The Tricky Task of Teaching About Trump

October 28, 2016

Jewel Samad, AFP, Getty Images
The Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, speaks in September at Miami Dade College. His boundary-defying campaign has political-science professors debating how much to express their views of his candidacy in the classroom.
Regardless of how Donald J. Trump fares on Election Day, he will have profoundly altered not just American politics, but also the way many American professors teach political science.

The Republican presidential nominee’s willingness to flout accepted limits of campaign rhetoric — with talk, for example, of refusing to accept defeat or of jailing Hillary Clinton — has handed political-science instructors both new discussion topics and a tough question: Should they speak out against him in the classroom?

"This is kind of a vexing problem," says Stephen K. Medvic, a professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College, in Pennsylvania. He says his own academic department’s experts on American politics met before this semester to discuss how to approach classroom discussions of the election, but "never came to any sort of agreement as to the best way to do so."

Although Mrs. Clinton joins Mr. Trump in having plenty of critics as well as low public-approval ratings, political-science instructors generally do not see his Democratic opponent’s campaign as giving reason to rethink how they discuss presidential races.

Mr. Trump’s campaign, on the other hand, has prompted some to alter both the frameworks through which they analyze such elections and their view of their proper role in the classroom. In interviews, published articles, and messages solicited through the email lists of the American Political Science Association, they varied widely in how they are discussing Mr. Trump.

"In my view, many professors have long been able to hide behind a pretense of objectivity because the candidates of the two major parties fell within the range of viewpoints these professors have found acceptable," says Spencer Piston, an assistant professor of political science at Boston University.

"Trump falls out of that range," he says, "so many of them have decided to abandon this pretense."

Out of Balance

Kathleen P. Iannello, an associate professor of political science at Gettysburg College, in Pennsylvania, has been outspoken about her willingness to tell students of her objections to Mr. Trump. In a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, she called a Trump presidency a threat to everything liberal-arts colleges such as Gettysburg stand for. She wrote: "It is a disservice to students to attempt to provide balance when I know that balance is an offense to the truth."

Ms. Iannello’s essay provoked outrage at Fox News and other conservative media outlets, but Gettysburg’s administration stood behind her. Officials of the American Association of University Professors say it has not fielded any complaints about faculty members’ being disciplined for expressing their political views. Although campus chalkings in support of Mr. Trump have been assailed as racist and led to vigorous free-speech debates, controversies surrounding college instructors’ statements about the presidential race have been fairly rare.

Among other instructors who have strongly criticized Mr. Trump in the classroom, Mr. Piston of Boston University says he rejects the belief "that striking an exact balance between the two major parties is a worthwhile ideal."

“There must be a logical extreme at which even people in my position are morally obligated to speak out.”
He argues that doing so is itself a political act because professors do not similarly feel a need to be balanced in commenting on, for example, the Nazi Party.

Christopher Devine, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton, in Ohio, says he has been much more openly critical of Mr. Trump’s policy proposals than those of past candidates because "there must be a logical extreme at which even people in my position are morally obligated to speak out — and we had reached that point."

He admits being "deeply conflicted about using my authority to take a political stance in class," but adds that, as a lifelong Republican with no plans to vote for Mrs. Clinton, he is "in an unusual position to do something like this."

Seeking Neutrality

On the other side of the debate, David O’Connell, an assistant professor of political science at Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College, says that "I never comment on the appropriateness of any candidate for office," and he believes "staying neutral and objective makes me better as a teacher and makes me better as a scholar."

He tells students he has not even registered to vote because he wants "to maintain that distance from the political process," and his approach assures students that "whatever they believe politically, they are not going to be judged for it."

“Staying neutral and objective makes me better as a teacher and makes me better as a scholar.”
Besides, Mr. O’Connell argues, considering some of the controversies surrounding Mrs. Clinton, one could reasonably make the argument that she herself "poses a threat to democracy."

Yu Ouyang, an assistant professor of political science at Purdue University Northwest, says a need to be objective and illustrate his points through research "vastly outweighs whatever personal views I harbor against Trump’s candidacy." He says he walks students through the possible motivations for, or damaging consequences of, Mr. Trump’s behavior, but does not seek to sway them as much as to give them the tools to make an informed choice.

Commenting Cautiously

Over all, "the notion that we should abandon objectivity is definitely not pervasive," says Deborah J. Schildkraut, a professor of political science at Tufts University, in Massachusetts.

Last month, at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting, she moderated a panel discussion titled "To Stay Neutral or Not When Teaching the 2016 Election: Ethical and Pedagogical Challenges." Although the participating instructors offered a range of views, most characterized their proper classroom role as being political scientists who ask empirical questions when faced with contentious issues, she says.

Many political-science instructors say they inject their opinions into discussions sparingly, to make broader points and to be honest with students about their own biases.

Mr. Medvic of Franklin & Marshall says he feels obliged to point out when Mr. Trump has made comments — such as his suggestions that he might not accept the election’s results — that "are dangerous of a democracy."

Benjamin Knoll, an associate professor of politics at Centre College, in Kentucky, says he is "not going to pretend in class" that Mr. Trump’s disparagements of women or minority members, or his displays of disregard for the rule of law, "are normal things that come up in elections, that reasonable people can have honest differences of opinion about."

At the same time, he says, he has emphasized "that there are legitimate reasons to support Donald Trump," such as his position on trade. He encourages politically divided students "to assume the best in each other."

“Students are more interested in politics than they were in past years, but there is more fear and tension about putting your position out there.”
Douglas Pierce, a visiting assistant professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University, says he sees trying to be a model of certain behaviors, such as respectful engagement in debate with those who hold different views, as more important than trying to create the impression "that I possess all the answers."

Some instructors acknowledge that their classroom criticism of Mr. Trump may be made easier by the relative scarcity of his supporters among their own students. Many describe, as one of their biggest challenges, getting students to speak up with their own views of the candidates.

"Students are more interested in politics than they were in past years, but there is more fear and tension about putting your position out there," says Jason Blakely, an assistant professor of political theory at Pepperdine University, in California.

Best Time, Worst Time

One point of agreement among such instructors is that Mr. Trump has offered them plenty of discussion material. Ted G. Jelen, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, calls Mr. Trump’s candidacy "a priceless pedagogical opportunity" offering "a gold mine of historical, international, and theoretical comparisons."

In an essay in The Atlantic, Mr. Blakely of Pepperdine argued that Mr. Trump’s candidacy would force many who teach about American politics "out of comfortable habits of mind" and require them to weave references to different political traditions, such as fascism, into their lectures.

Robert W. Smith, a professor of political science and public affairs at Savannah State University, in Georgia, last summer taught a course called "The Trump Factor in American Politics." Many of his students at the historically black college expressed deep opposition to the Republican candidate but nonetheless were drawn to the class "because they want to understand the political science behind something like this," he says.

Virginia Gray, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says she tells students "that this is indeed the dirtiest campaign in all my many years of watching campaigns, that I am sorry it has to be their first election to vote in, that they shouldn’t get discouraged. It will get better than this."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.