When Ryan Evans is one of 100 people in a lecture hall, bringing up the fact he is a Republican might not be worth the fight.
“Being a college Republican, … on this campus, you are one of the minority,” Evans, a junior studying political science and the vice president of Ohio University’s College Republicans, said. “There’s not many college Republicans. When you sit in a classroom of 100 students, if you say something that other people disagree with — there’s a lot of people disagreeing with you.”
But it’s not just those leaning right who are concerned with the backlash a political comment can hold.
“I think that I only become uncomfortable talking about (politics) when people don’t understand that people can feel differently,” Sam Miller, a junior studying strategic communication and the president of OU College Democrats, said. “Sometimes people approach their opinions in a way that’s almost attacking.”
Students and professors both try to find balance in politically charged conversations while trying to seek understanding — and each person has their own approach.
Jerry L. Miller, professor and associate director for undergraduate studies in the School of Communication Studies, said students need to enter conversations with mind clear of polarized thinking.
“I think there needs to be a willingness to share opinions and then back those opinions up — if it’s appropriate for the class and if it’s appropriate for the organization,” Jerry said.
Susan Burgess, a political science professor, is trying to help students understand their own political positions, so she doesn’t share her own.
“I feel like my job is to help people to understand the bases of their own political opinions that they bring in and to try to get them to deeper their understanding of their positions — the strengths and the weaknesses of them,” Burgess said. “So it’s not about me.”
Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics emeritus, said public universities have no place in promoting politics.
“You could make the argument that it almost should be illegal for professors to talk about their political views in class because that means you’re using taxpayer money or partially (using) taxpayer’s money to proselytize or promote a particular political perspective,” Vedder said.
He recently attended a College Republicans meeting, and he said he “spoke favorably” of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Vedder says that is OK — as long as discussions such as that are not happening in the classroom.
“I feel that if you are in those classes or in those majors as a Republican, you can feel very not able to say what you want to say." Ryan Evans, vice president of Ohio University College Repulicans
“I think things like (the College Republicans meeting) that are not classroom activities, or extracurricular activities, are perfectly appropriate for people to speak out any way they wish,” Vedder said. “Outside the regular context of the classroom, I think it’s cool that the kids get this involvement with politics. I not only think it’s okay — I’ll get mixed up with them in it but not in the classroom.”
Vedder said teaching “European Economic History” during Fall Semester doesn’t provide many opportunities for him to bring up to current political opinions.
Sam said in her political science classes, the focus is more on the structure of politics rather than political opinions.
As far as talking about conservative leanings, Evans said that can become a bigger problem in “soft sciences,” such as women’s, gender and sexuality studies or communications studies classes.
“I feel that if you are in those classes or in those majors as a Republican, you can feel very not able to say what you want to say,” Evans said.
There is a reason why having these conversations can be beneficial, Burgess said.
In those conversations, she said students are able to understand their own beliefs while also learning more about others’.
“People need to know the basics about government, so they can participate as informed citizens,” Burgess said. “In a world where there is a lot of information coming from a variety of different sources, ... they can critically evaluate various different kinds of information sources and come to terms with them, … with their veracity or lack thereof.”
There can be a learning curve with political talk — especially when a student wasn’t exposed to American politics at a young age, like Amal Afyouni.
“Studying American politics as an international student is tough because if you live in America, you are raised on politics. You are raised knowing what the Constitution is. … Not having that background before entering the college setting is difficult." Amal Afyouni, sophomore studying economics and political science
Afyouni is an American citizen of Palestinian descent, born in Houston, Texas but raised in Dubai.
“Studying American politics as an international student is tough because if you live in America, you are raised on politics,” Afyouni said. “You are raised knowing what the Constitution is. … Not having that background before entering the college setting is difficult. … It is difficult because you are expected to know so much, but I didn’t know any of that. ... But it’s also a nice learning curve.”
When it comes to debates or conversations in class, Afyouni said she tries to come in with an open mind.
“I try to keep (debates) cordial as much as I can,” Afyouni said. “I believe the best way to have a functioning politics is to be civil and acknowledge other people’s views.”
There are certain topics that she won’t shy away from just because she’s Arab-American. That’s her advice: “Don’t ever feel like you can’t say something or you may be rejected because everyone is going to get rejected either way.”
Burgess said international students add an “interesting perspective” to her classroom discussions.
“They have a different take on U.S. politics and so forth, not having spent their whole lives within it,” Burgess said. “It’s interesting to have the interaction between people who have grown up within the system and people who have not. ... It adds a layer to the conversation that, really, I think provides additional understanding for both groups.”
Dan West, assistant professor and John A. Cassese director of forensics in the School of Communication Studies, has a background in debating. He said professors can play the role of a moderator and acts as a referee of a debate held in the classroom. He can’t carry that role out in his classes of 400 people — but in class with 20 to 30 people, that’s more doable.
“I think the teacher can play a very valuable role as to moderating (classroom discussions), which is to evaluate the statements and the arguments,” West said. “Student A gets up and makes a statement. As a teacher, I can go, ‘That’s a claim. What’s your data and what’s your logic behind that, or your reasoning behind that, your warrant?’ I can say that without malice and without judging.”
He can point out logical fallacies and evaluate what students are saying, which causes students observing the discussion to start to think and speak critically.
West said when students are going back and forth with those who might hold a differing opinion, it’s important for students to think about how they would want to be treated — and attacking isn’t a the right way to do that. Listening is key.
“You have to realize you’re probably not going to change their mind,” West said. “Debating someone is not going to make them change their mind.”
In smaller class setting, Evans said he has an easier time discussing his opinion on politics — something that’s expected in political science classes.
Sam said she tries to be transparent on her viewpoints and how they affect her political leanings. She said today’s society still considers politics a taboo subject.
“Debating someone is not going to make them change their mind.” Dan West, assistant professor and John A. Cassese director of forensics in the School of Communication Studies
“I think (politics are) something that should be talked about openly, and we understand that people are going to feel differently, but I also think that there’s ways that you can present it that can be a little bit more persuasive so that maybe people tend to see your point a little bit more. That’s why I’m very open about things because maybe if they … know someone that this has affected, then they in turn might be a little more open to seeing it from my side.”
Jerry said he wants to see students learn how to understand each other.
“(I want students to take away) an understanding of the other — the other ideas and the other positions. I don’t necessarily think the classroom is a venue for persuasion because it certainly isn’t. You’re presenting information,” Jerry said. “But, having an understanding of how individuals can look at that information and come to different conclusions, I think, is a first step toward respect and maybe at some point, realizing that there’s a need for collaboration and cooperation.”
Overall, learning the context and the basics as well as how to talk politics is something that can be moved beyond a classroom, Burgess said.
“Hopefully people can take (what they learn) out of the classroom and work on political community in a broader context,” Burgess said.
Correction: A previous version of this report misidentified Ryan Evans. He is the vice president of OU College Republicans. The article has been updated to show the most accurate information.
— Bharbi Hazarika contributed to this report
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