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Teaching after Trump: Professors reflect on changes in the classroom

Ever since Donald Trump was elected president one year ago, Patrick Haney, an associate dean in the College of Arts and Science and former chair of Miami's political science department, said he's been adding three words to each of his lesson plans -- "or maybe not."

As in: "This is what the path of American foreign policy is -- or maybe not."

Or, as Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy, a lecturer in the department of Global and Intercultural Studies, put it, "I had to redo a lot of my PowerPoints."

So it's been going in American higher education in the Trump era. The president's mercurial temperament and scattershot pronouncements have thrown everything from foreign policy curricula to the institution of academic freedom into turmoil and uncertainty.

That change began, for some, in the classroom just hours after Trump's victory over Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton was confirmed.

In Oxford, Stephen Lippman, chair of the sociology department, wondered how his students would react.

"I thought, 'Geez, what does this mean?' Is the polarization and contentiousness, the anger that seemed to infiltrate the election, is that going to carry over into my class now?" Lippmann said.

Lippmann and others questioned how -- or whether -- to broach the subject in the wake of an unusually divisive campaign cycle. As it turned out, though, Trump's actions as president have provided an opportunity for many instructors to contextualize class concepts their students had previously viewed abstractly.

"I find it actually very useful. now that some time has passed and emotions have cooled down," Godeanu-Kenworthy said. "Up until this point, it was a theoretical discussion, and I've had a sense that a lot of the students never encountered these questions outside our classroom. But now these are part of a national conversation."

In fact, Haney said, that national conversation adds validity to the material he and his colleagues teach.

"It makes it easier for people to see the real-world implications of things like elections that they might not have seen as readily before," Haney said. "It's still the same basic enterprise. The material just got a lot more complicated and, for some, unexpected."

Complicated, unexpected and fraught with emotion: Haney said that faculty members have confronted these issues in classroom situations where students express strong political views, and fellow department chair Wietse de Boer (history), noted that the relevance of many political subjects to classes like his and Haney's compounds the situation.

"It's become almost impossible to avoid situations in which, even if the current climate or current events are not directly mentioned, everybody in the room knows that we're thinking about them," de Boer said.

For de Boer, that ubiquity means it's more difficult than ever for faculty members -- especially those without tenured status -- to express themselves freely. He's observed his colleagues teaching and speaking with greater caution, not wanting to be accused of politicizing their work.

"Some faculty may also be watching their words, which is an unfortunate outcome of the current situation we find ourselves in," de Boer said.

Fred Reeder, a visiting instructor of journalism and a former reporter, has always vowed to remain politically neutral in the classroom.

"No instructor that you have should be providing his or her opinion and trying to convince you that what he or she believes is correct. It's not their job," Reeder said. "Their job is to present information and to have students think critically about it, not to try to push them to believe what you believe."

Instead, Reeder asks his students to form their own opinions on political figures and media outlets based on empirical research he presents in class -- for instance, a Pew study that charts news organizations based on their readers' self-identified political persuasions.

Yet for Reeder, who teaches a class on reporting and news writing, it's difficult to avoid his own predispositions.

"It's hard not to be biased," Reeder said, referencing a Trump tweet from February that called news media "the enemy of the American people."

Dan Herron, a professor of business legal studies who is staunchly anti-Trump, doesn't try to hide his bias, though he makes it known to his students that political persuasions will never impact a student's grade. To him, not discussing politics in the classroom in the age of Trump is a neglect of duty.

"One of the things that really bothers me is when people tell me, 'You shouldn't be talking about this in the classroom. You shouldn't be talking about Trump and politics in the classroom,'" Herron said. "Is that what we would have told teachers in the 1930s in Germany -- 'Don't talk about Hitler'?

"As academics who believe in a liberal, free environment, we have an obligation to point out when someone is threatening that freedom and open environment, on both the left or the right."

For de Boer, a breakdown in the kind of academic ideal Herron describes could be dangerous to higher education itself.

"Universities are supposed to be the spaces where we can have serious academic, critical debates on salient issues in a civil manner, but also in an open manner," de Boer said. "It would be a serious situation if that kind of environment were impacted in the longer run by the current political situation."

Godeanu-Kenworthy, of Global and Intercultural Studies, says that at least in her classes, students are working to avoid that fate by engaging in more politically-charged conversation.

"They all have the right to voice their opinions and think about and engage with ideas as long as they do it in a collegial fashion," she said. "This is the privilege of working in a university, learning in a university as a free space where we can play with ideas and understand from things learned from the past and engage with one another."