While I wouldn’t relish being named to a faculty watch list, I have a far more pressing concern as an educator lately: Should I moderate the passions of outraged students posting on social media as part of a course requirement?
I teach media studies and my students represent the gamut of political opinions. In my social-media class this semester, I have a student who worked on a Republican statewide campaign, and another who regularly wears her collection of feminist shirts. Still, Republicans tend to be in the minority in my courses.
I require my students to tweet as a class assignment. The goal is to get them commenting professionally on social media about the latest developments in journalism and technology. By the end of the semester, if any employer asks for their social-media feed, they can show a record of intelligent, thoughtful, and professional tweets about the most significant conversations in the industry, all under the hashtag: #smpasocial.
That is usually a win-win — except this semester it seems almost impossible to keep students on task. Post election, instead of limiting their comments to social-media strategy, my students now feel emboldened to use the class hashtag as a platform to talk about their own political viewpoints. While my conservative students tend to be sticking to the assignment, many of my progressive students are using the assignment to tweet deeply emotional, bitingly sarcastic, or sharply critical comments about the Trump administration and the Republican Party more generally.
My concern? That the one-sided politicization of the assignment has resulted in a hostile classroom environment (digitally rather than physically) for conservative students. If Republican students feel silenced as members of a campus political minority (and research suggests they might), how are they being affected by the explicit takedowns of their political beliefs on our class hashtag?
During the weekend of President Trump’s executive order banning travel into the United States by visitors from seven predominantly Muslim nations, my progressive students were tweeting, retweeting, and subtweeting quite actively — sometimes on the class hashtag and sometimes on their own — against the new presidential administration.
And some of that made sense in the context of my class. One student, for example, posted a picture of a protest against the ban, and was quite right to point out that many of the protests have been planned thanks to social media. Another student pointed out the significance of the national-park Twitter account that briefly went "rogue" when it posted facts about climate change.
In fact, almost any news event can be discussed through the prism of social media because our president uses Twitter to communicate to the public.
Learning to express one’s opinions effectively on social media is a life skill, but I’m also aware about my responsibility as the professor to rein in the conversation in order to make my course — online and in class — a space where all students feel comfortable sharing their views, and not just the progressive ones.
I worry quite a bit for students who I know feel passionately about Republican politics. They, too, deserve to come to class feeling as though they are welcome to share their opinions, that what they have to say matters, and that the classroom is indeed a space for debate and conversation about differing viewpoints. My conservative and progressive students aren’t mounting attacks against each other, but with the intensity of the debate on the liberal side, I fear that Republican students will not only self-censor in my course, but also feel even more marginalized on the college campus than they have in the past.
We all know progressive students feel anxious about the new administration and the future of the country. Many of them are rightfully worried about the nasty environment that leaves those who are different vulnerable to abuse as well as the creeping specter of autocracy.
But it’s also got to be hard — in fact I know it is — to see a continual assault by the people around you on the party that you helped put in power (even if many of my GOP students are not huge fans of Trump). And then for Republican students to go home and see that conversation continue on social media that’s supposed to be a class assignment, well, that’s the opposite of what I wanted the assignment to achieve.
I remember, back in 2000, when I was a college Republican and George W. Bush won his first election. I had campaigned for McCain, but I also had written in our college newspaper about the promise of what would become No Child Left Behind. For my fellow college Republicans, Bush’s winning was a huge deal, and deeply empowering from the perspective of the party, even if many of us hadn’t been his biggest fans. At the time, it was still exciting to see the party I supported in power and I hoped to see the policies I favored have a chance.
For better or worse, I remember being deeply conflicted when my fellow students marched out of class to protest Bush’s decision to go to war in 2003. At that time, I didn’t really want to protest. But I was in a course that day with 20 students in it, and all of them marched out, so I did, too. Otherwise I would have been the only one to stay behind.
That was more than 13 years ago, but I remember what that was like. And I also know this still to be true: Despite Trump’s victory, this is also a terrible time to be a college Republican — perhaps one of the worst. College campuses, by and large, tend to be progressive places. Republican students see protests of Trump decisions they may agree with — the implication being that what Republicans stand for is racist, evil, and perhaps a threat to the very nature of American democracy.
On the other hand, it’s important to remember that this may be the most excited and energized some young Republicans have ever felt, with opportunities open to them that have been shut for the past eight years. I recall the excitement one of my favorite students had about his plans for the Trump inauguration and the inaugural ball — he was caught up in the energy of seeing his hard work being set into motion and then rewarded.
So on my door, I have a sign that says "Left side. Right side. United Outside" (yes, that’s an REI slogan). And I try to direct political conversation to happen outside of the classroom — though this is increasingly seeming like an impossibility. For six years, I had never seen protests at my university, but they’ve happened lately, and I expect more are coming. Students in the political minority will see quite visibly just how much their classmates disagree. And the worst thing that can happen to the future of the Republican Party — and to Democrats, too, for that matter — is to make those who disagree opt out from engaging and, in turn, push them to silos where they can receive support for their divergent viewpoints.
No one should be telling progressive students to keep quiet. I just want to encourage my progressive students and my progressive colleagues to remember that there are a sizable number of students who are Republican and who should not feel the need to keep quiet, either. In fact, that’s about the worst thing that could result from all of the intensity on our campuses right now.
Dismiss Trump if you like. I’d argue there’s a moral imperative to do so that moves beyond party alignment — but don’t dismiss all Republicans, and certainly don’t dismiss or ignore your Republican students.
Now, more than ever, we are arbiters of an impassioned classroom discussion that needs to be provocative, challenging, and welcoming. And in an era of active learning and flipped classrooms, these conversations move beyond the class, into social media, and become part of the internet’s permanent record, one I hope we will be able to look back on with pride.
Nikki Usher is an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.