By Siqing “Erica” He, Jerald Isseks, & Deirdre Dougherty
The following conversation is between three doctoral students in Education Theory, Organization, and Policy at Rutgers University who were part of organizing the teach-in.
Deirdre Dougherty: What was the classroom and institutional climate like after Trump won the election?
Erica He: After the election, I felt many students were asking what happened. As the instructor for an introductory education class for future K-12 teachers, I felt compelled to provide a space for my students to process their thoughts and think about their future role as educators for all children. During an open discussion, the issue of the Electoral College came up with opposing viewpoints between a group of students and one other student. The disagreement brought up questions about the supposed neutrality of federal practices and historical racism embedded in laws. Afterwards, the one student felt attacked and like there was a lack of appreciation for diverse thoughts by other classmates, because he was the only one that supported the use of the Electoral College. As an instructor, I would never want a student to feel marginalized, but at the same time, I was unsure how to approach such a charged classroom and political environment given my own beliefs in supporting critical views of dominant narratives. Luckily, I was able to get support from my colleagues about how to approach the situation in the future. From a pedagogical standpoint, some suggested a more structured conversation in the future with articles that will help ground the conversation and to always bring it back to the literature to keep it from being seen as a personal attack. Others suggested that these kinds of conversations will always be uncomfortable for some individuals thus it is a natural reaction to being outside of one’s comfort zone, but as a teacher, I should be consistent in how I treat the students and show that I am open to their ideas and thoughts. But what about those who don’t have the support network or their departmental colleagues are not as sympathetic to such concerns. Thus when Jerald told me about creating a group to organize a teach-in, I knew I wanted to help.
Jerald Isseks: Similarly I experienced classroom environments as both an instructor and a student in which tension, fear, and unbridled emotionality reigned. Our scholarly pursuits suddenly seemed ancillary in the context of what felt like a crisis of democracy. We saw the broken political process, and this pronounced racial and class fragmentation, as something to act on immediately. One obvious outlet for this impulse toward direct inquiry and action was classroom facilitation as educators across the country––not only at the university level but also in primary and secondary schools––scrambled for ideas and resources with which to engage students politically after November 8. This was, after all, what our students seemed to be asking for; many students were demanding space to air out their concerns or to brainstorm ways to become more involved in resistance. I saw some really courageous students, who saw themselves as the potential targets of hate crimes and xenophobic policy, speak up in my classes. Students wanted to talk about the gutted Voting Rights act, gerrymandering, the Muslim registry, and the professor watch lists. They needed the space to name the beast before us, to put it out there for everyone to reckon with.
On the other hand, the institutional response at Rutgers was vague and toothless, which gave a lot of instructors and students cause to doubt their own judgment in raising the issue of Trump’s election. I definitely felt unsure of myself as I provoked tough conversations using texts that were unabashedly promoting resistance. Across the country an administrative tone of neutrality or caution may have dissuaded educators at all levels from turning their classrooms into political forums. And then there were some institutional administrations at the K-12 level that explicitly disallowed any political talk in classrooms, or departments at universities like ours that discouraged it, citing its irrelevance to “real” subject matter. It was like, okay you can have this one conversation about the election on November 9, get it off everyone’s chest, but then you have to go back to the “actual material.” So I guess overall we found ourselves working in an environment full of uncertainty, political taboo, and this disorganized energy. It was like we were all bunch of anxious elementary school kids who’d been packed into a small hot gymnasium and told to play safe and fair.
EH: With this disorganized energy, it seemed you and Deirdre were able to harness it in a productive manner. How did the idea of a teach-in emerge and what form do you want it to take?
DD: After the election, I spent an entire day unable to do much. But by that weekend, Jerald and I headed into New York City to go to a rally. After marching from Union Square to Trump Tower, Jerald and I were talking and he brought up the idea of a teach-in. I had been feeling incredibly helpless but he reminded me that maybe what we needed to do was to get local with our activism.
For me, I remembered teaching 7th grade in a predominantly African American school. As a white woman from Connecticut, I didn’t have as developed a skill set to talk about or think about race as I do now. When Trayvon Martin was murdered, my students came in and wanted to talk about it. I felt I wasn’t effective in facilitating a conversation; I got defensive, I didn’t know what to say, though they did appreciate being given the space to process what was happening. After the election this year, I began to remember all of the moments where, as an instructor, I’ve come into the classroom after a major event happened––the Ferguson non-indictment, or the 2015 Baltimore protests, for example––and how important it was to be able to engage with those issues. I thought about how I wished I’d had help with how to talk about race, inequality, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, or ableism, and how many instructors likely don’t know how to bring up or talk about these things, either. Or they see these things as being outside of their content area. Or they see their content areas as inherently outside politics. So my interest in a teach-in came from my own experience as a classroom teacher and from my interactions with other graduate students who had little formal training or teaching experience.
