed can have a direct application in the classroom in encouraging quiet students to speak up and voice their opinions.

“I have [used] these techniques in workshops and in classrooms,” Pelletreau said. “I think these techniques also provide opportunities to respectful listen to other perspectives — which is really valuable.”

Gardner and Pelletreau see the responsibility of universities as multifaceted. On the one hand, college is a place to discuss conflicting ideas. On the other hand, Gardner and Pelletreau said, “It is important that higher education institutions teach students how to discuss difficult subjects. If we don’t do it then who will?”

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