On the evening of Nov. 8, Anna-Sophia Boguraev ’20 was studying for her Biology 102 midterm scheduled for the following day. She could not focus. As results from the polls poured in, it became increasingly apparent that Donald Trump would win the election. Boguraev panicked.
“I remember being incredibly stressed, because I knew I was in no state to study,” she said. “I was terrified, and I knew most people were like that.”
With a friend in class, she hastily submitted a message to the class forum site Piazza, urging the professor to postpone the midterm. Her post was one of dozens that night requesting to delay the exam, but she said there was no response from the teaching staff of the class, who deleted the students’ posts.
In that moment, Boguraev said she felt like the professor did not care about the effect the political situation had on his students.
But Jasper Feinberg ’20 had a radically different experience in his course, a freshman seminar called “The Arts of Persuasion.” He said that almost daily, the conversation drifted from the ancient texts being studied to modern speeches, especially those of Trump.
Feinberg said the professor, Egbert Bakker, sat back and let students talk so that the political discussions made for peer-based learning. Bringing politics into the classical civilization course gave the class modern significance and made it relevant to the students’ lives, Feinberg said. Boguraev agreed.
Yale professors have always varied in how they wish to address current politics in the classes they teach, but many are renegotiating their stances under the new presidential administration.
Of the six professors interviewed, each said they address politics in their class in some regard, but there was disagreement about whether politics should be discussed concretely or abstractly and to what degree the professor’s own political beliefs should be part of the conversation.
“We’re all humans, which means we’re all affected by politics, so when large political events are happening, all classes — STEM classes, humanities classes — should be aware of the effect [the political events] have on its students,” Boguraev said.
Bradley Proctor, a postdoctoral associate in the History Department said believing in a difference between college and the “real world” can be dangerous and stifling. However, he added that he understands that the classroom can be a break from the chaos of politics and helpful psychologically for students.
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Some choose to involve politics through the lens of the material being taught. In Kas Tebbetts’ ’20 “Introductory Microeconomics” course, professor Christopher Udry references disagreements between politicians and economists, which helps students understand what they’re hearing in the news, Tebbett said.
Proctor said it is important to give students the opportunity to talk in class about politics in the broadest sense.
“There’s more to politics than just how you vote — it’s about how you think society ought to be structured,” he said. “It’s incredibly important for students of all ages to think about what kind of world they want to build and whose voices matter in the process, so if we don’t talk about that in the classroom, then students don’t get an education.”
However, Proctor mentioned that students are not always eager to deviate from planned class material to talk about contemporary issues. On the Monday after Trump signed an executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, Proctor began class by asking if people wanted to discuss the issue.
The general impression was that students did not really want to. They just wanted to jump into class, Proctor said. The students didn’t want to argue and wanted a break from the constant bombardment of current events.
Proctor is not alone in offering a space in class for discussion following major political moments. Last semester, students in Chinese 152 were encouraged to practice their Chinese by sharing their thoughts and opinions on the election, said Evelyn Huang ’20. Similarly, Michaela Papallo ’20 wrote about the election for her Italian course.
In contrast, these discussions tend to happen less in STEM classes. Jonathan Li ’20 said that in his physics and math classes, after the presidential election there were “a couple offhand jokes, but nothing direct.” He was not upset, however.
“I’m glad they handled it the way they did,” he said. “I don’t really think it’s the place of a science teacher to talk about. There are other classes where it is important to talk about politics, but physics isn’t that.”
Citing political decisions surrounding climate change, Boguraev disagreed, saying that science, now more than ever, has become political.
Beyond discussing important political events such as the presidential election, Papallo does not think discussing politics is necessary in the classes she is taking, adding that it doesn’t fit into what the students are learning.
Eitan Hersh, a political science professor teaching “Information, Technology and Political Power” this semester, believes discussion of politics in the classroom should be focused on more abstract political and moral questions, rather than directly on day-to-day political issues.
