How Trump’s presidency has changed the way SU professors talk about politics

Donald Trump’s presidency has prompted a new challenge for professors: how do they address politics in the classroom?

Albrecht Diem can get his Syracuse University students to talk about the early Middle Ages and ancient Greek mythology. But when he brings up President Donald Trump and the new administration, they do not say much.

Sometimes, he tries to prompt conversation by relating today’s issues with ones that happened hundreds of years ago. Even then, the associate history professor does not get much of a response in his classroom.

“What happened when I was an undergraduate student is that students occasionally would take over and say, ‘No, we want to talk about this,’” Diem said. “But, that’s not really happening.” 

Since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8, many professors and staff members across campus joined students in discussing, debating and even denouncing the Republican candidate's victory. But the new administration has prompted a new challenge for professors: do they engage in civic conversations about today’s political climate, or do they just stick with the curriculum?

Professors are trying to navigate political conversations in the classroom not by pushing their beliefs on their students, but being transparent with their own ideals and trying to open up conversation on both sides of the political spectrum. But some have been hesitant to disclose their political affiliations in class. 

Diem is very outspoken in the classroom about where he stands on political issues and the presidential candidate. But, there are some who feel that professors shouldn't do this. 

“You can perfectly make that argument that we are in the position of power,” Diem said. “We act in a position where students think this person has power over me, can judge me, can give me grades, and out of that position we should abstain from taking sides on political questions.” 

But, this is not a belief Diem shares, because he doesn't feel there can be neutral teaching. Some bias will always be reflected in assignments and syllabi that professors create, and they should not hide any part of who they are in the classroom.

Other professors are more hesitant to share their views. Edwin Ackerman, an assistant sociology professor, said it’s awkward to not talk about politics in his classes and his students can tell when he might be holding back on his opinion.

“I think that they sense that I have a more critical sense and I’m holding back,” Ackerman said. “In the couple of times that it’s happened, I sort of said maybe I agree with you, but we need to understand the other [opinion] in its own terms first before we move on to a critique.” 

Ackerman also tries to prompt the classroom by discussing a particular phenomenon in politics and allow them to give their opinion without forcing students to take a firm stand on one side or the other.

Throughout his lectures, Ackerman said he feels that he probably does give away his political views by the way he talks about certain subjects in class and is sure students have probably picked up on which side he leans to. But, he feels as long as professors keep the class open to all viewpoints, disclosing political ideologies doesn’t harm the class. 

“I think it’s bad if they’re imposing it, or it they’re repressing other positions, or they’re not willing to discuss the different sides of an issue,” Ackerman said. 

While professors want to hear viewpoints across the political spectrum, they have noticed that many of the students who speak loudly on their political stance are more left leaning than right. 

Post-election, many students that were rooting for Hilary Clinton were devastated by the loss to Trump, and many professors allowed students to grieve, which can be, in some ways, imposing a political stance.

“I had an interesting conversation with a student who said he was heavily annoyed by all of the collective therapy sessions that seemingly happened in the days after the election of comforting crying students,” Diem said. “He said this was sort of excluding other viewpoints and making students uncomfortable that didn’t share the same general sentiment.” 

Dana Cloud, a communication and rhetorical studies professor, is known for her left-leaning opinions — so well known that she was placed on conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist, a list of college professors who, according to their website, “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

However, she said wants to be open with students on her thoughts and talk about varying viewpoints, whether or not they align with her personal opinions.

“I think students need to be able to trust you,” Cloud said. “And if you’re not open with what you think and you’re hiding something, I don’t think that’s very trustworthy.”

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