Politicians Could Learn from My Students

After watching the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates, I absolutely have to mention the parallels I saw between my undergraduate students and the candidates. To be specific (unlike the politicians): these politicians could learn a lot about debating from my very smart, very passionate, and very respectful students. To take a page from Governor Romney, I shall enumerate some things:

1)      Admit you don’t know. Congressman Ryan, when you’re asked to provide specifics on how your ticket would pay for a 20% tax cut across the board, don’t keep talking. Just admit you don’t know. When my students don’t do the reading, they don’t even attempt the pop quiz. Instead, they just say ‘I don’t know’.

2)      Stand by your beliefs. Governor Romney, when you’re asked about your plans for Medicare, don’t speak around it and introduce the idea of a Medicare voucher. Just say you have, and will likely continue to, increase the cost of Medicare. My students often say ‘I know it’s not the general trend at this school, but I have to be honest and say…’

3)      Don’t rely on the high road. President Obama, the high road is rarely taken so most people lack familiarity with it. What’s more, taking the high road passively is even more likely to go overlooked. If you aren’t going to say ‘I am taking the high road’ then just don’t take it. No one is giving you credit for that. My students rarely take the high road when they are debating in class. They aren’t above calling people out. Exposing their truth (note: not the truth) is paramount to being polite.

4)      Don’t laugh at others’ incompetence. Vice President Biden, when your opponent is clearly struggling to develop coherent and consistent thoughts, don’t laugh at him. My students have developed great tactics for hiding their dismay at their classmates’ lack of preparation. They put their head down and act like they are taking notes, they flip through their notes as if searching for more evidence, they lean their head back and look up as if in deep thought. Any of those will work.

5)      Speaking quickly does not mask your incompetence. Congressman Ryan, as a follow up to point number one, if you aren’t going to admit you don’t know, then please don’t speak fast in hopes that the audience will not notice. What that does is draw attention to your speech. Just be quiet. When forced to speak, students who didn’t do the readings say one thing specifically and clearly. Try that next time.

6)      Enumeration without clarity does not improve comprehension. Governor Romney, enumerating disjointed points does not make your dialogue easier to understand. On the contrary, it increases confusion because the audience is trying to figure out how you linked these ideas. This is a useless effort because your points are in fact, not related. To tackle the issue of unrelated ideas jammed into the same statement, my students use transitions like ‘and on another note’ or ‘somewhat related to this’. This cues the audience that you are shifting conceptual gears.

7)      Toot your own horn. President Obama, we the people are tired of you downplaying your successes as President. Your administration has captured and killed Osama Bin Laden, you’ve passed a major healthcare act that allowed students (specifically graduate students like myself) to stay on their parents’ healthcare until age 26, you’ve granted people the right to marry the person they love, and you’ve stood by women’s rights to make decisions about their bodies. While many may not view all of these as successes, your administration does, so be vocal about them. My students are quick to say ‘As a dean’s scholar, ‘When I was president of the class’, or ‘As a triple major’. Providing context and credence for your opinions is not arrogant. It is often necessary.

8)      Repetition makes you look like you have nothing to say. President Obama and Governor Romney, we the people never want to hear ‘5 trillion’ and ‘American people’ again. We get it. We got it the first dozen times you said it. Move on to your next point. If you don’t have one, refer to number one on this list. My students quiet down when they’ve exhausted their ideas. It’s how I know we are ready to move to the next reading.

9)      Know your facts. To all of you, please stop relying on biased interpretations of data. You are educated people with critical thinking skills. We the people don’t want to hear ‘statistics’ gathered by your party, organizations that support your party, organizations your party supports, or any other biased entity. We also don’t want to hear old data, poorly collected/analyzed data, or simple wrong data. I tell my students all the time, ‘I don’t care where you fall on this issue; I care that you back it up with credible facts’.

10)  Acknowledge that your personal views are PERSONAL. Vice President Biden did a good job of this so he is excused from this lesson. The rest of you need to remember that your feelings and beliefs (note: feelings and beliefs are not facts) are personal and derivative of your experiences. We the people have not lived your life and you have not lived ours. It is for that reason that your personal views should not be imposed on others. I work with my students to create a classroom climate in which everyone feels safe to not only express, but to also live their beliefs. I wish you all could work together to create the same for the people of our country.

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