Inside the political classroom

The morning after Donald Trump was elected president, Tobin Shearer walked into his class and scanned the room. Some students were in tears; some were stoic and appeared to have emotionally shut down. Some chose not to attend class, and others sat at their desks looking smug, elated even. 

“I can’t remember a time when I’ve walked into a classroom with so much raw emotion from across the spectrum expressed in the room,” said Shearer, director of the African-American studies department at the University of Montana.

Rather than facilitate a discussion about the topic that was so obviously on everyone’s minds, Shearer tried something else. He told them a story.

Shearer told his students about Jonathan Daniels and Ruby Sales, two civil rights workers in the 1960s. When an angry white shop-owner fired a shotgun at Sales, a black college student, Daniels, a young white seminarian, pushed her aside and took the bullet instead. He died soon after, and his murderer was later acquitted by an all-white jury.

Sitting at the front of the classroom, Shearer spoke of the devastation that spread through the African-American community after Daniels’ death. He recounted the way Daniels’ colleagues expanded their voter registration campaign to combat systemic voter suppression in the South, moving forward with renewed determination.

Shearer hoped that by telling a story, he could give some solace to the students who were overwhelmed that morning, without expressing his own feelings about the outcome of the election.

“I think the power of a story is it didn’t end up criticizing or alienating people who were happy, but it spoke to those who were in the most vulnerable state at that moment,” Shearer said. “And I think that’s an ethically appropriate move to make in that setting.”

After an election wrought with contention and an outcome that no poll predicted, professors are in a unique position of power in their classrooms. A classroom is a place to discuss, share ideas, disagree and feel challenged in a safe space, mediated by the professor. But as active participants in our democratic system, professors have political beliefs and lives beyond the classroom. It’s impossible to separate oneself from the biases and perspectives collected over a lifetime, but there’s an expectation that professors will remain neutral for the sake of their students.

So the question is: Should professors hide their personal political views from their students? And how can discussions about contemporary political issues be facilitated without alienating students with minority opinions? Professors haven’t always had the expressive freedoms they enjoy now, and the changing political tide has placed renewed pressure on professors’ abilities to draw a line between their own beliefs and their academic responsibilities.

A turning point

In December last year, Shearer’s name and photograph were added to Professor Watchlist, a website sponsored by conservative student group Turning Point USA. The list has about 150 names of professors across the country who they claim “advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” 

The watchlist is meant to expose college professors who discriminate against conservative students in the classroom, according to its website. Beneath each professor’s name and photograph is a short paragraph detailing why their name was added to the list.

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Shearer’s purported misstep, for which he was added to the watchlist, occurred outside the classroom — during a guest lecture he gave at Montana State University about the history of white privilege. While Turning Point USA claims to only be watchdogs of the classroom, Shearer was added nonetheless.

But Shearer says there’s a clear distinction between a professor’s political engagement in their personal lives versus within the classroom. 

Within the classroom, introducing partisan commentary is off-limits, he said. Criticism of any administration or leader, especially when it doesn’t relate to the topic at hand, is not professional, Shearer said.

“I don’t do that,” he said. “It’s not fair. It doesn’t have integrity.”

Nicolas Ream, 18, is president of the Missoula chapter of Turning Point USA. He said the watchlist is “not meant to be an attack on anyone or anything like that, it’s just meant to give more information.” 

But for Shearer, it feels like a threat. 

“It’s very serious what they have done,” Shearer said. “They need to know that. They can’t pretend that it’s not.

“It’s a little bit like calling fire in a crowded theater and everybody leaves, but some people get trampled. You can’t say ‘Well I didn’t do anything, I just called fire.’ You’re responsible for the rhetoric and the people that you’re pointing out.”

Ream said Turning Point USA is growing steadily on campus, though he doesn’t attribute the newcomers to Trump’s election. Ream said he’s never felt the need to submit a UM professor’s name to the watchlist, and he has never met Shearer. He hasn’t noticed a liberal bias among professors, he said, but they “should not try to influence students to go one way or the other.”

That said, contemporary political issues can be discussed in a fair and relevant way, Shearer said. As a professor of African-American history, Shearer felt that discussing the increase in hate crimes immediately following the election was important. It’s his job to analyze how public policy and social change affects the African-American community, he said. 

Though Shearer hasn’t been silenced by the watchlist, the technique is familiar. This isn’t the first time professors in the United States have faced intimidation for holding certain opinions. 

Academic freedom

In the U.S., professors currently have unique rights of expression in the classroom that go beyond the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. But it wasn’t always that way.

During the McCarthy era, some public universities began requiring that their employees sign statements asserting that they were not involved in any “subversive groups.” The State University of New York at Buffalo fired professors who refused to sign an oath swearing they were not members of the Communist Party.

In response to these policies, a number of Supreme Court cases in the 1950s and ‘60s formulated constitutional protections of academic freedom, which shield public university professors from institutional censorship and expand their First Amendment rights.

An American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges and Universities statement from 1940 defines academic freedom, and it is often used by courts in analysis of the topic.

Academic freedom gives professors the right to freely discuss issues in the classroom, but “they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” 

Furthermore, professors are recognized as citizens who are free to write, research and speak without institutional censorship. However, because of their important position in the community, they are also expected to pay special attention to accuracy, to respect others’ opinions and to distinguish their personal views from that of the institution.

Academic freedom is meant to further the common good, the statement reads, which “depends upon the free search for truth and its free expression.” These additional protections make the classroom a safer place to discuss controversial topics and encourage the expression of a wide range of opinions.

