Staying at the Table: Political Psychology at Thiel College

Assistant Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Political Science, Dr. Marie Courtemanche has taught at Thiel College since 2014. Courtemanche has her Doctor of Philosophy in research methodology and quantitative methods in political psychology and American politics from Stony Brook University.

In addition to blending political science and psychology to create insightful and meaningful research, Courtemanche uses humor and compassion to create classrooms where students discuss potentially volatile topics in a way that empowers them as individuals while connecting them as a group.

Bringing Sanity to the Conversation

Political psychology offers a structure for studying institutions or the behavior of individuals, Courtemanche explains, as researchers seek to understand how people come to believe something, which is no small feat in an age where we are often overwhelmed by the volume of information offered.

Furthermore, the “hyperbole on both sides” in an increasingly hostile environment makes remaining neutral less and less viable.”The person trying to bring sanity gets shot by both sides,” she states. Then, with no reliable gatekeepers of information, the amount of false information being shared has led to many citizens discounting any information that doesn’t fit with one’s current beliefs, which makes it difficult “to have a sane discussion,” when concepts such as “facts” and “truth” cannot be agreed upon.

“Not everyone is polarized,” she adds.

There are many people whose politics would fall in the middle, but the moderate ones are often pushed to pick a side within a confrontation, and the mass media remains focused on anything that is divisive. Politicians say something shocking; the media picks it up and gives it steam because those controversial stories are bringing them revenue. The story is then shared in a hyper-partisan fashion, and “whether it’s good for democracy is a secondary question.”

Never a Lecture, Always a Discussion

Recent graduate Terri Eddy suggests one of Courtemanche’s most effective pedagogical choices was assigning students to argue sides of a debate without giving them the choice of which side they would be arguing. In this task, students are asked to consider a topic from another angle and in being “determined to win” the debate, Eddy adds, they sought to not only know the other side but to work to understand the other side to the degree they could put forth a persuasive, impassioned, logical argument.

Jacob DeRue believes the time Courtemanche spends getting to know students, and encouraging them to connect on a personal level, sets the stage to talk about conflicts and share strong beliefs without resorting to anger or growing “out of control.”

With this balance, DeRue adds, students are trained to listen to what their peers are saying instead of kneejerk reaction where they are “thinking their whole opinion is garbage.” It’s about active listening to understand others’ opinions-rather than focusing energy on digging in stubbornly to refute them-and then finding “the balance between the two.” He stresses that she’s also ensuring students feel supported to express their thoughts, even unpopular ones, rather than “just caving to strong opinions.”

Using Humor in Difficult Discussions

Like her colleague, Dr. Natalie Homa of the Psychology department at Thiel is focused on the most effective ways to facilitate challenging classroom discussions involving politics. Homa believes that Courtemanche’s success starts with creating a welcoming environment from the first day of any class, while previewing the topics they will be covering, so there are no surprises for students when they are asked to deconstruct arguments about abortion, gun control, immigration, or any number of hot-button issues. She also carefully lays out the rules about respecting each other in any conversation, and she sticks to those rules without fail.

She notes that Courtemanche uses humor to “tone down anything that can get out of hand,” when difficult conversations may grow too heated. Homa praises her colleague’s gentle approach that still ensures students are forced to grapple with the biggest questions of the day and, perhaps even more importantly, learning to communicate their difference of opinions in a respectful manner.

Courtemanche is able to accomplish this diffusion through humor, Homa believes, because she has proven how much she cares for her students on a personal level; she can pull the students back together with some gentle teasing, which reminds all of them how well they know each other and that, despite having strong differences, they can debate the merits of an argument without losing kindness or compassion for their peers.

Alonzo Brown, who graduated in May, also highlights Courtemanche’s humor as one of her unique abilities. Because she relates to her students, and keeps her own opinions neutral and unbiased, she creates an environment where students can share their beliefs-yet are challenged by one another to defend those beliefs in sound ways, Brown explains.

Brown further believes Courtemanche’s friendly, non-judgmental tone defuses or deflects rising tensions that may happen when differences are polarized, while forging ahead with those conversations to ensure students remain focused and engaged. She used humor to “call us out,” Eddy adds, if someone was becoming rude or offensive-and that humor helped them remember how much they enjoyed each other as people, no matter how strongly they disagreed on political issues.

Calming the Chaos Kierstin Peabody believes Courtemanche avoids forwarding her own opinions in the classroom so that students are empowered to develop their arguments without worrying their professor may not agree. However, Courtemanche is involved in every moment, serving as an active guide for them, someone who can “calm the chaos” if they stop listening to one another. “Don’t say anything until you’ve taken a breath and thought about it,” Courtemanche has instructed them- advice that Peabody has often used when she felt a “blood-boiling” emotional response to one of her peers.

Thiel student Angela Campbell, who plans to work in the federal government, praises Courtemanche’s well-planned student collaborations, noting how deftly she connects people who may not normally choose to work together. In their small-group work, student leaders are asked to develop questions to guide a discussion, and Courtemanche moves throughout the room to sit in on those chats, offering follow-up questions.

When the small groups are completed, the class comes together to discuss their findings. Campbell believes this small-group work prepares students who may lack confidence to find their voices and practice self-expression before sharing those ideas with a much larger audience. She also believes these small groups make students more accountable, as each one feels “more obligated to voice an opinion,” when they can’t blend into the larger group discussion.

A Diet of Outrage

Students must receive this training in respectful dialogues because we have fewer models in the public eye to demonstrate how respectful disagreement would look. The stories that make the news are so often covering moments that are shocking or intended to be. The result, she explains, is that we are fed a steady diet of outrage (with the “I can’t believe he said this” or “I can’t believe she did this” type of headlines), and this is not a distinctly American problem.

Globally, we are all heading down a similar path. The corrective, she explains, is sane and rational conversations- something that will start leading us away from the hatred created by people driven to extremes and away from our self-segregation drawn along party lines.

In the last few years, she’s watched as we have become further isolated from anyone we disagree with-to the point we won’t live among them or even have conversations with them. Regular interactions, though, are exactly what is needed to lead us out of this nation of extremes- sustained contact, not just “one-offs”; we must work to move past trigger words and instead to recognize the “underlying values” at the core of the difficult choices as we work to collectively address the concerns that affect us all.

Politicians understand the importance of these trigger words, though, and the “game of politics” is often about framing an issue within rhetoric designed to provoke strong emotion, a move that leads us to focus on destroying the “other team” while a less volatile rhetorical framework would leave room for peaceful, respectful communication.

Though these dialogues are uncomfortable and often stressful, we must be willing to listen, but we have become so overwhelmed that we tend to avoid these hard conversations, she believes, for fear they can only lead to division and anger. Whether in a public forum, a classroom, or even in our homes with family members with diverse political opinions, Courtemanche explains, “staying at the table” is a critical piece for moving forward, not allowing anger to take over and focusing on dialogues and conversations that are more nuanced.

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.