On the heels of a momentous presidential election, students across the country have spearheaded efforts to urge colleges to cancel classes on Election Day. Universities such as American University, Brown University and Colorado College heeded the call, giving its students time off from classes on Tuesday.
Cornell, however, has not adopted the same policy, leaving Election Day class plans up to individual professors. Because there have not been any institution-level decisions about Election Day classes, some students will be logging onto classes, while others will have a break for the day.
Prof. Peter Katzenstein, government, said that a national organization of students approached him last spring to ask if he would consider modifying his attendance policy for his classes on Election Day.
After this encounter, he decided to make Election Day attendance voluntary for GOVT 3557: Exceptionalism Questioned: America and Europe. For him, the choice was a “very easy” decision in light of voting accessibility issues across the country.
“Voter restriction is such a deeply ingrained, bipartisan tradition in this country that neither party questions the tradition of voting on a Tuesday,” Katzenstein said. “This choice of day makes it much more difficult for many Americans to vote than it should be.”
College-aged students make up a large cohort of voters in the United States, but voter turnout rates have fluctuated across election cycles. The 2016 presidential election represented a historically low turnout for the age demographic, standing at just 48.3 percent.
One of the main barriers that precludes young people from voting is class or work obligations. The national student movement for canceling Election Day classes stems from a desire to make voting more accessible to students.
Whereas Katzenstein decided to relax his attendance policy, Prof. Anna Haskins, sociology, decided to outright cancel DSOC 2200: Controversies About Inequality on Tuesday. She built this decision into her syllabus before the semester started, with the intention of encouraging her students to vote, relieving them of the stress that comes with missed content or lack of attendance.
Because the class covers various aspects of social inequality, Haskins wanted to use Election Day as a learning opportunity for her students, emphasizing the importance of voting as a means to address inequalities.
“Often, students want to know what they can do to address the inequality they see and learn about in the country,” Haskins said. “One way to do that is to vote in elected officials that stand for the values, platforms and policies that speak to them. In a presidential election year, it seemed right to give students the time to go and vote.”
Beyond reasons that support student voting, she thought cancelling class would provide students some relief from mid-semester stress.
“This is a hard point in the semester, and a break of any sort is a good one,” Haskins said. “It also allows for a break, especially for Tuesday/Thursday classes this semester, that didn’t get a built-in break.”
Although Prof. Terence Alexander, applied economics and management, had toyed with the idea of cancelling his classes on Election Day, he ultimately decided to hold AEM 2600: Managerial Economics as scheduled.
While he recognized the importance of voting as a civic responsibility, he said that giving students the day off “doesn’t really accomplish much,” because many of his students are from out of state and are voting by absentee ballot anyways.
A major consideration for Alexander when making this decision was the risk of falling behind schedule, especially with an abnormal in-person semester. He was worried that losing a whole day of instruction would put the class at an instructional deficit and unfairly place students at a disadvantage before the semi-final period.
“I’m going a lot slower than I normally would if I was in a classroom. It just takes longer for students to get stuff, and it takes more time for me to convey it,” Alexander said. “At this point, I’ve only got two and a half weeks before the semi-final comes up, and I don’t really feel like I could afford giving up the day.”
In addition to Alexander’s AEM 2600 class, Saketh Anand ’23, an applied economics and management major, has to attend AEM 3360: Corporate Financial Reporting and Statistics on Election Day, when he has a test and two assignments due for both classes.
Although turning in these assignments and attending class will not hamper his own ability to vote, he said that he thinks professors should give students more leeway on Election Day.
“I think that it would be nice if the teachers provided students with the opportunity to get extensions on their work due then or give them the ability to miss class without a penalty,” Anand said. “That way students and teachers who are willing to still go to class can do so and others will not be penalized for being busy on Election Day.”
Although Haskins shared her plans with a few colleagues, she was not engaged in departmental conversations about the choice to cancel class. Katzenstein and Alexander also made the decisions without inter-colleague deliberation.
For Alexander, the pandemic generated new considerations that he had to weigh when making the decision whether or not to hold class. But the unusual circumstances of the 2020 election ultimately affected his final choice to hold class.
“I firmly believe that if we were in the classroom this year, I would have given my students the day off,” Alexander said. “But it’s such a strange world we’re in right now that I just really couldn’t afford the day. That’s the bottom line.”