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Do politics really tilt classrooms?

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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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