Teaching

In Courses on Dystopian Literature, Everybody Wants to Talk About Trump

February 07, 2017

Gregory Varnum
Protesters in Michigan last month used the opening sentence of George Orwell’s "1984" to emphasize their concern about President Trump’s ban on travel to the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries. The new president and the era of "alternative facts" have started to creep into many colleges’ literature classes, with renewed attention to dystopian novels like that classic.
Peter C. Herman, a professor of English literature at San Diego State University, has been teaching a course that explores the promise and perils of technology in literature for the past five years. He runs a pretty loose class, he says: "I tend to follow what students want to talk about."

Usually the students want to talk about the potential of the internet, about the futuristic online societies described in dystopian contemporary works, such as M.T. Anderson’s Feed. The students aren’t usually as interested in older works, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984, which describe "dangers we faced, but that didn’t happen," he says.

This semester, however, something has changed. Last month Donald J. Trump became president. For some of his students, "suddenly it feels like 1984 just happened," Mr. Herman says, and they want to talk about it.

"It’s no longer fiction, it’s no longer fantastic," he says. "It’s very, very real, and frankly, neither they nor I know what to do about it."

Of course, the United States is far from becoming the Oceania of 1984, where independent thinkers are subject to torture in the Ministry of Love. But the parallels between the Trump White House’s presentation of "alternative facts" and certain details of the novel — for instance, the government’s insistence that 2 + 2 = 5 — have not been lost on students, or on the wider public. Sales of 1984 have recently soared.

But it isn’t just students who are bringing up President Trump in class; professors, too, are putting him in their syllabi. Thomas J. Otten, an English lecturer at Boston University, says he didn’t set out to include Mr. Trump in his "Post-Apocalyptic Narratives" course, but when the semester began, he felt the president "could not really be left out."

It’s not just "alternative facts" that are spurring the interest in dystopian novels, but President Trump’s own rhetoric. Mr. Otten says he’s interested in the president’s use of phrases like "American carnage" to conjure up a sort of real-life dystopia. With his every speech, Mr. Trump keeps "pushing himself into" the class, Mr. Otten says.

"His language seems to be so much one of disaster," he says. "It seems his way of advancing his political program is actually to write a kind of dystopian narrative — that’s where a lot of his power comes from. If he can convince his potential supporters that the nation is on the brink of collapse or cataclysm, then he can present himself as an attractive solution."

‘Fixated on Dystopia’

Nicholas Junkerman, an assistant professor of English at Skidmore College, has also been thinking about Mr. Trump’s speeches.

The 2016 presidential campaign was in full swing while Mr. Junkerman was designing his "Utopia/Dystopia" course, and he says Mr. Trump’s dark acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention seemed too relevant to exclude. It painted a picture of America "laid to waste and on the wrong side of the track," says Mr. Junkerman.

"It’s not that politicians haven’t talked about America being on the wrong track before," he says. "But Trump’s rhetoric does in a lot of ways represent a departure."

In addition to asking students to analyze President Trump’s dystopian rhetoric, Mr. Junkerman asks them to contrast it with utopian imagery previously employed by other politicians.

"How does Trump make the idea of dystopia not just intellectually comprehensible, but also affecting?" he says. "These speeches are designed to spur us to action, right? To change the way we feel, the way we vote. I want students to analyze the link between the rhetoric and the intended effect."

Whether Mr. Trump’s election heralds dark times or leads us out of them, it seems that everyone is "fixated on dystopia," Mr. Junkerman says.

But James Berger, a senior lecturer in English and American studies at Yale University, says that "fixation" with dystopia is not a Trump-related phenomenon. He traces it to the first half of the 20th century.

"After the death camps and the atomic bomb and the failure of Soviet communism, not a whole lot of utopian energies were to be found," he says. Mr. Berger adds that his "Modern Apocalyptic Narratives" course also touches on Mr. Trump’s speeches, but he is mindful not to let the president dominate the class. Mr. Berger says that it is often possible to interpret literature from the past as having "some bearing on the present."

‘Some Fear’ in the Classroom

Anne L. Prescott, an English professor at Barnard College, says she senses "some fear" about Mr. Trump among her students. "It hangs over the class. You can feel it, it’s palpable. Where do we go from here? Should we be afraid of what is happening to America?" she says.

Though it’s early in the semester, Ms. Prescott says she expects conversations and comments about the president to creep into her "Utopias and Dystopias" seminar in the weeks ahead. Right now, though, she notes that her students "are still a little cautious because they’re trying to be friendly to each other."

Class discussions about President Trump could easily run into partisan pitfalls. But Ms. Prescott says she has developed a way of stating her opinions without appearing oppressive to students with opposing political views.

“You can mention things to situate yourself, so they'll know where you're coming from, without doing it in a way that suggests, 'You better agree with me or it's a C-minus, honey.'”
"It’s about style of manner," she says. "You can mention things to situate yourself, so they’ll know where you’re coming from, without doing it in a way that suggests, ‘You better agree with me or it’s a C-minus, honey.’"

Concerns about the age of Trump have begun to extend beyond class discussions. Unprompted, some of Ms. Prescott’s students are proposing to bring the president into their senior theses.

In one proposal a student wrote that she was considering exploring the theme of "unreality as reality" in reality television, an arena that contributed to Mr. Trump’s prepresidential fame.

"I didn’t set up this course in response to the election, but students’ interest has been further piqued by the election," Ms. Prescott says. "I’m expecting some amusing and interesting long papers."