The Chronicle Review

The Day After

A historic election, an anxious classroom

Frederic J. Brown, AFP, Getty Images

November 18, 2016

In the wake of Donald Trump’s shocking election victory, a lot of professors wondered how they would handle the issue in their classrooms — or if they would hold class at all. Many of my colleagues and friends took to social media to ask one another: "How do I help my students through this?" "How do I get through this myself?" "How can I even teach today?"

I confess: Those questions were on my mind, too. But as awful as I felt about the election, I did not consider canceling my classes. In difficult times, the most important thing that professors can do for our students is simply to show up. Even if we don’t have any light of our own to give, at least we can keep the light on in the classroom and hold open that space of calm, peaceful inquiry. That’s work worth doing on any day, but it’s especially important on the dismal days.

We should also remember that what seems like a dark day for us might not seem so bleak to our students. And even if some of them are distressed, we must try not to deepen their distress. If we approach contentious issues thoughtfully, we can help them clarify their own thinking on weighty issues. But we should never expect our students to take on the burden of helping us process our own anger, astonishment, or grief.

So however I chose to address the election in the classroom — and even if I did not introduce the topic, I was sure some of my history and rhetoric students would bring it up — I wanted to be careful not to project my own feelings or frustrations onto them.

Or my political views.

Now, I talk politics in the classroom all the time — but I’m always talking the politics of the past. Oh, my students have discerned some of my political views, just as I have discerned some of theirs. But I do not make current events the subject of classroom discussion. My job is to help students figure out how to understand the past and use that knowledge to make sense of the present — to make sense, and then to make changes.

Historical thinking — making sense of the chaos of the past — is a crucial skill for understanding how to best channel our efforts in the present. But learning to think historically requires being able to construct and maintain a kind of conceptual cofferdam; it requires the ability to turn aside — if only artificially, if only temporarily — the coursing waters of the present long enough to see the contours of the riverbed beneath and so come to understand what has shaped the currents in which we move, the currents that move us.

There was no getting around the currents of contemporary politics last week, and I think I would have made a shipwreck of my classes if I had tried.

So here’s what I ended up doing: I gave my students a chance to teach me. "A lot of my colleagues and I were wondering what to say about the election in class," I told them. "But maybe we don’t need to say anything at all. Maybe instead we need to listen to what you have to say. You may think about this election very differently than we assume you do. And I’m sure you think differently from one another. And some of you probably see it very differently than I do. So I’d be very interested to hear what you think."

I explained that this was an optional writing exercise and would not be graded. If they chose to participate, they could write about anything they wished, and they did not need to put their names on their papers. Finally, I asked them to indicate in their responses whether it would be all right for me to share some of their comments online. (Of course, even if they granted me permission to quote them, I promised not to identify them.)

Most of my students opted to participate and granted me permission to share their writing with a broader audience.

Many of them were deeply dismayed by Trump’s victory. "I’m scared," one student wrote. "I moved to the United States three months ago, laughing at Trump’s campaign … [and] I’ll be here four years, in a country in which the elected president mocks people of my nationality. I’m just scared."

Even if we don't have any light of our own to give, at least we can keep the light on in the classroom.
Some students were worried not for themselves but for family members and friends. "There are Muslim women scared to death more now than ever to even just walk outside with their hijabs on," one said. Another student wrote, "I fear for Muslim women who wear the hijab like my mother."

Many of the female students were unsettled as well. "As a woman," one wrote, "I am petrified for the next four years." Wrote another, "For the first time I was frightened to be a female, a Hispanic female." Another young woman wrote, "What do I do and what do I say to the people who treat me with racism and sexism? Now that they feel validated and united and safe, how do I respond to them?"

Several of my students were too young to vote in this election, a fact that some found frustrating. "I didn’t vote because I am 17," one wrote. "I’m very mad about that because every vote counts, and I feel like as the future of this country, citizens who are 16 and older should vote."

But some students who were eligible to vote chose not to. "I didn’t do enough research on the two candidates beforehand," one said. Another wrote, "I did not vote. I know it is my ‘American duty’ to do so, but I couldn’t." As a devout Catholic, she explained, she was appalled by Trump’s immorality but equally offended by Hillary Clinton’s strong abortion-rights stance.

Indeed, several of my students, even if they were dismayed at Trump’s election, seemed to view Clinton’s candidacy almost as unfavorably. "I’m upset the Democratic Party rigged the primaries," one wrote. "Bernie is the only candidate that had a chance against Trump." Another former Sanders supporter who voted for Clinton in the general election wrote, "For the future I hope Bernie runs with a campaign slogan of #Hindsight2020."

But some students were glad to support Clinton. "My vote was cast for Hillary Clinton because I felt she would advance upon Barack Obama’s policies. She is also much more qualified to be president than Donald Trump is." Another student wrote, "Hillary was a better candidate in every way. Initially I just thought her to be the lesser of the two evils but now I’m really seeing what we lost."

What some students saw as a painful loss, others saw as an inspiring victory. "I voted for Donald Trump, so I was excited when he was president," one student wrote. Others argued that, while Trump was not their choice, his election is not necessarily a disaster. "He hasn’t made one decision in office and people want to vote him out," one wrote. "Give the man a chance."

While many students were deeply worried, many others were hopeful, although Trump supporters and Clinton supporters framed their hopes very differently.

"Trump was a symbolic victory," wrote an enthusiastic supporter. "I doubt he accomplishes much. But, what he stands for will not die for many years to come, as the people will not tolerate elitists thinking they can get away with things, and not listening to ALL voices." This student rejected pessimism about Trump’s election: "People thinking America is over are wrong. It has just begun. It’s a new era. Trump will not erase the past 50 years. There will still be gay marriage and abortions. However, we are going to be ushered into a time of peace with Russia, where nationalism is acceptable, where globalism will not be shoved down our throats. And America will be Great Again."

A Clinton voter offered a different vision. There is hope for America, this student suggested, but only if Clinton voters and Trump voters begin listening to each other. "If we can open a channel of communication — contentious at first and likely never easy/peaceful — then we have made the first step in healing a nation whose pain does not stem from the election but a deeper, older, festering pain that this election has aggravated," the student wrote.

"We will stand and pay attention to our world (at least locally at first) and make a conscious effort to see change — both sides compromising when they can because they understand the other side. And these local changes can stand up against anything Trump and his people could do. And maybe, just maybe, he could change too."

My country’s political situation doesn’t give me much hope these days. But my students do.

L.D. Burnett is a lecturer in history and rhetoric at the University of Texas at Dallas and an adjunct professor of history at Collin College. Her book, Canon Wars: The 1980s Western Civ Debates at Stanford and the Triumph of Neoliberalism in Higher Education, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.