Inclusive Pedagogy the Day After Trump

This past spring, I co-facilitated a workshop on inclusive pedagogy at the University of Western Ontario organized by the American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT). At the workshop, we talked about strategies for ensuring that all of our students have the opportunity to succeed in our classes. We discussed the need to present multiple pathways to success, the importance of building relationships with students, how to listen to students to learn how best we can teach them, ways of ensuring that feedback is formative and dialogical, and much more. The workshop was a great success, and I left feeling energized and hopeful about the state of philosophy pedagogy in the United States. The graduate students who participated in the workshop were careful, thoughtful, caring, and excited about teaching. We all agreed that inclusivity was a goal worth striving for and, while we acknowledged that a perfectly inclusive classroom is an outcome that one never fully achieves, we were ready — ready to love our students, and learn from them, and welcome them into the joys and challenges of philosophical discourse.

As I started teaching this semester, I was excited to put everything we had talked about into practice. I had re-designed assignments and went out of my way to build relationships with students and to check in on them when I was concerned. It was exhilarating. My classes were the best they’d ever been. Students were learning, really learning I was convinced, about the insidiousness of colorblindness, the importance of maintaining an intersectional lens, the legacy of slavery, and the ways that philosophy can help us to creatively reimagine the world. And while much of what I teach is about understanding the persistent problems we face in this country, there was a sense that we were on the right track, that we’d named these previously invisible forces of marginalization and that, now that we’d named them, we could begin to dismantle them. Yes, we acknowledged, Michelle Alexander warns us that systems of oppression don’t disappear but merely evolve, but maybe this time we’d be prepared. Maybe this time we’d be able to stop the next evolution.

And then came Tuesday. At midnight, as the results from the election were becoming clear, I realized that in 8 hours I was going to have to walk into a classroom and, through the course of the day, face over 80 students many of whom would look to me to help them make sense of this thing. I was unprepared in so many ways. My originally planned classes had been only half-heartedly prepped as I had refreshed and refreshed and refreshed political websites looking for signs that would confirm that this country would reject a hateful, sexist, racist, ableist, Islamophobic, unqualified, egotistical, narcissistic, greedy, selfish, nightmare of a leader. I was also physically unprepared. I could not sleep, could not eat, could not think.

When I walked into my classes on Wednesday morning, I knew that I couldn’t teach as if nothing had happened, as if I wasn’t scared, and hurting, and worried, and sick to my stomach, and filled with the desire to wrap my students up in my arms and protect them. Even though I had designed my entire class around trying to make structures of oppression and marginalization visible, I found myself wanting to throw myself between my students and the world, to shield them from having to see that our country is not like our classroom. The world is not a place where those in power try to ensure that there are multiple pathways to success, where everyone is welcome, where we do our best to seek the truth with clear eyes in light of shared goals, where philosophy is the love of wisdom (emphasis on the love). Of course, we all already knew that the world was not like our classroom, and many of my students knew this more deeply and viscerally than I ever could.

I walked in at 8am and told my first group of students that we were not going to have a normal class. Relief flooded the room. “Thank god,” one student sighed. I told them that I was scared, that I was worried, that I couldn’t pretend like I was normal, like this was normal. I told them that I wasn’t going to act like this was ok with me. I also told them that if any of them supported Trump, that I still cared about them and their learning, but that I wanted to make a space for those of us who needed each other to process what we were feeling.

One black student talked about how her white boyfriend’s parents were Trump supporters and she was going to go to his house for Thanksgiving. She broke down as she told us she didn’t know how she was going to get through it. She told us how her boyfriend had attended a Black Lives Matter protest with her and how she was so excited, until he told her to not tell his parents that he was going. She talked about how her younger brother is the same age that she was when Obama was elected, how hopeful she felt on that day, and how sad she is for her brother. “This is the worst day of my life,” she said.

Another student, whose mother is undocumented, talked about how he fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was shot. He tied tourniquets around friends’ wounds. He saw men who had burns on over half their bodies. He fought, he said, because he believed in all of the things that Trump is against. How is he to make sense of his sacrifice? And what will happen to his mother?

Another student teared up as she said that she couldn’t understand how her father could vote for Trump when he had three daughters. “How could he not care?” she asked, her pain palpable. Another student told us that she had just heard from friends at an HBCU that there were people coming to their campus with confederate flags. Some students didn’t speak but just cried or sat in silence. Some had already let me know that they couldn’t manage coming to class at all.

I have thought a lot about the kinds of trauma my students may experience outside of the classroom. And I have thought about how I, as a teacher, need to make sure that my assignments and my classes are sensitive to these experiences. But I wasn’t ready for this level of collective grief. The pain that my students were expressing was overwhelming. It was raw and coming from so many directions at once.

Did I respond in the way my students needed me to? I don’t know. In particular, the decision to create the space in the classroom for students to process their pain was, like all important pedagogical decisions, a treacherous one. I knew that some of my students were already suspicious of my “PC agenda.” Would they complain to my department chair that I was biased and unfair to them? More importantly, I worried what they might say in class. Had I successfully created an environment that would prevent them from further traumatizing their classmates? How would I protect the other students if they expressed glee at Trump’s victory? Would the rawness of my own emotions, not to mention my sleep deprivation, prevent me from responding in the way that I ought? Thankfully, the Trump supporting students remained mostly quiet. But I still don’t know if I made the right decision or if I just got lucky. Maybe both.

The danger of the decision I made was all too clear later that night at the meeting of the philosophy club. The president of the club decided that we couldn’t go ahead with our regular meeting and that we would instead talk about what our response as philosophers should be to the election. That plan was quickly abandoned, however, when a student who voted for Trump showed up at the meeting and, upon seeing a flyer for a privilege walk on the table, loudly proclaimed that he hoped that such a thing wasn’t organized by THIS group (referring to the philosophy club). The privilege walk, in fact, had been organized by the club’s president. She was already hurting so much and now she had to face this hatred. I didn’t know what to do. Kick him out? I couldn’t let him hurt the other students, not tonight when they were most vulnerable. Perhaps I should have responded in anger, told him to leave, told him that it wasn’t ok, but I didn’t. Did I lack courage? Maybe. Probably.

But instead of kicking him out, I told him that some of us weren’t up for talking and that those who didn’t want to talk could come to my office. “I can’t understand why,” the Trump supporter said. “That’s ok,” I said, “you don’t have to understand.” And we retreated into my office. We shut the door, lay down on the floor, and took turns picking songs to listen to. I’ve never felt more in love with my students than at that moment. And I will always remember how a day of hopelessness and despair was made a little easier by our togetherness.

But this moment of camaraderie doesn’t answer the most pressing question — now what? I don’t know what to tell my students when they ask what’s next. But for now I’m grateful for them, and for music, and for laying on the floor, and for the fact that we can be together even when we don’t yet know what to do.