Teaching in a Time of Trump: Teaching Resistance, Teaching Resisters

Thanks to the many of you who shared your book, film, and article selections; assignments; discussion starters; and more in response to my request for materials about teaching in the time of Trump. Here are some highlights:

A homeschooling friend concerned about science has shifted how she and her junior high student organize their day, with more time devoted to science and, for the first time, time spent on science policy. Their English Language Arts time is being spent on research and proposal and letter writing focusing on climate change.

Another homeschooling parent has assigned 1984 to all of her children: two high schoolers and a middle schooler. “I hated this book as a student,” she noted. “But it’s time to read it again.” It’s a best-selling book, as is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Talewhich several colleagues in English are teaching this semester in response to concerns about Trump’s promise to appoint anti-abortion judges.

A friend who teaches at a private religious high school is teaching Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, the autobiography of a Christian family who resisted Nazis by hiding Jews. The story is beloved by Christians and its author a hero among peace activists.

Putting literature and our current political situation in conversation. Above: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hiding Place, and 1984.

An instructor in Human Development is teaching a mini-lesson (20 minutes) on the history of scientific racism scientific racism in the U.S.

A professor of history has committed to ending each class session  in his Survey of US History II (Reconstruction to the Present) with a question asking students to write an ungraded free response linking the course content of the day to the present. These can later be used to inform discussion board conversations if the students want to develop them.

Several folks–in history, in sociology, and in African American studies–are screening parts of 13th this semester.

I’m teaching Social Problems this semester and have committed to helping my students become more savvy consumers of knowledge. I’ve added a subscription to either the Washington Post or the New York Times to the course, and students must post 1-2 news stories, with their commentary connecting the stories to the class, each week. (Tip: Amazon Prime subscribers get 6 months of WaPo for free.)

My friend Valerie is explicit in teaching college students in her sociology classes about fake news. Given that startling finding that high schoolers cannot consistently distinguish between real and fake news, this kind of explicit instruction is necessary, and we can’t rely on librarians alone to address it. She begins her lesson by giving students a (non-graded) quizquizquiz to help self-evaluate their bullshit detectors. They discuss their results and talk about the challenges of discerning real from fake news. Then they watch Fact vs. Fiction: The Increasingly Real Problem of Fake NewsFact vs. Fiction: The Increasingly Real Problem of Fake News (10 min 29s) How Online Hoaxes, Fake News Played a Role in the Election (7min 6 s), and Students and Fake News. After the class discusses news integrity and fake news, they watch this clip from Christiane Amanpour (transcript here) on journalism in the Trump era.

Valerie explains:

After this, we discussed corporate media. I showed them this graph, and we discussed how much more air time Trump got than anyone else. I mentioned that he is a reality TV star who knows how to bring in viewers, and how there is no such thing as bad news for someone who can spin a victim mentality. I tried to get the students to look at the candidates as a commodity, because the networks want clicks and airtime.

Valerie uses this example to jump to course content on the Fairness Doctrine. She reads to students from a 1987 (the year the doctrine was abolished) NYT article that reports on the end of the Doctrine. Its opponents, she notes, “pointed to the expansion of media options as the reason we don’t need the Fairness Doctrine, but with the corporate takeover of media, our listening, viewing, and reading options have become severely limited. Although the Internet has opened the field up, there is no regulation or accountability of content on the Internet.” Then, the class looks at several different headlines from major newspapers that covered the Trump campaign. Says Valerie,

I ask if they notice any difference in the headlines. Then I point out the differences, show them the ledes, and then note that the New York Times has a tradition of being very conservative with how they report the news because of their strong commitment to accuracy. The New York Times has come under fire for normalizing Trump. I ask students to think about that, and what it means to not normalize Trump when he will be president. I pose this question for discussion:

Do journalists have an obligation to be neutral?

I give the students a bit of information about Alex Jones and read off some of his top conspiracies. Then I read his piece on Hillary and Obama as demons. I could show the video, but I am not comfortable airing it in the classroom.

Instead, Valerie summarizes some of Jones’ nastier claims: that mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School are false flag operations, that Obama is a member of al-Qaeda, that the government controls the weather to create tornadoes and hurricanes.She reads a transcript of Jones calling Hillary Clinton “a demon,” which he means literally, saying that she smells “like hell.”

The lesson ends when Valerie posts the following instructions, links, and questions on Blackboard. She instructs them:

I want to reiterate: I am not giving my opinion on this matter. Instead I am asking each of you to use your own critical reasoning to determine whether you think the concerns have merit. If I have increased your ability to discern truth and be engaged, smart consumers of media, then I have done my job this semester!

She asks them:

  1. Why does good media consumption matter?
  2. If a journalist disagrees with a person in power, what should the journalist do to separate personal bias from professional accountability?
  3. As a consumer of the media, what should you do to ensure you are engaging with honest media of high integrity?
  4. 4a. Is Christiane Amanpour’s opinion credible? Why/Why not?
  5. 4b. Is Alex Jones’ opinion credible? Why/Why not?  How do we?

 

She provides students with the link to the Amanpour video she shared in class, a video that was Amanpour’s response to winning an award from the  as well as a statement from the chair of the Committee to Protect JournalistsCommittee to Protect Journalists. Students are also encouraged to watch this interview with First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who weighs in on the concerns with a more moderate tone.

I appreciate Valerie’s commitment to teaching her students how to be critical consumers of information. I hope you find her lesson plan as inspiring as I did and that you are encouraged to incorporate more media literacy exercises in your own courses.

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I appreciate everyone who shared their teaching ideas for these first months of a Trump presidency. I also want to recognize a second kind of response I received: teachers who were backing off from teaching teaching about social justice. It’s not that these themes won’t still be part of their classes–especially their pedagogy. Instead, they just won’t be front and center like they have in the past.

Many of us are teaching in places where students are very, very resistant and sometimes hostile. On some campuses, students embraced the themes of the Trump campaign, particularly hostility toward undocumented immigrants. At Arkansas State, where I teach, a group of students wore brownface in a Halloween costume that mocked Mexican and Mexican-American women, specifically calling upon Trump’s promise to “build a wall.” On other campuses, “the chalkening” resulted in racist comments being left on college campuses. Students on these campuses–both those perpetrating such ugliness and those victims of it–need teachers committed to teaching about social justice. At the same time, that duty has so often fallen to the educators who are most vulnerable to bigotry: women, people of color, sexual and religious minorities, and those with visible disabilities. They are very tired. They are tired of being accused of pushing a “personal agenda” when they teach about race or sexuality or disability or bigotry. They understand that the labels they carry shape student learning as well as student evaluation of a course.

a-state-build-a-wall-chula

Above, Arkansas State University students embarrass themselves while creating a hostile climate for others on campus. Their costumes mock a particular Latina aesthetic (the “chola” look) with dark lipstick, converse shoes, and bandannas.  They hold a yard sign supporting the Trump/Pence campaign. Their t-shirts are painted to look like bricks in a wall. The A-State student to whom the social media account belongs (and who is pictured here) added the words “build that wall” to her message. At the time this picture was captured, nearly 250 others had “liked it.” 

If you aren’t vulnerable to those kinds of criticisms from students–if your race or gender or sexuality or disability status makes it easier for you to press students toward justice–please do it, not as an act of solidarity or support but because, really, it’s your burden to carry.

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Thanks to all who shared their ideas. Teaching can be a lonely occupation, and it’s encouraging to see, across disciplines and contexts, educators taking up the challenge of the moment. As promised, I did a random draw from all those who shared ideas for a special gift prize. The winner is Valerie, who can pick up her gift certificate to Seize the Bagel at the counter.

 

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