Roundtable: Democratize the Classroom!

This is the final post in our series on Teaching Amid Political Tension (read Part I, Part II, Part III). Today’s post is by Sean Trainor, who teaches history, writing, and professional communication at the University of Florida. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, TIME, Salon, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Junto, Early American Studies, and elsewhere. He co-hosts the weekly podcast Impolitic.

To be perfectly honest, the current age of turmoil has had a minimal impact on the content of my courses. Long before Donald Trump emerged as a presidential contender or Pepe the Frog became an absurd, menacing presence in Americans’ collective consciousness, I had been teaching a politically engaged curriculum that focused on the intersection of racism, sexism, inequality, imperialism, and jingoistic excess in American history. I had designed these courses as a kind of rebuttal to what I saw as the defining sins of American life, and insofar as Donald Trump gleefully embodies these sins, my courses have aged well in the era of his presidency.

But while I’ve left the content of my courses largely unchanged throughout Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency (save, of course, for the normal tinkering that any educator undertakes between semesters), his presence on the political scene has forced me to rethink my approach to power dynamics in the classroom. More specifically, it has forced me to consider ways to democratize the classroom.

Why is democratizing the classroom an urgent task? It’s important because Donald Trump, like all demagogues, feeds off people’s sense of disempowerment.

This sense of disempowerment has many sources – many of which no classroom experiment can easily remedy. Regardless of what I do in my U.S. history survey classes, the United States will remain a society riven by inequality, where a small handful of people control the majority of the country’s wealth; where elected officials spend more time chasing rich people’s money than constituents’ votes; and where most Americans toil long hours for faceless organizations, accountable only to their investors.

Fortunately, I can redress at least one source of Americans’ sense of disempowerment: I can provide them with a meaningful experience of self-government.

And so, this fall, I plan to democratize one of my sections of U.S. History since 1877 at the University of Florida. If this pilot program proves successful, I will then replicate the experiment in all my classes. Here’s how the experiment will work:

First, I will explain to my students that all components of my syllabus, save for those mandated by the University of Florida, are fully negotiable. Practically speaking, this means that students can ask me to change the topic of an individual lessons or the way I teach it (e.g., they can request a discussion-based session instead of a lecture), but they cannot abolish class meetings altogether. Similarly, they can demand an alternative paper topic, but they cannot cancel all major class assignments.

Second, I will outline the process whereby students can amend the course syllabus. The process will begin when a student emails me prior to class with a motion on which s/he would like the class to vote. If the motion pertains to a class meeting or assignment due fewer than four weeks in the future, I will refuse the motion (as we will not have enough time to amend the syllabus). If, on the other hand, the motion pertains to a meeting or assignment due more than four weeks in the future, I will ask the student to introduce her/his motion at the beginning of the next session, and invite no more than five minutes of public commentary. Assuming that at least one of the proposer’s classmates agrees to second the motion, we will schedule a vote no more than a week in the future.

The proposer will then have the intervening period to build a coalition around her/his proposal. S/he will have to do so, moreover, with the knowledge that, if her/his motion passes, s/he will be responsible for assembling a committee whose job it will be to outline a substitute lesson or assignment – which, in turn, will require the final approval of a majority of the class before being added to the revised syllabus.

Finally, as an executive safeguard against ill-conceived motions, I plan to retain a limited veto power over all proposals – which students can override with a super-majority of four-fifths of the class.

Will this experiment work? I have no idea. For my part, I hope to help students overcome their initial reluctance to make use of the process by requiring them, at the outset of class, to fill in a few (intentional) gaps in the course schedule using the democratic process above. Nevertheless, I fully recognize that students might find the process too cumbersome, or the prospect of outlining new lessons or assignments too onerous to utilize these democratic instruments. Or perhaps students will simply decide that my syllabus is perfect as it is.

(A professor can wish, right?)

Still, I believe my experiment will be valuable, even if students rarely (or never) make use of the democratic process. If nothing else, the experiment will give me the opportunity to ask students why, despite the fact that they’re voting-age adults and constitute the overwhelming majority of the University of Florida community, they have no meaningful say in its governance. Or why, as members of ostensibly self-governing political communities, they have less control over the instruments of power than they do in their college history class.

At its best, meanwhile, the process just might succeed in giving students a taste of the skills they’ll need to affect social change: from canvassing, organizing, and debating to tackling boring administrative work and thinking strategically about their classmates’ wants and needs. Even more dangerously, the process might give them a taste of victory – and prove, in the process, that creative, well-organized movements can, in fact, push the needle of progress.

Will this experiment immediately dispel my students sense of disempowerment? Maybe. Maybe not. But, at very least, it represents a subversive gesture in a world where workplaces are organized like dictatorships and politics is organized like a spectator sport.


3 responses

  1. I like this experiment. I am curious to know how you will assess whether the pilot program is successful, for both you and your students. We will need a follow-up post in December!

  2. I’d understand doing this when you get on the topic of Andrew Jackson, but otherwise I can’t get fully on board with it. If you want to reflect reality, how about splitting students into groups and allowing them to choose representatives who vote on their behalf?

  3. The exercise is potentially interesting, but:

    “I had been teaching a politically engaged curriculum that focused on the intersection of racism, sexism, inequality, imperialism, and jingoistic excess in American history. I had designed these courses as a kind of rebuttal to what I saw as the defining sins of American life.”

    How many students drop your courses in the beginning? How do you propose we reach those students who might be turned off by such an obviously politicized class?


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