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Do politics really tilt classrooms?

Students feel they learn more from professors whose views jibe with their own, researchers find.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 2008

Pair: Matthew Woessner and his wife, April Kelly-Woessner, teach in Pennsylvania and conduct political research.

Matthew Lester/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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For April Kelly-Woessner and her husband, Matthew Woessner, political issues don't break neatly into "red" and "blue" in everyday conversation.

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Both of them are political scientists. And they're registered in different parties.

But the Woessners, who each teach at the college level in Pennsylvania, say they're better at their jobs because of that dynamic. And together they're working on pioneering research that explores the question: How do students' and professors' politics affect the classroom?

It's an area ripe for facts. Too often, the research duo says, conservatives rely on exaggerated anecdotes to paint campuses as chock-full of liberal bias, while liberals are dismissive of what might be legitimate concerns. Their studies aren't meant to provide ammunition for one side or the other. Instead, they hope to remove the cloud of rhetoric and to inform the debate – and the academic climate – with data.

Colleges should prepare students for the political side of citizenship, but "we need to really be careful that there's a serious commitment by everybody to open-mindedness," says Anne Colby, co-author of "Educating for Democracy" and a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Stanford, Calif. As professors attempt various strategies to do that, it's useful "to understand it from the students' point of view ... and I don't think anyone else has done that," she says of the Woessners' research.

Political leanings do make a difference, but sometimes in subtle ways, the researchers found. Students feel less comfortable and give their professors lower ratings if they believe them to hold political views different from their own. But variables, such as the professor's level of caring and objectivity, can moderate the situation.

Mr. Woessner teaches at Penn State Harrisburg, and Ms. Kelly-Woessner at Elizabethtown College. After the 9/11 attacks, "the classroom environment became very politicized," she says. In discussions about war and antiterrorism measures, "you saw students really taking sides ... and you had to wonder to what extent your views on that were influencing your class."

She polled her students to make sure it wasn't obvious whether she was a Republican or Democrat (she's the latter). Her husband also took care to present various sides in class, but outside class, he dropped a policy of keeping his conservative views quiet. With so much liberal opposition being voiced on campus in advance of the Iraq war, he says, "being the political minority, I had a certain responsibility to be visible."

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