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The Role of Faculty in Student Democratic and Voter Engagement

Several years ago, I was teaching at a college that promoted an interdisciplinary theme every spring, with a series of programming, events, and service activities. In our courses, faculty were encouraged to connect the theme to what we were teaching.

I was teaching a 4000-level molecular biology lab course, but the theme that spring was about humans’ impact on the climate. I wanted to bring my students into the campus-wide conversation, but I didn’t want to teach a unit that seemed off in left field to the students. How could I connect the two topics?

I took a pedagogical leap into the great unknown. My class watched an excerpt of a documentary—narrated by Matt Damon, always a bonus—about disease vectors and human migration, and then we had discussions that ran the gamut from drug design (germane to the course content), to the influx of malaria in non-endemic countries, to the implications of the global rise in meat consumption. It remains one of my best teaching memories and, more importantly, pushed me to include more gray areas in future classes, more leaps into the unknown. In 2020, the election is one of these great “unknowns.”

College and university faculty don’t just teach subjects; we teach people. Our role is not only to present content and test recall in our areas of expertise. Although the study of civics and government has definite disciplinary connections to fields like political science, participation in democracy belongs to us all. We cannot expect our political science colleagues alone to elicit the learning that leads to productive civic behaviors. Helping students make connections between our disciplines and our functions as citizens is a part of a holistic education, and a task that we all collectively share as teachers.

But My Doctorate Isn’t in “Voting.” How Can I Help?

College students are not apathetic, nor are they apolitical. In fact, research shows that the habits of voter participation start young. But many students reach voting age at the same time that they leave home for the first time. They often have trouble navigating the voting process, finding the different deadlines and processes—which vary state to state or even county by county—confusing. Why should I (usually) have to register to vote in advance? Or give a copy of my ID? And vote in-person on a Tuesday? And, this year in particular, how and when should I request a mail-in ballot?

To follow through on their voter participation, students need assistance from people they trust. This need for support is exacerbated in this COVID semester, when faculty members are often the only campus officials with whom students regularly interact. Talking with students about voting, and the habits supporting it, is critical.

Like many real-world issues, voter engagement has multidisciplinary connections that teachers can integrate into their course. It can also help students build skills that are valued across all disciplines. In its endorsement of the faculty role in fostering voter engagement, the Association of Chief Academic Officers writes,

Student engagement in American democracy is integrally connected to curricular priorities of critical thinking and information literacy. We encourage our faculty colleagues across all ranks and disciplines to infuse in disciplinary- and subject-specific ways tenets of nonpartisan democratic and voter engagement into their work with students across the three pillars of voter registration, education, and turnout.

For many faculty, voter education likely fits the things you’re already doing. Students in the arts need to understand how public arts centers and art works get funded. Students in civil engineering should know how municipal governments differ in their building codes. Students in marketing can learn the strategies that candidates use to appeal to voters through websites and other channels.

Faculty create assignments all the time for students to practice disciplinary knowledge and skills. Why not have them perform assignments—especially low stakes assignments—that do double duty and also educate them on civic principles and democratic engagement? I know of faculty who have introductory biology students conduct internet research on what US Senate candidates have to say about climate change. I have seen a faculty member of an interdisciplinary senior seminar course encourage students to present their findings on blight to a local city council. I have personally worked with communications students who create debate watch guides that we then use in student programming.

Another approach is to bring the big ideas into the classroom. Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, wrote a blog post last week that highlighted multiple questions about the election without easy answers. Faculty can engage students with these prompts as excellent fodder for practicing critical thinking, information literacy, and communication skills.

In a very unusual and overwhelming year, few faculty have the time to create materials from scratch. The AAC&U Voter Participation Resources webpage provides a number of ideas and materials for faculty to engage students in the democratic process, including a webinar on pedagogical connections to voter engagement. The multidisciplinary Faculty Network for Student Voting Rights has also curated easy-to-deploy voter engagement topics, developed by faculty for faculty, on their website. The possibilities for assignment design and engagement are vast . . . no doctorates in voting required.

Bridget G. Trogden is an associate dean and associate professor at Clemson University, working with the general education curriculum and undergraduate student engagement.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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