Faculty on the Front Lines

After the presidential election, how do faculty members most effectively teach students in a divisive climate? Shontavia Johnson and Jennifer Harvey provide concrete advice.

December 2, 2016
 
iStock/mathisworks

America is still feeling the aftershocks of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. The protests and unrest that have swelled across the nation have especially surged on college campuses. That is not surprising, given that millennials (people aged 18 to 35 in 2015) largely voted for Hillary Clinton. (Had only millennials, America’s largest generation, voted, Clinton would have received 473 electoral votes and Trump would have received 32.)

But there’s more to campus climate right now than millennials perceiving they have simply lost, or won, an election. A deeper upheaval has been unleashed, and college campuses, populated with large groups of young people, are experiencing the same high levels of racial and religious frustrations and tensions that are playing out on other national stages.

Faculty members on the front lines of interacting with students face some difficult questions. What role should we play in working through all of this? How do we fulfill our responsibilities to teach students while also finding ways to support them in a divisive and sometimes even dangerous climate?

Some students may feel compelled to dampen or publicly quell their conservative viewpoints. Others may be fearful, anxious or angry about what a Trump presidency means for their future. Still others perceive themselves as wholly excluded from the current bipartisan system. If these are points along a spectrum of the climate of our campuses, we know students are experiencing even greater pressures in the many spaces where they spend their time outside faculty purview.

Given all of this, our role as educators on college campuses today is as crucially important as it is complex. So how should we respond? We have outlined five action items that faculty members can contemplate in the coming days, weeks and months.

Define and exemplify what it means to be political. We must begin by helping our students understand different meanings of the word “political.”

Many faculty members have a long practice of carefully navigating politics in our teaching. That is particularly true if we define “politics” as encouraging discourse about legitimate, differing views people hold on what policies best address the collective, common good of our nation. Faculty members regularly make diverse and reasonable decisions about educating students to engage those issues without taking a side. Legitimate, even divisive, policy disagreements are OK, healthy even, and can foster greater understanding for our students and ourselves.

But racial hostility and violence are unacceptable on college campuses. We must help our students understand that. A political climate in which rhetoric has been used in and after an election to instigate racial harassment on our campuses is not good for anyone, regardless of party affiliations.

We can offer opportunities to talk about the issues without succumbing to being partisan. We can facilitate conversations without targeting individuals. Talking about candidates, or even specific issues, may create more fissures, but talking about shared questions and concerns about the common good can open the door for deeper reflections.

Listen to, but do not lie to, students. We must allow people to vent without interruption when they share their experiences with hostility and violent rhetoric. Many students are literally facing affronts to their lives and personhoods. Some have been attacked and threatened -- receiving group text messages calling for a “daily lynching” and being attacked while expressing political viewpoints. Others may lose their health care. Still others may have their families torn apart. By some estimates, there are more than 200,000 undocumented students are enrolled in American colleges and universities. They face a very real and present threat of deportation in the near future.

We cannot predict what will happen to our students, but we must provide them support systems. Support means resisting the desire to assure them that “everything will be OK” or that we will “get through this together.” We do not know if this will be the case, and we must not lie. Those of us who are white, male or non-Muslim must not tell our students who are people of color, Muslim or female, “I know exactly how you feel.” Our students need us to join them in the space of not knowing what is going to happen and validate that their vulnerabilities are legitimate.

Encourage students to actively engage in their communities and with one another. All of our students, whether they are members of historically marginalized groups or part of dominant racial and gender ones, need to be encouraged to stay engaged in their communities. Students may not have yet developed the understanding that our political system works, in part, through various kinds of organizations and that they can get involved at the local level. This is critical information for them relative to the risk of their becoming hopeless or immobilized with the despair of “what can I do?”

Whether they have an affinity for grassroots organizing, participation in state and local government, or national politics, we can help them direct their frustrations and interests in productive ways. With all of its imperfections, democracy is something we participate in to shape and mold. Sitting on the sidelines will only ensure that nothing changes, and connecting helps work against isolation. We, as faculty, can help students find and express their own political and moral agency.

Assess your own classroom. Consider your own pedagogical approach to the classroom. As one teaching and learning expert has asked, what strategies are we using to ensure that we "include all of our students in the class space and collective endeavor of our courses" at our institutions? We should reflect on the interactions that take place in our classes, both between ourselves and our students and among the students themselves.

Regarding specific assignments, consider integrating reading and other material that crosses social, cultural and political boundaries. Do you provide students with the opportunity to share different viewpoints? If not, are there constructive ways to do so?

We can use the classroom to teach students how to respectfully engage with each other. We can allow them to practice having discourse that is simultaneously civil and disagreeable. In fact, we must do that, because we become what we practice. We do not have to insist on getting to common ground on a matter too quickly, if at all. We do, however, have to create new spaces and new methods for having difficult discussions.

Hold the university accountable. It is too early to know exactly how the president-elect’s campaign promises will play out in terms of actual policy implementation. We can be sure, however, that higher education will be impacted if any of the proposed immigration, law enforcement, federal financial aid or health care policies are realized. Students who are part of the most marginalized groups may be vulnerable to significant disruptions in their daily lives. We must begin to ready our institutions to protect intellectual freedom, student well-being and civil liberties.

Faculty members need to start having these -- probably difficult -- dialogues now among ourselves as well as with university administrations. Those of us with tenure should be particularly attuned to the specific impact the campus climate has not only on students but also on untenured faculty members -- especially those from groups most marginalized by the rhetoric, harassment and unrest unfolding across the country.

How we show public solidarity and support may vary by institution. But we must engage in public recommitments to a discourse of inclusion based on the institutional policies, charters and statements that govern us.

It is not too early to push our institutions to create structures that will respond to impending campus challenges, including having clear reporting mechanisms for harassment and public positions on both Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students and undocumented students without DACA status.

We are not trying to toll an alarmist bell within the academy. We are simply highlighting the shared questions that faculty members around the United States must begin to answer on their campuses. In the days since the presidential election, hundreds of incidents of violence and harassment have occurred on college campuses. Regardless of political ideology, we cannot ignore that campus climates are in a state of unrest.

To that end, we who are committed to the well-being of students and to insisting on the contribution education makes to democracy must begin responding to these many challenges today.

Bio

Shontavia Johnson is the Kern Family Chair in Intellectual Property Law and directs the Intellectual Property Law Center at Drake University Law School. She curates content related to law and policy at www.shontavia.com and can be found @ShontaviaJEsq. Jennifer Harvey is a professor of religion and currently serves as the Baum Chair of Ethics and the Professions at Drake University. She is the author of Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Eerdmans, 2014).

Back to Top