Roundtable: Teaching History in the Trump Era

This is the second post in the series on Teaching Amid Political Tension (read Part I). Today’s post is by Gautham Rao, who is an Assistant Professor of History at American University. He is on Twitter @gauthamrao.

One day in my small undergraduate historiography seminar a few years ago, one student said something really offensive to another student. I can’t really repeat the offending sentence, but it involved a racist aspersion toward a student of color and the offender invoked the name of then-candidate Trump as he spat out the shocking utterance. I remember being so shocked at what I had heard, and the condescending way in which it was said, that I shrank from the occasion. Luckily, the student at whom the comment was directed was more than capable of standing up for herself and others. No matter, I went home that day feeling like I had failed my students. The feeling did not go away for a long time.

I grew very fond of most of students in that class but it was the worst teaching experience of my career. I seriously contemplated doing something else with my life because the thought of going back into a classroom brought me to the verge of an anxiety attack. What can I say? I guess I might be a snowflake. I’m willing to concede that I have emotions and care deeply about my students. So for me, and I suspect for many others with a similarly snowflaky disposition, the difficulty of teaching in the age of Trump began well before the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States.

But I didn’t melt, or at least not completely. Instead, I got a bit lucky when I was accepted as a Fellow in the Partners in Teaching program offered by American University’s Center for Teaching and Learning. In talking with other junior faculty fellows, and especially with the mentor with whom I was paired—the incomparable Professor Marilyn Goldhammer—I came up with a plan that has helped me get a better grip on the potentially difficulties of teaching in our present crisis. Here are some of my thoughts.

First, I embrace my snowflakeness. Look, I’ve got two young daughters. They are cute. They do cute stuff. And when they do, I get kind of teary (it could be exhaustion though). In general, I’m sensitive about other people’s feelings. I can’t turn that off in my classroom. So in all of my classes, I am forthright about that with my students. Students choose their name and identity and the class must respect that. Under no circumstance do we comment on the way we dress or present ourselves. Early on in the semester we also talk about civil ways to disagree with one another and about what kinds of comments are out of bounds and why this is so. If eyerolls are an accurate barometer, it is fair to say that some students do not at all enjoy these discussions. Yet many others have thanked me outside of class because they felt that discussions of boundaries helped them learn, especially in a seminar setting.

Second, I’ve gotten serious about presentism. I will admit that I used to use contemporary politics and news cycles as a cheap parlor trick to get students to care about studying the past. Now, our students at American are extremely engaged with national politics. Occasionally, to have some fun, I’ll throw in a question in a lecture, such as: ‘anyone know Rubio’s favorables?’ I always get me favorite answer: ‘In which poll?’  With students so focused on contemporary politics, it seemed easy enough to start class with some superficial discussion of current events (e.g., Obama ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) before launching into the history I really wanted to talk about (e.g. the problem of command in early modern imperial militaries). But in our tumultuous times, I’ve come to believe that historians have a civic duty to historicize the present whenever possible.

So now if I introduce the possibility of a nexus between past and present, I try to allow students to build a substantial scholarly connection with which to make sense of that nexus. My favorite activity has been to use the ‘Syllabus’ movement that has helped historians contextualize events ranging from the tragedies in Ferguson and Charleston to the Trump administration’s Muslim Ban. Most often, I’ll ask students to prepare for an entire class session in which we try to put together the foundations of a syllabus that can contextualize something going on in their lives. In this same vein, I’ve started to design courses that make clear the historicity of the present, such as a first-year undergrad seminar ‘Why Big Government?’ and a new lecture/discussion for undergrads and grad students, ‘The West Wing as History.’  I’ll make those syllabuses available soon.

Third, social media…with limits. I believe that social media has revolutionized historiography. I want to teach a class about this and I want to write about this one day. Now that I am an editor of a scholarly journal, I know for sure that I am right. But it has taken me a while—probably too long—to realize that social media is not always the right answer. I marveled, for instance, in watching one of my undergraduates, on his own volition, use social media to ask a distinguished historian a critical—by no means rude or mean-spirited (see #1)—question and watching the historian respond in detail. It was a thing of beauty. But based on the dynamics I have seen on social media in our political climate, so many things could have gone wrong here. Of course, the established scholar could have taken umbrage and attacked my student, which probably would have had a long and pernicious shelf life. But the public nature of their discussion also left my student vulnerable to any number of unpleasant situations. On occasion I have been on the receiving end of some very nasty stuff. So now I try to ensure that when we integrate social media into classroom business, we do so in a way that prevents students from unwanted scrutiny.

Four, the Trump rule. This one is simple: any student can mention Trump once per class, but once she or he does, she has 30 seconds to complete their statement before getting cut off. A corollary of this rule is that I try to prohibit use of the phrase “politically correct” because it is stupid and insulting.

Fifth, I don’t equate conservatism and Trumpism. I don’t hide my revulsion at the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and bigotry that lie at the heart of the Trump movement. But I realize that many of my conservative students, who might feel the same about Trump, may be afraid to voice their opinion during discussions, lest they be tarred as Trumpists or Trump-lite. Some of my brightest and most engaging students over the years have been conservatives passionate about, for instance, free market economics, natural rights, and liberal political theory. They bring important perspectives to the class that I do not want to lose when discussing, for example, the Stamp Act riots, Pierson v. Post, or Charles Brockden Brown.

It is impossible to predict what the Trump presidency will do to this country (and the world) or what will become of the Trump presidency. But I suspect that long after Trump has faded from the scene, we’ll be confronting similar problems in the way we interact with our students. So this list is by no means exhaustive or complete because some things have worked better than others and, as we historians know, things change over time. But since that disastrous day in my undergrad historiography seminar, and even through the admittedly difficult weeks immediately surrounding the 2016 presidential campaign, I’ve felt more connected with my students and greater confidence in my ability to reach them. Most importantly, I offer these ideas with the hopes that our conversation about these difficult matters continues in the days and months to come.

3 responses

  1. Great post. In my experience, the election intensified some processes that had been there all along. There was an emboldenment of the freedom to show contempt and disrespect that caught me and several other faculty off-guard (I am open to the criticism that maybe it should not have). It was, I continue to feel, a microcosm of the wider and purposeful testing of (or more cynically, exposure of) the most basic assumptions and institutions of deliberative democratic–and academic–practice, and a willingness to test the degree to which such practices and institutions could be defended along with the dignity and equality of each of their participants, and perhaps even more so of those with limited or no recognized access to that participation. These are great posts for helping to think about how to pass the test with renewed commitment this coming year, partly, I hope, by being more self-conscious in the classroom and the faculty meeting room about how fragile those practices and institutions can be, and how important it is to be able to balance the need to practice their importance while thinking critically about their limits.

  2. Pingback: Roundtable: Historical Memory and Contemporary Politics « The Junto

  3. Pingback: Roundtable: Democratize the Classroom! « The Junto


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