For those of us teaching journalism, the 2016 Presidential election gave us fodder for more than a semester’s worth of material for case studies. But more than fake news, false equivalencies or the role of moderators in a debate, no issue vexed me more in the classroom than how to handle a dialogue simply discussing the two candidates and their policy positions. My classroom, it seemed, was as polarized as the nation as a whole, and I knew their outward politeness masked deep divisions.
I supported Hillary Clinton, but refrained from egregious displays of post-election disappointment other than ones aimed at the media as we examined their coverage of the candidates. My colleagues adopted various stances in their classrooms. Students told me that one of their professors avoided discussing politics entirely. A different professor unabashedly ridiculed Trump’s win with the foreknowledge that he was safe in the political unison of Clinton student supporters. While I did not think it was appropriate to outright denounce Trump — unlike the professor at Orange Coast College in California who is now facing a backlash for voicing dismay to her students — I wonder if my diplomacy was akin to the media’s own hesitation for fear of accusations of bias. Could I have done more, and should I have done more, to engage students to expose Trump’s hypocrisy, lies and unfitness for the Presidency?
Evaluating the candidates
I fell back on my role as a facilitator and had my students challenge themselves. Early in the semester, for example, they prepared for the first debate by comparing the candidates on one narrow issue of their choice, with sourcing such as campaign statements, sponsored legislation or published interviews. It forced them, or so I had hoped, to be critical not just about differences in policy, but in detail, nuance and record. It made them look for what each candidate actually said or put forth, and not what might be a talking point from a surrogate or from the opposition (or from their friends and relatives). We would also discuss the media’s role and their ongoing self-flagellation, missteps and attempted course corrections. This was an introductory journalism course, after all, and my goal was not to have my students evaluate the candidates directly, but to evaluate the media’s analysis of the candidates for evaluation by the public.
The distance I kept from my political preference wasn’t so difficult to see. In one discussion, one of my students reflexively prefaced his comment, “I didn’t vote for Trump, but…,” as if he had to make that disclaimer to me or to the class in general. Whether he felt it necessary to say that to inoculate himself from a perceived negative disposition from me or from his classmates was worrisome. Had I not fostered an atmosphere where a diversity of ideas could be exchanged? Or was he afraid of being pounced upon if he were, in fact, a Trump supporter? I had two minds about the anonymity of an individual’s choice of candidate. On one hand, I had no business discussing or judging anybody’s political leanings. On the other, where else but in a classroom should you be challenged and expected to defend your views?
I never did a public accounting of who would vote for whom, but I did conduct an anonymous poll after the first debate. My students were evenly split, 39% leaned Democratic and 39% leaned Republican, with the remaining 13% claiming Libertarian and the rest marking the “other” category. The distribution wasn’t surprising, given the conservative history of the region. Hofstra University, where I teach, is located on Long Island, just outside New York City, where Nassau County went for Clinton and Suffolk County farther east went for Trump. The split in the student political views were an unfamiliar situation for me, as my previous teaching appointments were at the very urban (read: “liberal”) City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism and at the Ivy league (“liberal elite”) Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. At both my previous posts, I could reliably count on a uniformity of progressive politics that matched my own.
Forging relationships across ideologies
In the end, I’m less concerned about what I, as an individual in front of a classroom, can do, or could have done, to influence my students’ choices in the election. Certainly I am concerned that they walk away with a mindset and toolset for critical analysis of the news. But the election was, in my estimation, decided more along emotional and cultural lines than on facts or policy. Moreover, as I witnessed friendships grow between the freshmen in my classroom, I realize that there is more power in peer relationships to influence attitudinal changes than there is from my position as their professor. Students whom I knew to be Trump supporters had, from what I could see, active and genuine friendships with others who were publicly Clinton supporters or who identified as LGBT or of color. The hateful rhetoric from the campaign was lost or just ignored in these relationships. That a peer network has more potential to win over hearts and minds than any top-down approach is a lesson we can apply outside the classroom as well. A case in point, Facebook’s success hinges on the value we place on the information and stories shared by our friends.
I’m hopeful that the bonds of individual friendships formed in my classroom are indicative of natural, ongoing contact that forms new communities that eventually erode the divisions we’ve seen heightened during the election season. Those friendships also underscore the importance of a diverse student body to enable the passive, experiential learning that is just as important as the storytelling tools on my syllabus.
Russell Chun is an assistant professor of journalism at Hofstra University School of Communication, where he teaches multimedia storytelling and data journalism. Twitter @russellchun.