JI: After the election I spoke with educators across the country who found themselves in this exact sort of position. A lot of teachers just didn’t know how to navigate the administrative pushback, the student anguish, the uncertainty and the reality that all of us––students and instructors––were not necessarily or even close to being on the same page, politically. One public social studies teacher that I know who works at an urban magnet school felt that the only way to push back against his administration’s decree against politicized talk in the classroom was to anonymously author a manifesto that he distributed in all his colleagues’ mailboxes. He was trying to get his colleagues to engage politically in their classrooms, even though his administration had convened a meeting to tell everyone that it was not okay to take sides on the election. An English teacher I know who works at a high school in a rural, deindustrialized town was struggling for ways to do antiracist work with his white, Trump-supporting students without losing them at the mere mention of politics. A Spanish teacher in Denver saw that her students, mostly undocumented immigrants and youth of color, wanted a way to fight back during school hours.
And then at Rutgers, as Deirdre is saying, instructors wanted resources and inspiration to draw from in their own political efforts in the classroom––efforts that came with much doubt due to the censorious atmosphere fostered by our administration and by media coverage that was quickly normalizing Trump’s ascendance. So we envisioned creating a workshop or a series of workshops where we could use dialogue, role-play, and Q&A to spark intellectual resistance.
EH: Since we had a couple of planning meetings, what are the overall goals, topics, and take aways for participants of the teach-in?
DD: We are very interested in moving beyond an intellectual understanding of Trump and his policies, although that’s important too. We want our teach-in to be a workshop where instructors can share skills that have come out of our own mistakes, and can come together to learn approaches to problems of practice. So, for example, how do you facilitate conversations on controversial issues? How do you bring politics into the STEM classroom? How do you practice anti-racism in the college classroom? In addition to that, we want to help instructors, particularly those in vulnerable positions such as adjuncts and teaching assistants, know what rights they have as far as academic freedom.
EH: Did you encounter any obstacles along the way?
DD: One of the biggest obstacles we encountered was the reluctance on the part of our institution to take a stand. I was shocked by how many full time faculty were afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.
JI: Not to mention any statements that were made only dealt with overt, individual-level concerns that were flaring up in the aftermath of the election––like hate crimes––while they remained evasive on structural matters of racism and xenophobia––like Trump’s promise of deporting three million undocumented immigrants. And these statements totally neglected any mentions of the long-term consequences of, say, Trump’s economic or educational policy proposals.
DD: There is one obstacle that has a generational aspect and has affected the planning of the teach-in. Many of the older faculty make assumptions about undergraduate students: namely that they are blank slates waiting to be filled with knowledge. These are the same faculty members who believe that the Democratic Party should be the sole locus of resistance. But in working and teaching undergraduates, I’ve come to realize that they are puzzling through the complexity of the current political climate and are feeling dissatisfied with establishment candidates––evidenced by the grassroots support for Bernie over Hillary. They might not have the sophisticated analytical concepts at their command, but they are making sense of their world and they are looking to us to work through that with them. They are not blank slates who want us to simply stand up and lecture at them. They, themselves, have witnessed the failure of electoral politics and seek alternative solutions and political strategies.
Another piece is that, unlike some of the more apolitical stances of tenured faculty, undergraduates increasingly want post-election events that can help them respond to and actively oppose a Trump presidency. If the resources provided at an event do not help students think about next steps and, in particular, how this activist moment fits into larger social movements (and how it differs), then I don't know how interested they will be in attending.
I guess the overarching obstacle involves all of these pieces: how do you engage politically in an institutional space where silence is the norm? How can we effectively bring different generations who have employed different activist strategies with different viewpoints into cooperation with one another on equal footing? How do we mobilize and organize? Agitate and create spaces of solidarity? Where we can build a broad movement that isn’t looking at the next four years as something to merely survive, but rather is looking beyond Trump toward how we want to rebuilt the left?
DD: In thinking about these dilemmas, I’m wondering about the future. Where else will the political left need to focus its activism? What alliances, compromises or cross-pollinations might this entail?
JI: Certainly, I think there are limits. At the end of the day, formal educational spaces like that of this university are only potential sites of cultural change––this is where the seeds of political mobilization are planted. So we can inspire young people to act for justice and equity, but I think this is only a small, generative part of the democratic process. Beyond this there’s way more organizing, fundraising, lobbying, and politicking to do, in ways and arenas I don’t even know about.
