Teaching

Villanova Asks Professors to Discuss Postelection Tensions in Class

November 15, 2016

iStock
Amid a spate of racially charged and hate-motivated incidents on campuses since last week, Villanova U. stands out for urging its faculty to allow students to speak up.
A spate of racially charged and hate-motivated incidents has roiled campuses since Donald J. Trump was elected president last week. Villanova University officials are among the institutional leaders who have condemned such events, and on Monday they went a step further, urging faculty members to talk with students during class about the incidents.

"It is important for faculty to acknowledge the seriousness of these events and the fact that such actions have no place on our campus," wrote Patrick G. Maggitti, Villanova’s provost, and Teresa A. Nance, associate vice provost for diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, in a joint email to the faculty at the Roman Catholic university near Philadelphia.

"Thus, we hope you consider taking time in your classes to recognize this campus moment to ensure that silence on this issue is not misinterpreted as indifference or, even worse, tacit agreement with malicious actions."

Many professors have chosen to scrap lesson plans and discuss the surprising election results with students. But Villanova stands out as an institution whose leaders have called on faculty members to address postelection tensions in class.

Mr. Trump has used derogatory language to describe women and minority groups, and some of his supporters have invoked his name or his campaign rhetoric — specifically, to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States — in an attempt to intimidate students. Such events have occurred on campuses all year, though more frequently since Mr. Trump’s victory.

A black female student at Villanova reported that on Thursday several white men ran toward her in an on-campus transit tunnel, shouting the president-elect’s name, and that one of them pushed her to the ground. The university’s police department is investigating.

On Friday, at the nearby University of Pennsylvania, some black freshmen were targeted with racial slurs and lynching references in a group messaging app. A University of Oklahoma student has been temporarily suspended in connection with the messages.

When it comes to helping students process the attacks and understand that such behavior isn't welcome at Villanova, Mr. Maggitti and Ms. Nance wrote, "our faculty voices can have an outsized impact."

"Gone are the days when we thought, Let student life do it," Ms. Nance said in an interview. "Students come here to be immersed in an academic climate led by people who they respect," she said. "Who better than the faculty to tell them, This is a serious moment for us?"

‘A Safe and Nonjudgmental Place’

Adele Lindenmeyr, dean of Villanova’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said professors can both facilitate civil discussions and contextualize the hate-motivated incidents. They can help make "a very clear distinction between free speech and hurtful hate speech," she said, as well as "the kinds of productive conversations that should take place and, frankly, shouting."

Talking about race and bias in the classroom isn’t easy, and in their email message Mr. Maggitti and Ms. Nance suggested that faculty members reach out to the Villanova Institute for Teaching and Learning or to the diversity office for support.

Rick Eckstein, a professor of sociology, said he made time during his classes last Thursday to talk about the aftermath of the election, before "some of the more egregious events" occurred at Villanova and elsewhere. He said he feels comfortable discussing racism and misogyny in class, though that wasn’t the focus of last week’s conversations.

"I simply offered a safe and nonjudgmental place where people could decompress, including those supporting Mr. Trump who felt they were being unfairly accused of sharing some of the racist and sexist ideas he had been spouting," Mr. Eckstein wrote in an email.

He said some of his colleagues in the mathematics and physics departments also led such class discussions. "It made no difference that they were not ‘experts’ in issues of racism, sexism, or political demagoguery," he said. "They are teachers, and they care about the young people who they interact with."

But he said he didn’t know how his students would react to the racist attacks at Villanova and Penn. "Given recent local events," he said, "I’m not sure how tomorrow’s classes will go."

The purpose of the email wasn't to give faculty members a script or to require anything.
Ms. Lindenmeyr suggested that professors start by finding out what their students want to know. They might ask, "What are some questions you have about the events of the past week?" she said, an approach that keeps the conversation open-ended.

"I don’t think it’s helpful for a professor to say, We all agree that what’s going on is terrible, anybody want to talk about it?" she said. "Rather, they can initiate the discussion as an investigation."

The purpose of the email wasn’t to give faculty members a script or to require anything, Ms. Nance said.

"I’m not saying that you have to disrupt your curriculum, your syllabus to do this," she said. "But I am saying that there are times when the opportunity is there to engage students in important conversations about social responsibility."

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.