One year ago, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.
Since then, there has been a shift at Penn in the popularity of political science courses and, similarly, in the dynamic of freedom of thought and expression in the classroom.
Marc Meredith, the undergraduate chair and a professor in the Political Science Department, explained that one change the Trump presidency has brought to Penn is an increased interest in politics and political science. While Meredith thinks this is overall a good thing, he does recognize it comes with certain challenges.
“Trying to balance student demand for understanding what’s happening right now with broader goals that some classes want to accomplish is something professors here are having to deal with,” Meredith said.
He added that, while talking about Trump is important to teaching American politics, Trump-centric courses are not “appropriate” all the time. Meredith said too that he is against the notion that the curriculum of political science courses should shift structurally.
“We don’t want to redo our whole curriculum just because Trump is president,” Meredith said. He also stressed the importance of making everyone in class feel comfortable expressing their ideas and political views.
Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of the history of education in the Penn Graduate School of Education, said he is troubled by the thought that students might not feel comfortable expressing their views in class.
“I’ve had Trump supporters ‘come out’ to me in my office with the door shut,” Zimmerman said.
He added that he has “not observed a great deal of concern, protest, or activism from faculty around the issue of free speech.”
Zimmerman published an in the Philadelphia Inquirer recently on the challenges that teaching during the Trump era presents. In the article, he details the challenges of teaching and conducting civil discourse in a classroom at a time when the president often speaks in way that rejects “norms of civility.”
Zimmerman explained that he completely supports discussing politics in the classroom, but that he refuses to let his students get sucked into Trump’s “vortex” of using disrespectful terms to speak about those who hold different viewpoints.
In some classes, some have noticed that Trump's presidency has affected the dynamic of the course on a personal level. Third-year political science Ph.D. student Kalind Parish, who is a teaching assistant this semester for a class on public policy, has noticed this phenomenon in his classroom.
“All of a sudden there were students in the room who were worried about their immigration status, who worried about their ability to express their thoughts or their feelings about their identity,” Parish said.
“I think that really changed the classroom dynamics in a lot of ways," he added.
Journalist and Communications professor Howard Fineman echoed this sentiment and said he works to ensure a safe space for discussion and for learning by making it clear that everything said in class is “off the record.”
In the 2017 spring semester, Fineman taught a class called “New media, politics, and the Trump campaign,” and this spring semester, his class is called “New media, politics, and the Trump era.”
Fineman agreed that Trump’s presidency has brought an “urgency” to classroom discussions.
“For me literally, and for the country generally, it is a teaching moment,” Fineman said.
College sophomore and Penn College Republicans Communications Director Bob Bailey said that while there are many discussions of Trump in the classroom, the ones he has been a part of have all been respectful.
“Even though there may be polarizing political beliefs, I think everyone has an ability to speak with one another in a rational, intelligent way and get to the bottom of these issues,” Bailey said, adding that he thinks political discourse is “a really great thing.”
College senior Jonathan Haskin also offered stories of Trump dominating classroom discussion. He, like Bailey, said that students were often the most vocal on their opinions of Trump, and teachers were supportive of those conversations.
“In general, Penn professors are pretty accommodating of trying to make sure opposing views are comfortable in a classroom,” Haskin said. “Because these issues seem so much more urgent now that Trump was elected, people are certainly passionate about expressing their views."