“I try to keep the discussion as an analysis of politics rather than have participants take on roles as partisans debating issues or debating political strategy,” Hersh said.
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While Hersh said that discussion about politics should not involve students views on current political issues, professor Alexander Coppock holds a different view, believing that students’ differences in political views can enhance class discussion. This semester, in his class “The Logic of Randomized Experiments in Political Science,” students analyze how randomized experiments have been used to manipulate and affect social and political outcomes. According to Coppock, the evidence that an experiment reveals about a particular causal effect can carry tremendous political meaning.
“When we interpret results, our own worldviews certainly color whether we think they are good or bad,” Coppock said. “Articulating those differences in interpretation is absolutely welcome in our class. Doing ‘science’ doesn’t mean checking your values at the door, but the answers to well-posed scientific questions don’t depend on those values.”
When students investigate broader political questions, their political beliefs may then come into play as specific examples or illustrations, professor Andrew Sabl, of the Ethics, Politics and Economics department, said.
Sabl raised an example from his “Classics of Ethics, Politics and Economics” course this past week, when while discussing various theories on the rule of law, he realized that recent arguments over Trump’s executive order would add a new dimension to the questions at hand. The scholarly work covered in the course could also provide perspective to Twitter and Facebook debates about Trump, he said.
History professor Rebecca Tannenbaum GRD ’97 also emphasized the importance of allowing different perspectives to be shared in class and said she tries to welcome all viewpoints in her classes.
Tannenbaum said classroom discussion is the ideal place for a free exchange of ideas but noted that she tends to have left-leaning students, as she teaches several women’s and gender history classes.
Yale students do not have a wide variety of political views, and Hersh said that this takes away from the intellectual richness of the community. According to a survey conducted by the News this past October, only 12% of those who responded — 2,052 students, roughly 38% of the Yale community — identified themselves as conservative.
“Since the vast majority of students lean left, I often try to push a conservative perspective in my classes to make sure students see both sides,” Hersh said. “For example, after the election last term, I interviewed a Trump supporter out in Reno and had the class listen in.”
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While many professors believe it is important to foster discussions about politics involving multiple perspectives, some try to keep their own views private.
Head of the American Studies Department Michael Denning GRD ’84 discussed the struggle of separating his own political views from what he is teaching, explaining that he cannot be biased, but must also emphasize to his students that he cannot teach completely objectively.
Sabl also encouraged the separation of professors’ personal political views from their teaching in the classroom.
“I hope to help my students, through education, make their own choices and make more informed and reflective choices. But I think it would be very wrong for me to abuse my power as a scholar and teacher to dictate to them about politics,” he said.
Still, although some professors choose not to get involved in politics outside of the classroom, many feel it is important to be involved as an active citizen.
Proctor said he feels a tension between his role as an educator and as an engaged citizen and tries to maintain a balance in the classroom so as not to turn away students of differing political views. However, in November, he wrote an article in Vox placing “Trumpism” in a historical context.
“There had been a couple of pieces that brought up the idea that there were historical echoes, but I didn’t find them satisfying, so I felt called to speak about the way in which our current political climate is operating based on my experiences with the past,” he said.
Sabl said that as a citizen he has his own political opinions, but he notes that there should be a separation between professors’ activities as teachers and as citizens. As teachers, they should not try to push students toward their own political views, but as citizens they should feel free to be vocal on important political issues. Several professors interviewed declined to discuss their personal involvement in politics.
Coppock participated in the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services’ “March for Refugees” this past week, saying the event inspired him.” Denning has also been involved with political protests at Yale recently, including speaking at the recent Women’s March on Yale. He said that it is incumbent upon citizens to stand up for the values of the University, such as international openness, even when it launches them into political discourse.
“I try to encourage all students to examine their assumptions and support their opinions with evidence,” Tannenbaum said. “To me, that is the real ‘duty’ of a professor in a classroom debate on political issues.”
Contact Madeline Bender, Chrissy Hart and Amy Xiong at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org .