But some argue that intellectual diversity on college campuses across the country is decreasing. Studies have consistently shown that a majority of professors on college campuses are liberal, and a 15-year Harvard study published in 2015 found that 21 percent of surveyed Republican students feel uncomfortable sharing their political opinions at college for fear of repercussions or censorship. Only 8 percent of Democrats said the same. 

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In Montana, where around 90 percent of the population is white, accessing a wide range of opinions and backgrounds is difficult. Professors, then, must find ways to introduce varied perspectives even if the classroom is mostly homogenous. And most importantly, they, and their students, must feel safe disclosing their opinions.

“That’s the most dangerous narrowing of the curriculum and the discussion, when people are afraid to present ideas,” said UM American history professor Michael Mayer. “Whether it’s the faculty or the students.”

Political seepage

Mayer began teaching at UM in 1988. In the nearly 30 years he’s spent here, Mayer has filled his small office in the Liberal Arts Building with hundreds of books. One entire wall is filled from floor to ceiling with them, and the remaining space is largely occupied by another bookshelf in the middle of his office and stacks of books on the floor. 

Mayer has taught at universities through a series of controversial administrations: Reagan, Bush, Obama and now Trump. Contentious elections and unpopular presidents aren’t new to him, and he has a system that works for him when it comes to discussing current political issues: keep personal opinions private and focus on the class. Mayer doesn’t want students to know his political background, he said, because he doesn’t want to influence their opinions with his own. 

“Students should actually think and draw their own conclusions based on evidence and reading and so on,” Mayer said. “That’s what we’re supposed to be teaching. We’re not supposed to be teaching a party line.”

Mayer said that while universities have always been at the heart of political controversies, now is an especially difficult time to be an incoming professor. People are more easily offended, he said, and unable to engage with viewpoints that challenge their own. 

“In our effort to protect people from all kinds of different things, I don’t think we’re preparing people for the real world,” Mayer said. “The real world’s kind of rough and sometimes pretty ugly, and you need to be able to defend your positions.”

Getting an education, Mayer said, means having your beliefs challenged. When students don’t engage with people whose opinions oppose their own, it’s easier to demonize and belittle the other side. While Mayer acknowledges that he brings his own bias to the classroom and it influences the aspects of history he emphasizes, he tries to compensate by assigning students readings from diverse authors and thinkers throughout history.

A study by Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that students benefit most from classrooms with competing and varied viewpoints. 

Their study, conducted from 2005 to 2009, collected information from interviews with 21 teachers in 35 schools and their 1,001 students. In a 2015 Q&A with National Public Radio, Hess and McAvoy discussed their conclusions. They found that teachers can be effective whether they share their political opinions or withhold them. Among both groups, there was no evidence that teachers were trying to indoctrinate their students to their own point of view.

“We think that this feeling that the public seems to have that teachers by definition are trying to push their political views on students is just false,” Hess told NPR. 

What they did find to be damaging to students was when teachers introduced partisan humor to a classroom, upsetting the culture of fairness that makes the classroom a safe space. They called it “political seepage,” and said it creates an insider/outsider dynamic that alienates students of certain opinions.

Academic freedom, while broad, is not absolute, Mayer said. The answer to how professors should discuss politics in the classroom can be found there.

“The answer that’s worked for 130 years really is still the answer,” Mayer said. “In our case, it’s academic freedom, which prevails. But it’s also academic responsibility, professional responsibility. You have an enormous protection: academic freedom. Do not abuse it.”

Admitting bias

While Mayer tries to keep his personal political beliefs private, some professors prefer a more transparent approach. In the weeks leading up to the election, Eric Schluessel, assistant professor of Chinese history and politics, taught his class about the Great Wall of China.

The Great Wall of China, he told his students, was a Ming Dynasty fiscal disaster. A simple bribe in 1644 turned the allegiance of a border guard, allowing an entire army to flood past the wall and conquer China.

The topic was especially relevant. With Trump promising to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, Schluessel, without directly referencing Trump’s campaign promise, taught his students the historical track record of great border walls. 

Schluessel, a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in history and East Asian languages, knows any effort to disguise his political leanings would be futile. A New-Englander who teaches about village revolution and dynamics of power in Chinese society, his classes tend to self-select, he said.

“I tend to attract people interested in things like Marxist revolution,” he said. 

Schluessel is in his second semester teaching at UM, and his classes are very politically homogenous, he said. But when he taught at Indiana University Bloomington, his classes had more diversity and more disagreement. In Indiana, Schluessel administered a mid-semester anonymous survey requesting feedback about the course, so he could make adjustments.

“There’s clearly a liberal bias to this class,” read one response.

The next day, Schluessel announced some minor administrative and structural changes, and then he spoke to the issue of bias. He wanted the student who wrote that comment to know they were listened to.

“I am who I am,” he said. “I see the world in a certain way. But I’m not trying to force anyone out of the conversation.”

Admitting to bias and being honest about where you come from, Schluessel said, doesn’t have to shut down discussion. It gives students the opportunity to see their professor as a person who came about their opinions honestly. 

“It’s important for students to see that people are not fully-formed arguing machines,” he said. “That we’re all thinking things through.”

Understanding the past helps put the present into context. While discussions about modern politics don’t come up as frequently in math or science departments, humanities classes can give students the tools with which to judge the social and political movements of their time. 

There isn’t consensus among professors over how to discuss Trump in the classroom and what role their personal beliefs should play. But there is consensus over the importance of being exposed to different ideas and about being able to communicate them civilly. 

UM assistant history professor Claire Arcenas said she tries to encourage her students to explore where their beliefs come from, so they can understand how they manifest in biases and judgments. Students need to learn to interrogate their own opinions, she said.

Only then can they practice the same curiosity with others. 

“One of the great things about the humanities and about history and the kinds of discussions we can have is that we can,” she paused, “disagree.”