Teaching

Meet the Professor Who’s Writing a Trump-Based Lesson Plan on the Go

May 24, 2017

Pace U.
David Caputo absorbs news about the U.S. presidency and then kicks it back to his students at Pace U. for an up-to-the-minute political-science course.

A lot has been said about President Trump’s first 100 days in office, but he crossed another milestone that many inside the Beltway might have missed: He’s been president for the length of a college course — specifically, a course taught by David A. Caputo, a professor of political science at Pace University.

Pace’s spring semester began on January 23, three days after the inauguration. Mr. Caputo’s course, "Presidential Leadership Workshop," wrapped up earlier this month, but the professor said he’s confident President Trump’s tenure will provide interesting classroom material for years to come.

Mr. Caputo has been offering the workshop for several years, but Mr. Trump’s unpredictable nature has created a special challenge. About half of the material, Mr. Caputo said, is scripted on traditional textbook readings and analysis. "The other half, you never know," he said. "Sometimes I decide literally as I am walking out the door, depending on what analysis I have read or what I think is most interesting."

That often means on-the-fly thinking. Consider the travel ban and its fallout. Mr. Caputo knew that he needed to explain to students why legal challenges to the ban were filed in Hawaii and Washington as opposed to other states. That led to a wider discussion about federalism as a whole.

And as President Trump often takes to Twitter early in the morning, Mr. Caputo wakes at 5 a.m. to make sure he doesn’t need to change the day’s lesson plan. He tries to shut down his consumption by 11 p.m., though breaking news may keep him up later.

The professor, who served as Pace University’s president from 2000 to 2007, said that during the academic year, he’ll spend six to eight hours reading dozens of outlets — including The New York Times, Fox News, and Huffington Post — or poring over articles sent to him by colleagues or former students. A self-described C-SPAN junkie, he also immerses himself in the wonky public-affairs cable network whenever he’s not reading.

Including the day’s headlines, he said, gives his students something they say they want: relevancy. "It’s an interesting way to teach, but it’s something that you constantly have to be rethinking," he said.

The lessons morph to focus on the current president or election. In 2015, the reading material included Kenneth Jost’s Obama’s Agenda: The Challenges of a Second Term, an analysis of Barack Obama’s key initiatives, including health-care reform, immigration reform, and foreign diplomacy. In the most recent semester, the course readings included Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again, a book by then-candidate Donald Trump.

But Mr. Caputo does offer some consistency over time. In both of those years, he had his students read Elaine C. Kamarck’s Why Presidents Fail And How They Can Succeed Again, which examines presidential fiascos.

And Mr. Caputo partially adjusts his course according to the president’s term in office. In 2015, the class was examined how Mr. Obama would change his leadership style in the second half of his second term. In 2017, a portion of the class was meant to address Mr. Trump’s first 90 days in office.

Mr. Caputo knows that one risk in talking about politics is foisting one’s personal political leanings onto students. So he tries to avoid that bias by, for example, varying his media-consumption diet by including equal parts MSNBC and Fox News.

Some of his students said they appreciate the nonpartisan approach in the classroom. Berenice Murguia worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and Emily Slass comes from a conservative background. Neither could tell which way Mr. Caputo leaned politically.

And that’s especially welcoming for someone like Ms. Slass. She said she’s accustomed to professors who lean left or show "one side" of the story. Mr. Caputo, she said, isn’t like that, and she takes him more seriously as a result.

Mr. Caputo also tries to pass his expansive news consumption onto his students. At the start of the year, he assigns each of his students a subject, such as the federal budget or the national debt, and it’s their duty to then report developments on that topic to the rest of the class throughout the semester. (In his syllabi for four previous courses, Mr. Caputo wrote that students would be expected "to read a major national newspaper or news magazine or watch appropriate television, C-SPAN or internet based news.")

Though the semester is over, Mr. Caputo is keeping abreast of the news. But he does gives himself a little more time to consume it because he doesn’t have the "guillotine of the lecture ahead."

And while it may seem to many observers that the Trump presidency is making unusual headlines, Mr. Caputo said every presidency brings a fresh set of challenges. "I tell my students, ‘Look, you’re in a unique period of history, but what presidency wasn’t in a unique period of history?’"

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.