Faculty alter course plans in wake of historic election

Media Credit: Hatchet file photo by Keegan Mullen | Hatchet Photographer

Reuben Brigety, the dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs, labeled President Donald Trump a "Nazi- and white-nationalist sympathizer" in a blistering op-ed published Thursday.

Faculty in departments across the University turned Tuesday’s election results into teachable moments.

At least 15 professors altered their class plans for the days following the U.S. presidential election, opting for group discussions about the results, and some even postponing exams or cancelling class sessions completely.

Faculty said because of the highly emotional response to the election, they wanted students to reflect on the results – which surprised many, as Donald Trump unexpectedly defeated Hillary Clinton – before moving forward with planned lessons.

Those faculty members said conversations in their classrooms ranged from the role of the media in politics to the Constitution to the importance of tolerating others’ political perspectives.

Faculty also came together to facilitate conversations outside of class. On Friday afternoon, Elliott School of International Affairs Dean Reuben Brigety hosted a post-election town hall with about 100 students and faculty members.

Dara Orenstein, an assistant professor of American studies, said she had prepared content for Thursday’s meeting of her undergraduate course on capitalism and culture for a Clinton victory.

“I had planned a set of readings on feminism of the 70s,” Orenstein said. “I thought we would deal with the origins of ‘pantsuit-feminism’ and radical critiques of liberal feminism.”

But after results came in, Orenstein said she had to take advantage of a different kind of teaching opportunity. She emailed her students and proposed that they sit on the floor “criss-cross applesauce” and discuss the election in the historical context of the course, which covers the rise of capitalism in the U.S.

Orenstein said the discussion created a space for students to express their personal thoughts and fears about the election’s outcome, as well as “grapple with the value of a historical perspective.” Course readings from earlier in the week dealt with the alienation of the working class, which she had purposefully assigned the week of the election because of its relevance to media coverage of Trump supporters.

“You want to catch people when they’re feeling and hurting,” Orenstein said. “This is about creating a space for them to be heard and to hear each other, within the formal structure of the classroom. As educators, we owe that to students.”

In some cases, faculty members said they learned from their students about the generation’s values and hopes for the future.

Andrew Zimmerman, a professor of history, said he altered his lesson plans while walking to his class on Wednesday morning. Zimmerman gave students in his introductory lecture course five minutes at the start of the class to write down their thoughts about the election.

Zimmerman said students’ writing prompted a class-wide discussion, in which some students expressed feelings of fear, grief and anger about Trump’s presidency. Zimmerman told students that they should not use the conversation as a time to disparage Trump supporters, he added.

Students in Zimmerman’s graduate seminar also talked about the election for the entirety of the evening.

“Some of the students brought wine for the whole class, which was incredibly thoughtful and supportive,” he said. “We have a long fight ahead of us, and we have to care for ourselves and each other, in big ways and small ones. Both my undergrad and grad students make me certain that we are ready for this.”

Roy Grinker, a professor of anthropology, international affairs and human sciences, said even though he, his students and teaching assistants were exhausted after staying up to watch coverage, it was difficult to think about anything besides the election in class Wednesday.

Grinker held an open class discussion in lieu of a traditional lecture during his sociocultural anthropology class, which he said was particularly compelling because this was the first presidential election in which most of his students voted.

“I saw no reason to be constrained by my syllabus when there was both a need and an opportunity to talk about such an important event,” Grinker said in an email. “I don’t think learning is just about following a syllabus. It’s about engaging – critically, emotionally, thoughtfully – in whatever is happening in one’s world.”

Other faculty members said they applied the elections results to their courses’ syllabi.

Jon Ebinger, a lecturer in the School of Media and Public Affairs, rescheduled a quiz in his broadcast news writing course and instead held an open discussion on how the media failed in correctly predicting the election’s winner. Most polls and pundits had predicted a Clinton victory in the days leading up to the election.

Ebinger said he would have been amiss had he ignored speaking about a moment which he thought was crucial to his class. Students showed intense interest in the topic as they spoke, he said.

“There were some very heartfelt and very thoughtful points that were raised and questions that were asked,” he said. “And not everyone agreed on everything, which was also good. There were some fingers pointed at the media, some pointed in other directions.”

Danny Hayes, an associate professor of political science, said that he had planned all along to engage with students the day after the election, even including it on the syllabus.

“The way to change a political outcome you don’t like is to get involved in politics and to try to work through elections and campaigns to elect candidates that you prefer,” he said.

Michele Kimball, a professorial lecturer in the School of Media and Public Affairs, said Clinton’s concession speech Wednesday morning took place during her media law class. Kimball livestreamed the speech in class and discussed it with students afterward.

She said that she saw her class meeting as a chance to remind her students how important it is to use the material they learn in her course about the First Amendment and access to government information in the real world.

“I begin every semester telling my students how miraculous the U.S. Constitution is,” she said. “It has weathered hundreds of years and remained a working document to guide our country. I told my students that now we all will put it to the test, and they have a part in that.”

Silvio Waisbord, a professor of journalism, said he arrived at his journalism theory and practice class Wednesday morning planning on reviewing material for the upcoming midterm but decided to begin class by asking people about their thoughts on the election. After students passionately began talking about the results, he cleared the class schedule and pushed the midterm back one week to continue the discussion.

Waisbord said he found that talking about the election was not only a way for students to voice their emotions but also provided context for lessons on the link between media and politics.

“Had I taught completely outside of that subject I don’t know what I would have done or if I would have done it differently,” Waisbord said. “For me, it was one of the best classes I taught, without teaching. I was listening to what they had to say, and I was learning.”

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