Election 2016: A Disorienting Dilemma

Written by Linda Harris, Asst. Professor, Educational Sciences- 

It did not take long for Americans shocked by Donald Trump’s historic election-upset to publicly voice their angst, anguish, and outright anger at the electoral process, Trump supporters, and ultimately at the final results.  The extent of this emotional turmoil pitted family and friends against one another on social media and sent thousands of protesters to the streets across the United States. Their voices of despair are so loud, it has become nearly impossible to hear the content of their complaints. Yet, we cannot understand if we cannot hear. If we are to progress as individuals and as a nation, we must find a way to reframe how we interpret the past several days, and Transformative Learning provides one avenue by which we can do just that.

Mezirow (1978) posited that individuals are often primed for transformative learning through disorienting experiences in which their present understanding does not align with current experience.  I could offer no better example of a disorienting experience today than that of Election 2016.  Disappointments in election outcomes are to be expected; however, the smoke rising up from city streets reflects more than outcome disappointment.  I would suggest it carries the distinctive air of a disorienting dilemma that can and must lead to new understandings and actions.  In other words, current events are presenting an opportunity for transformation, and we dare not let it slip through our fingers by allowing our students to navigate this volatile terrain without providing opportunity for each to transform his or her understanding of what it means to be an American at this point in time.

How transformation can happen in such a volatile climate is not entirely clear, but the educators I know are willing and capable professionals who seek to bring greater understanding for all out of the ashes.  Of this, I am sure. Certainly, some courses regularly engage students in social justice issues and have clear opportunity to help students work through this process of critically reflecting upon current events that can eventually lead to rational discourse and action. However, many of us teach courses in which current opportunity may not be as readily apparent. My research foundations class is one such class, but prompted by GOP strategist, Mike Murphy’s election night tweet, “…data died tonight,” I posed the following reflective question to my students to initiate the process:

Using only what we have learned in class, e.g., sampling, internal/external validity, reliability, etc., respond to the following question in 250 words or less:

How could so many predictions regarding the outcome of the presidential election be so inaccurate?

It is my hope that as students continue to examine the power, limitations, and impact of research, they also begin to understand how data is understood, misunderstood, and utilized in our society today, and apply that understanding to the research they read and generate in this course. In the process, opportunity will be provided for students to develop the ultimate prize of transformation, i.e., a deeper understanding of one’s self, relationships, and worldview (Taylor, 2009).

Don’t waste this perfect opportunity when many students are in the liminal space of trying to redefine their sense of belonging, identity, and perhaps, worldview. Will you join us in using this disorienting dilemma of Election 2016 to encourage your students’ critical reflection and rational discourse?  Some will necessarily tackle social justice issues, but numerous other opportunities exist within our respective disciplines. Will you help transform students into productive, creative, ethical and engaged citizens and leaders?  We would love to hear how you are doing that with your students.  Your comments are welcome below.


Mezirow, J. (1978). Perspective transformation. Adult Education Quarterly, 28(2), 100- 110.

Taylor, E. (2009). Fostering transformative learning. In J. Mezirow & E. Taylor (Eds.) Transformative learning in practice:  Insights from community, workplace and higher education (pp.3-17) San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

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