Change of Course: Yale Professors Revise Syllabi After Trump
“It’s definitely added urgency to my teaching, there’s no question about that,” Michael Fotos, political science professor at Yale, told The Politic.
The 2016 presidential election rocked Yale’s student body. Students gathered in Dwight Hall Chapel to reflect and commiserate, members of the community massed on Cross Campus to protest, and bulletin boards featured fliers proclaiming “love trumps hate” and “you are loved.” Some professors decided to revise their syllabi due to the election results. Others did not, but have nonetheless seen their classrooms affected by Donald Trump’s victory.
Speaking to The Politic, Ayesha Ramachandran, assistant professor of Comparative Literature, said professors have two basic options: They can either adjust lesson plans to the political climate or continue to teach canonical material as a way of “standing up to the present moment.”
Ramachandran, a woman of color, reflected on the ways in which her thinking has changed over time. Recalling her time as a college student, Ramachandran said: “I did not spend a lot of time thinking about my own minority status as a student,” she said. Now, however, on topics of selfhood, race, and gender, she has “come to see how important it is to…speak out, especially when you’re in a position of power.”
Graeme Wood, a journalist and lecturer in political science at Yale, emphasized a different perspective: classrooms as safe havens from the drama of current events.
“I do think one of the advantages of being in the university is that you have the chance to step back from the barrage of information…and think more abstractly about something with a level of remove from the daily or hourly news,” Wood told The Politic.
Distance from the 24-hour news cycle can prove beneficial. “It’s good for us to be able to remember that the present moment is not the only one, and a good way to do that is to leave the discussion of day-to-day affairs to day-to-day and concentrate on the things that we wouldn’t get elsewhere,” Wood said.
Hélène Landemore, associate professor of political science, also emphasized the importance of looking beyond Trump’s latest tweet: “Inequalities, injustice, all of these things are very much there whether Trump is at the helm or not.”
She added, “I’m all for reacting to events, and trying to process them, like when they are really clearly disrupting the classroom dynamic anyway, but I wouldn’t do that for everything. If you spend your time reacting, when do you think?”
Some professors are wary of alienating students on the right if current events feature prominently in discussions. Landemore said constant discussion of current politics can actually be counterproductive. “It’s just going to alienate the few conservatives who are there to think aloud, and it’s not good for the liberals either,” she said. “Trump bashing is actually very cheap. What good does it do? I think we need to think beyond Trump.”
Mariel Barocas ’21 agreed that diversity of opinions is important.
“Yale classrooms should be a place where political discourse is encouraged, and the teachers should provide a new perspective…to add to the exploration of ideas and ideologies,” she said.
Isaiah Schrader ’21 said that he wants to hear his professors’ perspectives. “Academics research [and] then form beliefs for a living,” he told The Politic. “The political insight of a Yale professor is a valuable opinion. No one has to agree with the opinions of their professor, but we are here to learn from them.”
To make the classroom a welcoming environment for all perspectives, Ramachandran said she is honest about her own political viewpoints and encourages her students to be open as well.
“Rather than preserving a kind of illusion of objectivity, I think that both the nature of the class and our own commitments are such that [my co-professor and I] think it’s important to speak about—and call out—what’s subjective, to recognize it as such, and then to make room for other ideas,” she said.
Ramachandran designed her course, “Selfhood, Race, Class, and Gender,” before the election, but taught it for the first time afterwards.
“Teaching the course in its first iteration last spring, just in the wake of the election, was…an amazing experience for us simply because we realized how things that had seemed urgent but not politically immediate suddenly were politically immediate,” she said.
Fotos, who teaches Democracy and Sustainability and American Political Institutions courses, had a similar experience. While he was teaching topics he had covered in the classroom before, Fotos said the lessons felt different this year.
“There’s no question that it was an emotional experience to teach it last spring—for me and, I think, the students,” he said of teaching a lesson on the Civil War after the election.
Unlike Ramachandran, Fotos chose to alter his curriculum in the wake of the election. He integrated more of Dr. Martin Luther King’s writings on basic democratic processes, as well as more of Abraham Lincoln’s writing.
“The United States has always been a project of moral improvement,” he explained, “and I think that Trump’s election makes it really important that people understand that even a moral people can fall short. I want my students to recognize what it means to fall short, but also to recognize what it means to see the vision and to be part of the vision.”
Wood has also adapted his course, Media and Conflict, to address the consequences of the election. “The Trump election…made me revise some of the readings a bit to have a less naive view of what persuades people,” he said.
“Many of us hope, wish, and sometimes even believe that what persuades people is fact and that whoever has the best facts wins,” he continued. “I think the Trump election is one of the starker demonstrations that that view requires revision.”
Other courses are, by their nature, obliged to change along with political developments. Walter Shapiro, a journalist and a lecturer in political science, said in an interview with The Politic that he has drastically rethought the syllabus of his course, “Presidential Campaigns and the Media.”
“Students had noticed that almost everything I discussed as a semi-rigid rule of political science and politics in January had been proven wrong,” he said. Shapiro is currently in the process of redesigning portions of his second semester course, something that he often does following an election, but seldom to this extent.
Stephen Skowronek, professor of political science, is also accustomed to revising the curriculum for his course, “The American Presidency,” with each passing election. This year, however, he has found himself rethinking not only the course readings but also his views on the Office of the President.
“I think [Trump is] a fascinating case that has all sorts of implications not only for what I have written about the presidency but for what others have written about the presidency. And we’ll see how it plays out. I think this is great for political science,” Skowronek said.
Andrew Gamzon ’20, a student in Skowronek’s course on the presidency, said in an interview with The Politic that discussion of Trump in the classroom is acceptable “as long as the content is constructive and respectful.”
Another student in Skowronek’s course, Ali Vandebunt ’21, said that she took the course because she hoped to learn more about the current president.
“I specifically chose to take this class this semester because of the Trump presidency,” she told The Politic. “I thought it would be incredibly interesting to have the curriculum be affected daily by Trump’s decisions within his first year in office and compare those decisions to ones prior presidents have made.”
Whether or not they choose to adjust their course syllabi, professors agree that the election has changed the way students think about politics.
On the first day of “Introduction to Political Philosophy,” Landemore asked her students if they think they live in a democracy. She estimated that less than half of the class raised their hands.
“If I had asked this question five years ago, I think ninety percent would have said yes, we live in a democracy, everything’s great,” Landemore predicted.
Perhaps in five more years, after Trump’s first term is complete, Landemore will ask the question again and find the response has changed. In what way? Not even the nation’s foremost political scientists can predict.