Vote 2018! Politics in the classroom?

“I think the first thing that teachers need to recognize is we are not apolitical, we are agents of the state, so in fact, we are political even if we’re not partisan.” — José Luis Vilson (NYC math teacher)

Politics in the classroom?

As a graphic design educator at a public university, I view my job as to inspire and teach younger people about the field and how it relates to the world. I also feel teaching demands that I demonstrate supportive and ethical character traits that the next generation needs to emulate to help create a better world to live in. Those acts, as the quote recognizes above, are neither neutral nor apolitical. It is nearly impossible to ignore current campus and global events and their relation to how graphic designers function in the classroom, workplace, and as ordinary citizens if we are to succeed as a competent educator.

Even if, as an educator, you decide not to talk about politics or current issues in the classroom, you are still making a political statement. The choice to not discuss what is happening around us is indeed a sign of political and socio-economic power. It is a privilege that many don’t have. As current events may not affect you, they will affect many others. The avoidance of political is also political.

These past few weeks my social media feed has been overflowing with messages to “vote” and “check if you’re registered to vote.” I did check, and yes I am registered and will definitely vote. These past few days, as voter registration deadlines approach, many of my design educator colleagues have reached out to see how I plan on encouraging my students to show up to the polls. This caused me some pause as, although I am planning on doing so, I wasn’t completely sure how I was going to without sounding possibly “partisan”.

As recent policies and legal hearings boil over into protests in D.C., each political party is defining themselves by what they do or don’t do. Furthermore, as the recent  IPCC report on global warming spells out a plan of action to avoid certain doom for all of humanity, not being at least a tad bit partisan can be hard to avoid for the instructor hoping to educate critically-engaged designers and citizens.

However, as I adhere to the principle of teaching not what to think, but how to think, heavy-handed partisan techniques to encourage voting will most likely backfire. As Occam’s razor suggests, “the simplest answer is most often correct;” so encouraging our students to vote or register to vote may be as easy as simply just suggesting it as their civic duty during class and looking online to for more information.

Our design students are part of what Forbes Magazine called “Generation Z”. They make up 25% of the US population and they outnumber both the Baby Boomers and Millennials. It’s Generation Z who are going to face the brunt of what does or doesn’t happen locally and in D.C. And it’s Generation Z, who holds the biggest voice now in our country. They could do so much if they just showed up.

So, I believe, it is our job to encourage them to get to the polls, so their voices will be heard. To assist you in this, I put together a list of options that many folks are doing this fall term to increase Generation Z turnout at the polls in November:

  • Point them to or and don’t take attendance on election day
  • Share personal stories about voting and why it matters
  • Design posters for the AIGA Get out the Vote campaign as an assignment
  • Design a project that investigates and visualizes what motivates their peers to vote
  • Design a project about what creates voter apathy
  • Show past voting posters and candidate logos as a history lesson and critique on what worked and what did not
  • Show the Milton Glaser voting video and discuss what he says

I recognize that for many educators who are untenured, graduate students, or in a minority status (race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or disability) that speaking about anything that smells of politics could feel threatening to your job status. The topic of politics and voting is a decision that we must evaluate. The AIGA DEC community is a place, however, for answers and support. Seeking help here on the DEC blog or on our Facebook page could assist you in making sure your voice is also heard as well this November.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.



Eric Benson is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Design to Renourish, a book that helps designers integrate sustainability into their workflow. His research laid the foundation for the Fresh Press Agri-Fiber Paper Lab, which explores the potential of papermaking to be zero waste, environmentally sustainable, and a catalyst for a thriving local economy.

By Eric Benson
Published November 1, 2018
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