Maybe there are years when professors can plod through their syllabi untouched by current events. We lack the luxury of living in such a year.
American politics are now at the forefront of students’ consciousness. Many feel it acutely and personally. In my normally nonpolitical course on negotiation and conflict resolution at the City University of New York, I have seen passion and uncertainty on students’ faces all year. President-elect Donald Trump generates a wide range of deep emotions, from cutting anxiety to genuine optimism.
As professors finish out this semester and prepare for the next, how can we reckon with the election of Trump? How can we discuss his election without silencing or alienating some students? And, at the outset, is it appropriate for courses beyond pure political science to discuss politics at all?
With such heightened student engagement, it would be pedagogical malpractice not to harness those emotions into informed discussion within our disciplines. “Informed discussion” means more than having students express how they feel about the election -- although that, too, can be valuable -- but structurally integrating this election into syllabi this winter and spring. Fortunately, politics is an inherently multidisciplinary field with many entry points. Dozens of academic disciplines can offer meaningful insight into our current political landscape, even disciplines that seem less obvious on first blush. I offer my own approach here for consideration (or critique).
Teaching With Trump: The Example of Negotiation
I am a full-time attorney and teach an evening course each semester. My CUNY students are undergraduates, generally majoring in business or communications. Many are first-generation college students, immigrants and/or students for whom English is a second language. While the course focuses on business conflict -- the negotiation, mediation, arbitration and litigation of commercial disputes -- we also consider conflict resolution in other areas of life, such as handling a noisy neighbor or writing a separation agreement with a spouse.
Much of Trump's appeal throughout the campaign has been his professed ability to “negotiate good deals.” He has written and spoken about negotiation for decades, most famously in his 1987 book (co-written with Tony Schwartz), The Art of the Deal. This makes our president-elect particularly relevant for those currently teaching or taking courses in negotiation. Throughout the campaign, I have used Trump’s approach to negotiation specifically, and conflict more broadly, as an occasional bridge between current events and my syllabus.
With that in mind, I try to frame discussion topics as objectively as possible in furtherance of the course’s goals and match those topics to scholarly readings. Here are some topics that my class has discussed so far this election cycle.
Can you negotiate with someone whose values are inconsistent with yours? During the campaign, Trump called Washington a “swamp.” He accused Democratic leaders of being stupid and ineffective and Republican leaders of being weak and mendacious. Both Democratic and Republican leaders, at various times, accused Trump of being intellectually and ethically unfit for office. Some went farther, suggesting that Trump rejects core American values. How can these political actors now sit across the bargaining table from one another? Is it possible to negotiate legislation, budgets and other business with someone whom you believe is wrongheaded or immoral?
The students read excerpts of Bargaining With the Devil by Robert Mnookin of Harvard Law School, which offers advice for negotiating with someone whom you feel you cannot trust or who holds opposing values. In class, we discuss situations when negotiation is appropriate, as well as situations when negotiation creates untenable ethical challenges.
Is it a smart negotiation strategy to take an exaggerated initial position? Trump has proposed building a southern border wall, which would cost billions of dollars, and said that Mexico would foot the bill. Mexico’s president has flatly countered that his country will never do this. Putting aside the merits of constructing such a wall, is it an effective strategy for Trump to begin this negotiation by staking out a position that Mexico views as inherently unreasonable? Would it have been any more effective for Trump to begin the discussion by suggesting that each country pay 50 percent? Or propose a different form of border control? Or solicit Mexico’s views before offering an initial proposal?
In negotiation, there is a concept known as anchoring -- starting a negotiation at a very high number that you know you will never achieve. There are potential benefits to this as well as potential risks. Here, I have the students read work by legal negotiation scholars like Nancy Welsh (Penn State Law School) on fairness, Chris Guthrie (Vanderbilt University Law School) on anchoring and Jennifer Reynolds (University of Oregon Law School) on strategy. When Senator Bernie Sanders was running, we also discussed these concepts in connection with his staunchly progressive proposals for single-payer health care and free college tuition.
