Politics impacts teaching

Aryn Plax
Politics Editor

After Donald Trump’s unlikely victory in the 2016 election, a student noticed a change among his peers. To him the campus seemed dead, and its student body appeared to experience the six stages of grief.

Fares Abdullah, junior political science major, said that his professors tried to contextualize the election in terms of history and current political institutions, while conversations between students about the election showed increasing polarization.

He was not the only student who thought the campus appeared lifeless immediately post-election.

Senior political science major Jackie Ku said he met the election results with surprise.

Two recent poly-sci alumni reported that within the political science department, the professors had made an effort to include right wing student voices, along with those on the left in conversations about the election.

Professors of political science Richard Gelm and Jason Neidleman differed in their approach. Gelm said he grounded classroom discussions by basing them on hard data. Meanwhile, Neidleman said that he initially struggled with conversations post-election, particularly because the election resulted in the mainstreaming of fringe ideas espoused by Trump.

Nicholas Castellano, a 2018 graduate, said that politically conservative students received dirty looks from their more liberal peers in the classroom, and they felt stereotyped as racists.

January 2019 graduate Mahala Baker said that the concerted effort to include right wing voices made students of color feel marginalized.

Baker also said that there was little effort to evaluate the content being taught post-election.She said it was only after an alleged hate crime against students on campus this spring, that the University made changes to its approach to diversity and the history and political science departments made curriculum changes.

“I think we’re only seeing now after the incident that took place, that (alleged) hate crime, that’s the only time they’ve ever taken a concerted effort to change,” Baker said. “And after the election, it was no different. They didn’t take it upon themselves to maybe think about what they’re teaching, the way they’re teaching it, nothing changed.”

Class Conversations

Immediately after the alleged hate crime against a group of ULV students in March, the University canceled classes. The following week, the University hosted a three-hour series of workshops dedicated to addressing the campus climate.

As for the hate crime itself, the La Verne Police Department and the FBI are still collaborating on an investigation, of which few details have been released to the public.

Students and teachers alike in the political science department said that the secrecy in which the investigation has been shrouded has affected in-class discussions about the alleged hate crime.

However, Ku said that in one of his political science classes, his professor tried to connect the incident with larger social structures.

“We cover it extensively, not only the implications, but also the social structure that would perpetuate an action like this,” Ku said. “We still don’t know who it is, so we speak of it abstractly. We speak of it abstractly about divisions and social concerns, whether those be socioeconomic, cultural, racial, so forth.”

Abdullah said that at best, the conversations were speculative.

“There was not a lot of explanation outside of the threatening messages on social media and then the actual attack,” Abdullah said. “A lot of the discussion was ‘could it have been an inside job? Could it have been alt-right racists?’ Just speculation upon speculation, not actually grounded in fact. I didn’t feel like the discussions were very fruitful.”

From 2015 to 2016, hate crimes on college campuses increased by 25%, and hate crimes rose by 17% nationally, according to data gathered by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education as of 2018.

When asked if he thought that the 2016 election contributed to the environment that made hate crimes against students possible, Neidleman simply and emphatically said, “Yes.”

“What happens is when you have a major political movement and a major political figure, in fact the most important major political figure in the world, legitimizing a set of ideas that had been marginal. They weren’t part of a mainstream political discourse, then you have a very prominent political figure (who) mainstreams those ideas. Of course that’s going to contribute to the rise of overt racist violence,” Neidleman said.

Curriculum Changes

Post election, in political science classes, professors varied in their approach to students’ expressions of confusion toward the election.

“The No. 1 question is, ‘Can he do this?’ ‘Can a president do this, can a president do that?’ That is probably the most common question I’ve received,” said Gelm.

“All of the sudden, not just in the classroom environment, or here on campus, but people on the outer community. People are ultra-aware, and I get a lot more questions, which is sometimes exhausting!”

Gelm said that, in two courses after the election, he let students express their thoughts on the election and, when it felt appropriate, he would interject with explanations about certain political mechanisms.

“Because the fear that they had, they were looking for answers,” Gelm said.

Gelm said that the civility he saw in his classes was due to his basing all of his discussions on hard data.

However, he reported one instance of in-classroom conflict when he and the students analyzed exit poll data after the election.

Among the statistics he cited, he said that approximately 10% to 15% of Trump voters had also voted for Barack Obama, which he said led to an eruption among students.

“In that particular incident, the explosion, resulted in somebody storming out the class,” Gelm said.

Neidleman said he felt he mishandled post-election discussion initially.

“I (tried to) talk about it in academic terms, at least in those early days, letting people just sit with the sadness of it,” Neidleman said. “People didn’t want it rationalized early on.”

Subsequently, he decided to try a different tactic.

For about 20 to 30 minutes, students would anonymously write down their thoughts about the election on a piece of paper.

The pieces of paper were collected, and one of the papers was given to each student at random. This way, students could learn about the others’ perspectives without outing themselves as belonging to a particular political alignment.

Baker participated in the exercise. She said she received a note that said, ‘Let’s give this guy a chance’ – a sentiment she said she found cowardly.

She said that Trump supporters among the student body did not attend the election results screening hosted by the College Democrats and College Republicans until Trump’s victory became apparent.

“That kind of pissed me off because I’m just thinking, ‘Your guy won,’ and no one was saying anything, and they come to the viewing party to boast, basically being d*cks, and during class, none of them wanted to just keep that same energy,” Baker said.

Baker said in a different class, things didn’t go as smoothly. She said she was one of a few women of color in a mostly white male group, and she felt the discussions surrounding racism were still dominated by the men.

“I’ve had to walk out before,” Baker said. “When I came back, one black girl in the room is crying because a conservative man called her stupid or told her to shut up, and (the professor) didn’t say anything.”

Continuing Education

In the aftermath of the alleged hate crime, the Faculty Diversity Committee organized several programs that took place throughout the semester including a seminar on “Decolonizing Your Course Syllabus” and “Diversity and Inclusivity in the Classroom,” among others.

Separately, the history and political science department held a forum about curriculum updates.

“They wanted a greater emphasis on the history of minority groups, and in fact one of our faculty members did that, and they were actually very complimentary about the new course that had been put together,” Gelm said.

“They were really excited about the new issues. So our department got right on it. They were pleased with the quickness of our response, and they seemed to like the way the faculty member has redone the course. So we got a lot of positive feedback as well.”

Allyson Brantley, assistant professor of history, said that diversity in the curriculum was not the primary topic discussed at the forum, and that while the department had been planning for a department-wide forum with the students, the alleged hate crime instilled a sense of immediacy.

Baker said that she felt that Black thinkers like bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Marcus Garvey and Frederick Douglass were inserted into the curriculum out of obligation, rather than a genuine desire for their inclusion.

The manner in which white political or historical figures are taught in the classroom, in contrast to non-white political or historical figures, shapes the perception students have about racial communities’ voices and opinions, Baker said.

“It sends a message not just to black students, but also to white students: ‘The faculty doesn’t value them, so why should I value them?’” Baker said.

Aryn Plax can be reached at aryn.plax@laverne.edu.

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