“This is Not Normal”: Talking Trump in Undergraduate Diversity Courses

Ryan A. Miller, Neda Pouraskari
Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education  •  Volume 4  •  2019  •  pp. 103-121

The purpose of this qualitative study was to understand how faculty members teaching undergraduate diversity courses at liberal arts colleges in the southern United States addressed the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in their classrooms.

Humanities and social science faculty teaching undergraduate diversity courses faced the decision of whether, and how, to address the 2016 U.S. presidential election in their courses. Diversity courses represent a compelling context for examining this event, as instructors must routinely tackle charged and controversial topics and such courses have become the subject of debates around purpose, course content, and instructional methods.

This study draws upon one-on-one, semi-structured interviews with 38 faculty members teaching required undergraduate diversity courses at three predominantly White liberal arts colleges in the southern United States.

Understanding faculty members’ approaches to handling a critical political event sheds light on how faculty in multiple contexts might prepare for difficult dialogues in their classrooms. This study can serve to prompt reflection about how campuses engage with contemporary controversies in an era of reduced public trust in higher education and skepticism that free speech is a fundamental value of higher education. This study also offers a contribution to understanding how faculty members’ and students’ social identities including race and gender influence the dynamics of classroom discussions about contemporary controversies.

Drawing upon the curricular processes detailed in the multicontextual model for diverse learning environments, findings from this study address faculty members’ personal post-election reactions, concern for minoritized students, decisions whether to disclose their political leanings, and their attempts to promote multiple perspectives, civility, and disciplinary connections to the political climate.

Faculty members, educational developers, and administrators can use this study to consider how to address challenging and controversial events in the classroom and how to protect academic freedom to teach about and learn from these events.

Researchers can advance understandings of how contemporary controversies and discussions of the political climate play out in college classrooms by investigating faculty and student experiences in multiple disciplinary, institutional, and regional contexts.

Higher education institutions in the United States face increasing public scrutiny and calls for greater accountability. Professors, in particular, are often caricatured as partisan ideologues intent upon indoctrinating students to particular political positions. A better understanding of how faculty members consider and approach discussions of a critical event may help shed light on the reality of many college classrooms and the self-reflective approaches to handling controversy faculty members may espouse.

politics, 2016 election, college faculty, diversity courses, diversity require-ment, general education, academic freedom, liberal arts colleges, qualitative
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