How can tone shape a negotiation, and how can tone change online? Trump has used ad hominem attacks, particularly over the internet, to hurt opponents and gain sizable media coverage. When you negotiate with an adversary, what is the value of publicly criticizing that person compared to criticizing them privately? What effects might ad hominem attacks have on bargaining? And how are emotions conveyed differently when communicating online?
The students read a book on party-centered dispute resolution by Lela P. Love (Cardozo Law School) and an article on negotiating over email by Noam Ebner (Creighton University School of Law). We also discuss excerpts of a book by Linda Babcock (Carnegie Mellon University) to consider gender’s important role on tone and substance of this election.
What rhetorical devices has Trump used effectively? As a lawyer, I am always attuned to logical fallacies -- rhetorical constructions that leave the listener with a particular framing of an issue. Politicians (and attorneys) of all partisan persuasions use such devices, which are not inherently good or bad. Trump is fond of several. For example, he sometimes begins an assertion by stating, “Many people have said …” or “Believe me” or cites unnamed people in authority -- a device that allows him to suggest expertise (argumentum ab auctoritate). He also blamed President Barack Obama’s administration for the creation of certain terrorist groups, because those groups emerged after President Obama came into office (post hoc, ergo propter hoc).
Every semester, my students must learn a set of common logical fallacies. But this past semester, I also had them watch the second presidential debate and record each candidate’s logical fallacies. In the next class, they split up into small groups, and whichever group found the highest number (combining both candidates’ statements) “won.” Importantly, the goal was not to find flaws in the candidates’ policies but in their persuasive logic, thus fitting within the course’s goals without the perception of partisanship.
The Value of Political Discussion
There are no right answers to these discussion questions. They do not frame a conversation that inevitably supports or opposes Trump himself or his policies; those judgments are left to the students after putting the course materials into conversation with current events. My hope is that by interrogating such issues, students will be more attuned to a legal argument containing a fallacy meant to obfuscate, or consider the effect of publicity on their future business negotiations. If this election makes those concepts memorable, or helps them to contextualize the news, the integration is well worthwhile.
Not all professors believe this is the right approach. Some argue that this is a moment for faculty across disciplines to take a strong political position, one of unguarded advocacy in their teaching and scholarship. These voices assert that faculty simply cannot be “objective” about a politician like Trump, discussing him like a theoretical doctrine, literary character or far-off historical figure. Doing so, they argue, risks “normalizing” Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policies.
But such advocacy in the classroom can create an uncomfortable dynamic that mutes productive disagreement among students -- the most fruitful type of disagreement. Few undergraduates will take a “side” opposed by the teacher, especially if they immediately see what “side” that teacher supports. (This calculus shifts in graduate courses, where students have greater context and may feel more comfortable engaging the professor in debate.)
Another reason to leave your politics at the door: if you think you already know your students’ opinions, you may be gravely mistaken. An off-color joke about a politician could easily create discomfort and, again, chill the very dialogue we hope to enliven. I teach in New York City, which overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party. But I have seen genuinely thoughtful class participation from supporters of Trump (as well as Senator Sanders and third-party candidates).
Rather than making assumptions about our students’ politics, or advocating our own, teachers should methodically create apolitical discussion topics and allow students to come to their own conclusions or disagreements. This is the pedagogy perfected by America’s small liberal arts colleges like Vassar and Williams; students learn as much from the perspectives of their peers as from their professors. Whether you teach history, politics, communications, law, economics, biology, gender studies or almost any other subject, let’s meet this moment by using our disciplines to provide critical context. There are surely angles we can explore, and scholars whose voices shed light on current events. To prepare for next semester, we may all need to do some syllabus surgery over the holidays.
I cannot pretend to have all the answers on how to effectively teach this election or its complex, indefinite aftermath. But I will try.
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