Humanities, social science professors work U.S. Capitol riot into class discussions to ‘process’ event

Media Credit: File Photo by Zach Brien | Staff Photographer

For students, discussing the Capitol riot is a way to process the disturbing event and connect their coursework to the world, professors said.

Updated: Jan. 19, 2020 at 9:09 p.m.

After rioters supporting President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol earlier this month, American studies professor Amber Musser used the event as an opportunity to talk about its role in racial tensions in the country.

She said she usually brings up current events in her courses, which include The African American Experience and COVID: Race, Gender and Uprisings, adding that discussing the riot help frame her classes “as an investigation of the present.” Musser said her class held a “robust conversation” about the insurrection, allowing students to process their feelings, questions and anxieties around the day.

Musser is one of five humanities and social science professors who said they plan to further dissect the day’s event and connect the riot with lessons in their classes. The professors said they will also spend time in class checking in with their students and giving them an opportunity to cope with the stress of living in the District as Wednesday’s presidential inauguration brings more safety concerns.

Political scientists across the country, including 21 GW faculty, signed a letter earlier this month calling for Trump’s removal from office in light of his actions to reject a peaceful transfer of power, his efforts to pressure election officials to overturn state election results and his role in inciting the Capitol riot.

Students living in D.C. said they felt “anxious” about being in the District after the riot and planned to stock up on groceries for the week of the inauguration to avoid the potential violence on Wednesday.

Harris Mylonas, an associate professor of political science and international affairs, said he plans to discuss the riot and the reasoning behind it in his classes on patriotism and nationalism. He said the Capitol riot is hard to discuss because it is a “traumatic” event, but he plans to ask students to consider whether the riot could be considered a patriotic act by those who participated – to which Mylonas says, based on U.S. laws and “the current constitutive story,” it was not.

“The idea would be that we find some way to have a debate about this that helps us understand better some of the concepts that we are planning to cover in this semester,” Mylonas said.

He said he plans to use the riot and the debates around it to lead into his course readings like “Antigone,” which allows students to make parallels to the insurrection. In Antigone, the protagonist’s brother was not to be buried because he had betrayed his city’s government, which Mylonas said one could draw parallels to what occurred at the Capitol as rioters broke laws, which some participants could argue was necessary to accomplish their goal.

“It is true that a lot of these concepts that we’re dealing with for the semester are very much intertwined with the debate that is being had right now in the global sphere,” Mylonas said.

Rebekah Tromble, an associate professor of media and public affairs and the director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics, said her students “dove right into” the topic, connecting the hostility of the riot to how social media companies can “incentivize” toxic and hateful content in U.S. politics. Multiple social media platforms suspended or banned Trump’s account after his response to the riot, and some platforms also removed accounts or pages spreading misinformation since then.

Tromble said she plans to be “up front” about the riot during her class discussions by acknowledging the impact that the insurrection has had on those who live in the District and on those who do not.

“On an intellectual level, discussing the riot can provide students with new ideas or an additional lens through which to process and understand what we all witnessed,” Tromble said.

She added that she will set aside time in the beginning of her class for students to speak freely with each other without recording the class meeting as both a check-in and a chance for them to learn how to cope with their stress. She said she used check-ins as part of her teaching last semester and found them to be “really effective,” especially when major current events occurred.

“And on a personal level, while we’re so dispersed from one another, talking about the riot in class can be cathartic,” Tromble said. “Our classes provide a space for students to ask questions and share their views, getting feedback and support from professors and peers.”

Robert Stoker, a professor of political science, public policy and public administration, said he will not initiate discussions nor alter the curricula in his courses Poverty, Work and Welfare and Politics of Inequality in the US to include the Capitol riot. He said while he is not planning to bring it up in class himself, he understands students’ desire to comment on the riot and will not stop a potential discussion if it arises.

“The classes are supposed to be about more fundamental things than current events that are in the news, and the curriculum was established and planned a long time ago and has evolved over time to reflect broader questions than current events can appropriately cover,” Stoker said.

He said having an open environment where students can express their thoughts, give feedback and “react intelligently” to their peers is an “important” part of education.

“It’s generally good when students are able to relate their studies to things that are going around them in the world, and that’s an effort that I will support,” Stoker said.

Editor’s note: This post was updated to clarify a quote from Harris Mylonas.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.