In response to polarizing actions by the Trump administration, certain professors who teach courses related to American politics are implementing rules of engagement and providing students with relevant historical context in order to confront such charged issues in the classroom.

Associate Professor of Government Jeffrey Selinger, who teaches classes in American government, has accepted discussions about current political events as inevitable in his courses. As such, he has developed several rules to help guide discussion.

“One rule of engagement is that there must be a generous and fully legitimated and comfortable space for politically conservative students of various descriptions, whether they call themselves libertarians, whether they call themselves more social or religious conservatives, or something else,” Selinger said. “When they are in the numerical minority, my standard operating procedure is [that] I will, in argument, side with the minority.”

In an Orient survey prior to November’s election, 6.6 percent of student respondents identified themselves as Trump supporters. 

In an effort to avoid alienating students whose political beliefs align with the president’s, Selinger tries to focus discussions critical of the president on Trump himself, not on his supporters.

“We have a clearer sense of what we’re talking about when we talk about Trump [himself] because he’s one person,” Selinger said. “We don’t have a very clear idea of Trump supporters because it’s a diverse lot of people. It’s 46, 47 percent of the voting public.”

Selinger also acknowledged that students’ emotions matter because politics can be deeply personal.

“It could be very constructive if feelings were treated as fodder for analysis,” he said. “It may happen to be therapeutic but that’s not the purpose. The purpose is to get some kind of mutual understanding. It’s a public purpose.”

Selinger stressed that professors should not avoid difficult subjects out of fear of being political.

“Faculty would do the College community a terrible disservice if we used apolitical, ‘balanced,’ or euphemistic language to sugarcoat a reality that we all should find deeply troubling,” Selinger said. 

Visiting Assistant Professor of Government and Environmental Studies Divya Gupta spoke of a similar need to present the facts in her course, Earth Justice: Global Climate Change and Social Inequality.

“Telling [students] the science behind [climate change] and the history and the policies that have been building up to address this issue—I do not hold back on sharing those realities,” said Gupta. “At the same time, I have to make sure that I frame the message in a way that I do not come off as somebody who is being partial or biased.”

Assistant Professor of Government Maron Sorenson agreed on the importance of discussing current political events, but expressed the desire to do so in the context of her specific curriculum. In her constitutional law class, she presented students with Trump’s recent executive order on immigration and had students use the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause case law to determine the order’s constitutionality. In Sorenson’s judicial politics class, students take turns preparing 15-minute presentations on a current event, usually in relation to Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

“My obligation is to provide the students a framework to critically engage with current events,” said Sorenson. “I won’t turn my class into a discussion of currents events or supplant what would be the baseline learning for a discussion of current events, because absent the academic structure—the reason they signed up for the class—they are not engaging with current events in any way that is different than they would have had they not been exposed to this material.” 

Sorenson believes that objectively linking the curriculum to political events can work to eliminate partisanship in the classroom.

“The very easy way to avoid being partisan is to follow the tack of ‘here’s the scholarship, let’s apply the scholarship,’” she said. “Framing current events and forcing students to place them in decision-making models is, in and of itself, a generally non-partisan way of approaching [issues].”

John F. and Dorothy H. Hagee Associate Professor of Government Laura Henry also prioritizes addressing recent politics through the framework of her curriculum. She strives to strike the balance between students’ eagerness to discuss current events and her role as a professor to provide the historical, political, economic and cultural contexts that her courses intend to teach.

“The challenge that any professor has is to provide the necessary context and analytical frameworks that help us ask the best questions and not get distracted by the absolute onslaught of information that comes out of Twitter and Facebook and the 24-hour news cycle,” Henry said.

This semester, Henry is teaching two classes, Post-Communist Russian Politics and Society and Social Protest and Political Change. In both classes, she uses current events—such as Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March and representations of Russian politics in the news—to “help [students] guide how we can ask good questions and how we can compare to the past.”

Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History Brian Purnell asserted that professors are not required to respond to the current political situation in their teaching. 

“From a professional standpoint, as of today—and I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, so the answer could change—the current American political situation does not mandate American historians, or any academic, to respond, or to respond in a specific way,” he wrote in an email to the Orient.

However, much like his colleagues, Purnell feels he may be able to provide historical context to help students understand the present. To this end, he has developed a new course, U.S. History, 1877-1945: The Making of a Superpower, which will debut in the 2018-19 academic year. 

 “I wanted to teach courses focused specifically on the nation’s history that, in part, answered the question, [of] what social, cultural, political and economic history brought us to our current national situations and conditions,” Purnell wrote. 

While students generally found political conversations in class to be beneficial, many noted that a class discussion can cross a line and leave some students feeling excluded. Jacob Russell ’17 said that in one of his classes last semester, there was at least one contentious moment regarding current political events. 

“Though generally discussion has been very good and open, in one class it was clear a professor and a majority of students were on the same page,” said Russell. “I think there were a couple of students who were more likely to be Trump supporters and felt like they didn’t have a space to share their opinions.”

Emma Newbery ’19 spoke highly of the atmosphere that Associate Professor of Religion Elizabeth Pritchard has set in her Marxism and Religion class.

“Professor Pritchard has struck a really good balance between supporting students, contextualizing the curriculum in the current American political climate and feeling free to talk about the readings and get an escape from everything that’s happening,” Newbery said.