Some graduate students cancel class in wake of election

By Megan Zahneis, News Editor

Many Miami faculty and staff members have struggled to address last week’s presidential election in the classroom, citing shock, fear and uncertainty. In fact, several instructors, mostly graduate students, opted to cancel classes meeting on Wednesday rather than address political stress, finding it difficult to follow university policy that dictates they’re not to discuss their political beliefs in the classroom.

Provost Phyllis Callahan and graduate school dean Jim Oris held a meeting with graduate students Wednesday night “regarding the expectation that individuals with teaching assignments follow university policy regarding class absences and cancellations,” Oris wrote in an email to all graduate students.

Oris’ email cited Section 5.9 of the Miami University Policy and Information Manual, which states that any instructor expected to miss a scheduled class should seek permission to do so from their department chair.

Several Miami department chairs, including Wietse de Boer of the history department, said they felt canceling classes was an inappropriate response to such an important political event.

“Certainly I don’t think cancelling classes is a good solution for addressing the impact of an event like this. I don’t think there’s a good academic reason for doing that,” de Boer said.

Sociology department chair Stephen Lippmann echoed de Boer’s sentiment.

“I think the classroom in a liberal arts university is one of the few places anymore, given the state of media and social media and everything else, where you can have open and hopefully constructive conversations about this,” Lippmann said. “That’s exactly what it’s for.

“I think [the classroom] is one of the few places that we have to really come together and deliberate and have a meaningful conversation about these kinds of public issues, because on TV  they devolve so quickly into shouting matches or name-calling, and that’s not going to work for anybody.”

Lippmann and de Boer both integrated the election into class discussions, despite struggling to conceal their own politics.

“Faculty members are citizens, right? [They] have freedom of speech just as everybody else,” de Boer said. ”But, at the same time, they also have a responsibility for fostering a certain climate of openness and fairness for the students that they serve and for the university community as a whole.”

Lippmann felt obligated to open a dialogue about the election in his classroom Wednesday.

“It’s not something you can ignore in a sociology class. You can’t ignore it because then you’d just look like — you wouldn’t be doing your job,” Lippmann said. “So a lot of people were struggling with, ‘How do I address it, but not violate the policy?’ and not violate the spirit of the policy, which, I think, is to make sure everybody feels comfortable in a classroom if they’re in a political minority they still have a right to be comfortable.

“I had a lot of discussions with people about how they were doing it.  And nobody had a great answer.”

For political science chair Patrick Haney’s subject matter, avoiding mention of the election was near impossible.

“I think the election’s given just about every [political science] class a current, real-life example of some concept or theory that’s talked about in that class, whether it’s the electoral college or the importance of presidential power or the relevance of congressional power or the future of NATO or the future of our relations with Asia or weapons proliferation,” Haney said.

American Studies chair Kimberly Hamlin said discussing course-relevant current events is a responsibility for instructors.

“We are here to teach students and to have open discussions,” Hamlin said. “Especially [during] election seasons, as state employees, there are limits to how we can discuss politics.  We’re not political advocates, but we would be remiss if we were not to discuss the context and framing and history of elections in our classes. I think it’s our job to create an open environment for discussing rather than advocating your personal points of view.”

Hamlin taught an upper-level elective class the morning after the election, and her students expressed a desire to discuss their reactions to the results. What followed, she said, was a productive pedagogical conversation.

“I felt that it was really kind of inspiring and heartening. Students were really thoughtful. They took their new duty as citizens and voters really seriously,” Hamlin said. “I was inspired to see how much people wanted to be informed and how much thought they had put into their electoral choices beforehand and how carefully they were considering their responses and how much they wanted to engage with not just the people in our class but also with other students, their housemates and students around Miami. 

“I thought they were really providing a model for citizenship in that we all don’t have to agree but it would be nice if we all could at least establish the parameters for civil discourse of ideas.  And I think that’s really the goal. So, I was really glad to teach on Wednesday in particular.”

Lippmann teaches a 10 a.m. Wednesday class, and was struck by the dynamic in his classroom the day after the election.

“There was just sort of a general sense of bewilderment and people seemed stunned.  It was really quiet. I felt the same way.  It was, I think for everybody, pretty stunning, pretty draining,” Lippmann said.

It was an atmosphere he wasn’t accustomed to.

“That’s what’s weird about it. Usually there’s a lot more passion and a lot more sort of willingness to engage and to discuss, and maybe to argue,” Lippmann said. “On social media, people are still arguing a lot, but in the classroom, it was so much more subdued. I think probably on both sides everybody was just like ‘deer-in-the-headlights.’ The willingness or the eagerness to really sort of jump in and dissect it and say, ‘Oh, people are doing the wrong thing,’ or ‘People did the right thing’ was just not there, at least in my classes.”

Haney suspects that reaction is due to the months-long divisive political campaigning by both parties.

“I think people’s nerves were a little more raw in this campaign than in others,” Haney said. “I’ve been here [at Miami] since the fall of 1992, so I’ve seen a lot of presidential election seasons on campus.  And I think the kind of language that was used in this campaign and the way that people talked about each other was a fair amount more coarse than was often the case.”

All four department chairs said they’ve seen classroom discussions about the election to be mostly constructive.

“I heard of one instance where the instructor decided to shut down the discussion because it got very emotional and was not very productive in the end, with some name-calling and things like that,” de Boer said. “But that is really the exception that proves the rule, so to speak. I think, in general, students have been very respectful of the different views that others may have had, however passionately they may have felt about their position.”

Lippmann, of the sociology department, said his job in the classroom is to challenge students.

“Oftentimes these classrooms can turn into echo chambers if they’re really politically homogeneous where people say stuff, and everybody agrees, and no new information can get into it,” Lippmann said. “I find myself occasionally playing a devil’s advocate, saying, ‘If we can strip aside all of the personal insults and sort of comments that most people agree are not appropriate, does this policy have any legitimacy?’”

Hamlin stressed the importance of that dialogue.

“It’s important for us, not just at Miami but as Americans, to have the skills and the ability to talk civilly about issues even when we disagree, and I think that that’s something that we’re not that great at doing right now as a culture,” Hamlin said. “We tend to mostly talk with people that we already know share our views, and I think that that practice promotes extremism. Universities play a role in giving us the tools and the mindset to be able to engage in discussions with people who may have different ideas from us.

“I think that’s a good thing, and I think that’s one of the reasons that we are here.”

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