What I’m really concerned about is how the political left will need to eventually leverage their influence on electoral politics. Not only will a potential coalition on the left need to assert its agenda on a political party that can challenge Republican rule––I guess that will have to be the Democrats––but this movement will have to play by the rules of our political process, and we know these rules have already been grievously corrupted. Or they were broken to begin with. This to me seems like the only way to win back power at the state and federal level. To me, this spells the need for a ton of money to compete with the likes of Koch brothers-style organizing, and additionally might require the help of Republican defectors willing to obstruct their party’s socially- and ecologically-destructive agenda. Plus we’ll need the help of a congressional minority ready to do battle and lift our hearts, not just compromise or appease. This is all big-picture though; at the university level I imagine it might be more advantageous to worry less about scaling these mountains right now and concentrate simply on the action we can take in our everyday work.
JI: Do you both think there are limits to what educators can do, politically, in their work?
EH: I think educators have a lot of power to influence social and cultural change, but may be restricted due to the illusion that education is neutral and merely content-driven pedagogy. For example, science and mathematics are accepted and taught as facts in society, rather than experimental theories that have been validated over time. Content is often emphasized in these fields on the K-12 level, but children are not taught how funding of scientific research works and how it is dependent on political alliances and moral values. Thus the belief that education is neutral doesn’t acknowledge the influence of power on what knowledge is chosen, valued, and disseminated. The informed classroom should be a place to expose, discuss, and contest everyday ideologies to create change.
DD: I agree. I think teaching is inherently a political act. Standing up in front of a classroom and setting the terms of dialogue is a powerful thing that requires an instructor to make decisions about what to include and what to exclude, how to frame a given topic, and how to create learning activities within a classroom environment. So, to me, teaching is always already political. I would draw a distinction here and say that what we’re talking about is politicizing the classroom. To me, that means rendering transparent all of the decisions that go into constructing a curriculum and it means making the classroom walls a permeable boundary where we intentionally bring in the concerns and questions that shape students’ worlds outside, in a sort of Freirean way of cultivating consciousness. So yes, as public educators, we are often agents of the state, restricted by state standards and assessments. But we are also given, in many cases, a great deal of flexibility to fulfill seemingly narrow aims.
DD: As higher educational institutions become more neoliberal, what do you think is the role of educators in the politics of opposition? What does it look like?
EH: I think educators have a role in helping students parse out the role of educational institutions in a democratic society and showing that there are alternatives to the neoliberal framework. Competition and credentialism are seen as the natural order of society, but there are alternative philosophical and economic frameworks that are more equitable, thus educators can put these ideas into their course syllabi or teachings. They can also be supportive of nontraditional viewpoints that might be overlooked in discussions that reinforce the dominant narrative.
JI: I totally agree. I think our role is to inspire and empower students to imagine these kinds of disruptive ideas working to effect change, akin to how Dewey might argue to make the classroom more like the world. So it’s our job as educators to de-mythologize ideological resistance and political activism––these are not things we merely read about in dusty textbooks, or wax romantically about late nights at the bar. These are ideas we can grapple with and bend and chew on and inquire into to inform real action.
The “Teach-In for Teaching” took place on Friday, January 27th at the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. The event featured a talk on knowing your rights in the classroom, led by experts who addressed academic freedom laws; a discussion on how instructors can facilitate conversations about controversial issues; workshops on anti-racist education, political engagement in STEM fields, making space for LGBTQ+ students, and evaluating evidence in a supposedly “post-truth” society.
Resources from this event are available at http://teachin2017gse.blogspot.com/
Siqing “Erica” He is a doctoral student in Education Theory, Organization, and Policy at Rutgers University. Her research is focused on outside-of-school time programs, Asian/Asian American youth, recent immigrant students, and community engagement. Before Rutgers, she worked in various capacities at informal educational setting in New York, Philadelphia, and South Korea. She can be reached at Erica.firstname.lastname@example.org
Jerald Isseks is a doctoral student in Education Theory, Organization and Policy at Rutgers University. His research interrogates ideology in U.S. educational practice and policymaking. He has been teaching for eight years and lives in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com
Deirdre Dougherty is doctoral candidate in Education Theory, Organization, and Policy at Rutgers University. Her dissertation, a historical case study, uses geography and theories of racial formation to think about how space and race were produced through desegregation policies in suburban Maryland between 1954 and 1980. Before coming to Rutgers, Dougherty taught 7th grade language arts and adult basic education in Maryland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org