Notes from Large, Diverse, Public and Political Classrooms in the Age of Trump

Anelise H. Shrout

 From “Orange County A Historical Map. Published by the A.A.U.W. Drawn by Jean Goodwin IN the Year of Our Lord 1929. Printed in the Santa Ana High School Print Shop”, Courtesy of the David Ramsey Map Collection.

My school is a large regional comprehensive university. It is also a Minority Serving-Institution, a Hispanic Serving-Institution, and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution. Many of our students are the first in their families to attend college. Most were born in California. Some are not American citizens. Some immigrated legally. Others are undocumented. Many are older than the traditional 18‒22-year-old college-age bracket. Most work, some full time in addition to their full course load. Many have children, or live with their parents, or have obligations of sustained familial care. To drill down even more, I teach in Orange County so while California’s fabled liberal bent might mean that many students at Cal State schools are somewhere on the left side of the political spectrum, students at my institution are fairly politically heterogeneous. In short, as a whole, my students look very different from what many people imagine when they conjure typical American college students.

How does this context shape how I teach history during the Trump administration? It means that I need to be more attentive than ever to the precarity that shapes students’ lives. It means that I need to frame discussions of my own politics in my classrooms in terms of a politically diverse student body, while also deliberately addressing rhetorical and physical violence deployed against marginalized students. Finally, it means that I have to address the country’s long and complicated history of international engagement, colonialism and multiculturalism, and the impact of that history on the world today.

In any given semester, it is difficult to predict the political inclinations of my students. I know (because they have told me) that last year I had students who voted for all of the major and third-party candidates. I know that the topic of student comfort and safe spaces can often be fraught; we want our students to leave their intellectual comfort zones, but also don’t want them to be so uncomfortable that they aren’t able to engage with the material. The optimal level of comfort (what some scholars call “productive discomfort”) is notoriously difficult to achieve. I do not want students to dismiss the historical content of the course because they disagree with my personal politics. I do not want them to feel alienated from classes that are often required to keep them on track for graduation, and often part of a financial plan with little flexibility or room for repeated classes. I do not want students to worry that they are being graded on their own personal politics. I do not want to be administratively targeted for mine. I do not want students who are often taking a full course load on top of a full-time job to worry that they are wasting course credits on a space that is hostile to them, but I also don’t want to design courses that make no definitive claims about American history or don’t expose students to new ideas about the past. These challenges arise at every school, but the political heterogeneity of my classrooms has meant that I am acutely aware of the ways in which my personal politics might be construed by and undermine the learning and derail the plans of students whose views differ from mine.

However, as Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Allison Dorsey (among others) reminded us at the SHEAR conference panel on teaching in the age of Trump, and as Miriam Posner recently pointed out on Twitter, there is more at stake here than comfort and venues for open speech. There is also a pressing issue of both physical and psychological safety. Alongside what I know about students’ politics, I know that some of my classes have had at least one undocumented student. There might have been more. I know I have had students who were born in the United States, but whose parents, relatives, and friends are undocumented. In order to best serve these students and other marginalized students, I cannot simply skim over politics and hope for the best. In particular, I feel I need to be attentive to the ways in which debates about historical policies that appear benign to some students might feel like a personalized attack to others. In particular, I try to keep discussions about historical anti-immigrant policies, nativism, slavery, and exploitative labor practices from veering into debates about whether people in the past were “good” or “bad,” since those determinations can often read as proxies for congruent policies today. I have also been having more and more conversations about what faculty can do to protect marginalized (but particularly undocumented) students outside of our classrooms, and our obligation to put ourselves between our students and those who might seek to do them harm.

Finally, I work to frame my U.S. survey courses in terms of North America’s long history of international entanglement and colonialism. I closed my Atlantic survey course in the Fall of 2016 by reminding students that America has never been exclusively white, and that much of the demographic whiteness in the United States today is linked to a long history of colonialism. I reminded them that the United States has never been religiously homogeneous. I also reminded students that from its founding the United States has been engaged with the world beyond its borders, and that there has rarely had a stable conception of who counted as the “right” kind of American. Lessons like these destabilize the teleological view of American history that seems to be gaining so much traction these days. They also remind students who feel excluded from contemporary American political life because of their race, ethnicity, gender presentation, or sexual orientation that changing ideas about belonging in America have historically been the norm. They present a version of American history that is inclusive rather than exclusive, and I hope they make my history classrooms welcoming for as wide a range of students as possible.

11 September 2017

About the Author

Anelise H. Shrout is Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Fullerton.

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