Profs grasp for ways to discuss election in class
Among the many questions the American left was mulling over early Wednesday morning — as it became clear that Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States — one of the clearest was, “How do I explain this result to my children?”
For Brandeis professors, that question applied not only to their own children but also to the students who look to them for answers, mentorship and education. In a series of email exchanges, professors told the Justice about teaching their first classes after the election and what they see as the role of higher education in the wake of the Trump presidency.
Prof. Chad Williams’ (AAAS) first class after the election was on Wednesday afternoon, and while he “initially did not plan to devote the class to discussing the election, that changed when I walked into the classroom. Several students were absent. Those present looked visibly exhausted.” Williams tied the election results into that week’s reading, “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.” He wrote that “Kelley [the book’s author] makes clear that progress in American history is not inevitable. The history of people of African descent and other marginalized groups is one of constant struggle.”
Likewise, Prof. Melissa Pearson (AAAS) saw her students were “experiencing some anxiety” and opened the class to discussion. She said it would be “irresponsible to push through my syllabus and not acknowledge their presence and positions.”
Williams encouraged his fellow faculty to recognize that students are “justifiably scared,” particularly given the uptick in reported hate crimes and harassment against marginalized groups after the Trump election. Pearson hoped that faculty who aren’t members of marginalized groups “would try to give space to ‘others’ voices and validate their anxiety; their living experiences as we all reconcile our existence at this time.”
Prof. Eileen McNamara (JOUR) emailed her students a reminder that night that “no man knows how he will respond to the awesome responsibilities of the presidency until they are thrust upon him.” McNamara’s classes post-election focused on the media’s role in the election results. She praised the investigative work of the New York Times, the Washington Post and other print institutions. “It is a myth that journalism did not do its job. … What failed was the ability of serious journalism to cut through the noise,” she wrote, adding that the new challenge for journalism is to be heard over false or partisan stories that circulate on social media.
Prof. Sarah Lamb (ANTH) said several students “cried periodically” through her classes on Thursday after the election. She argued that understanding Trump’s election requires exploring gender, race and class issues. She wrote about a gay Latino student whose father cautioned him against attending school in the United States. “My student reassured his father: ‘The U.S. is not like that. It’s very liberal and open-minded.’ But now he wonders,” she wrote.
Prof. Janet McIntosh (ANTH) encountered students both on campus and at a rally on the Boston common. When they’ve asked her how anthropology can be relevant to current politics, she wrote that her field both condemns “the bigotry fomented by Trumpism” and seeks to understand Trump voters in their own context. She wrote that she’ll include more discussion about global outsourcing of American manufacturing in her ANTH 1a class’s sessions on globalization. Her graduate Anthropology of Military and Policing course discussed the election last week, focusing on its implications for American military and policing, particularly for communities of color. “At one point, we just stopped talking, in a terrible, unscripted moment of silence. We all just felt gutted together. It isn't merely an intellectual process.”
Within the political science department, Prof. David Patel (POL) spoke with graduate students about “what, if any, theories, findings, and methods in political science warrant reevaluation after Trump’s election.” Students agreed that populism, the influence of the media and the effects of globalization would all see greater study in the coming years. Prof. Brian Fried’s (POL) class compared populist tactics in Latin American elections with this year’s election. He expressed concern that both liberals and conservatives might “lose sight of the humanity of (and ability to relate to) those on the other [side].” Prof. Robert Art’s (POL) class discussed the pros and cons of the electoral college, and he stressed “that Trump will be forced to moderate many of his positions once he confronts the reality of governing. That does not mean that there is not trouble ahead, given my values, but we are not facing Armageddon.”
In the economics department, Profs. Michael Coiner (ECON) and Scott Redenius (ECON) took a different approach: neither spent direct class time on the election, but both peppered it into their regular class discussion. Coiner’s Economics 10a course learned about globalization and falling demand for unskilled American labor, so he tied the Rust Belt into the conversation. Regarding Trump’s campaign rhetoric, Coiner opined, “What people of good will everywhere (including at Brandeis) must do is to show tolerance and acceptance of everyone.” Redenius deliberately avoided a long class discussion of the election because he’s found that “maintaining routine can actually be therapeutic” for students after “traumatic events.” He wrote that “this campaign did not put economic policy front and center or involve much in the way of reasoned debate” and said he wants his students to “be able to evaluate different policy options and discuss them in a reasonable way.”
While Prof. Richard Gaskins (LGLS) did not teach any classes last week, he met with several students and faculty colleagues to discuss the election’s results. He wrote that the 1980 Reagan election and the 2000 Bush election both “created similar reactions within academic communities.” He wrote that “a big part of this week” was listening to students’ concerns and then encouraging respectful debate among students.
Other professors were unsure what to do themselves. Prof. Heyward James (HIST) wrote, “The way I've been dealing with this is by not dealing with it. I show up at work, teach my classes, and head back home — all in a daze. My beloved East Coast, Times reading, ‘progressive’ establishment has been unmasked as utterly clueless — I certainly feel that way. Thus, my need for a period of introspection before I start fulminating in the classroom.”