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  • Writer's pictureMarybeth Gasman

Show Compassion for Students during the Election

We are in the middle of a presidential election like no other in my lifetime. We no longer see a sense of decorum in the office of the presidency nor in the broader political sphere, and the truth doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Although I have been a professor for over twenty years and have experienced uncertainty around election time, I have not witnessed the fear, anger, stress, and sense of helplessness among students that I am seeing right now.

Some of my faculty colleagues throughout the nation believe that our students should just suck it up and realize that dealing with this mess is part of being adults. However, none of us knows what is going to happen on November 3, 2020. Polls used to be good predictors of who might win the presidential election, but in our current polarized US political environment I don’t believe people are always honest when responding to pollsters. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, who was able to predict nearly every political race—big and small—in 2008 and 2012,predicted a win for Hillary Clinton in 2016, just as most other polls did. Regardless of who is elected to the presidency, the losing side will be angry and we don’t know how people might act out if their candidate doesn’t win. Some pundits are predicting a “civil war,” pitting conservatives and liberals against each other, and unfortunately, some politicians are stoking the fires of this potential war. And, the period following the election might also be a time when students may feel compelled to engage in peaceful protest.

In the midst of this chaos, students are trying to learn. They are envisioning a future with uncertainty and fear. They are preparing to take exams. They are beginning to write course papers. And, yes, they need to do all of these things, and will have to learn to exist and excel in the world even in the middle of chaos. I have always been a professor with high expectations and a strict syllabus that asks students to plan ahead, be organized, and be prepared to tackle their assignments in a timely manner. However, I think that at this time, and in this particular situation, we need to go easy on our students, and realize that we may need to allow for open discussion around the election results and students’ reactions to them in our classes regardless of what we teach. It is impossible to anticipate and plan when there is no certainty, and the nation is turned upside down, with politicians, and even media outlets, sowing doubt that we will have an outcome on election night. In addition to showing compassion for our students, I also think we should go easy on ourselves.

I’m appealing to my faculty colleagues across the nation to refrain from scheduling exams or assigning papers due during the week of the election. I realize that most faculty have already distributed syllabi, but please consider moving things around a bit. I am asking not as a partisan gesture but as a plea to your compassion, your humanity, and maybe even your patriotism. Voting should be encouraged and lauded in a democracy. Taking the election seriously is important and we should model this behavior for others in society. And given that no matter who is elected president, there will be uncertainty and disarray, let’s not add to the stress.

If you are asking, “What’s different about this presidential election year from others?,” please consider that we are in a worldwide pandemic with no end in sight, over 200,000 people have died, people are hurting due to dire economic conditions, racial unrest is constant and heightened, and there are unprecedented natural disasters ravaging the country with little federal assistance. We could all use some compassion and care. We should all do what we can to ease the stress of others and, in this case, our students. Will you join me?

Essay originally published on Academe Blog on September 25, 2020.

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