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Being a good scientist and a good human: thoughts on teaching during Trump

Encourage students to read news dispassionately, but identify morally objectionable behaviors.

An engraving of Tesla lecturing in the 1880s
An engraving of Tesla lecturing in the 1880s

I've been teaching American politics at the collegiate level for nearly two decades. Entering the classroom this fall will be unlike previous semesters. The Trump presidency is unprecedented in many ways, and forces educators to rethink the way we approach teaching government and politics (as well as many other subjects, I'm sure, with which I am less familiar).

I've written before about one of the primary ways teaching about Trump can be challenging for political scientists. Most people assume (fairly) that professors tend to be politically liberal, but it is not ideologically liberal tendencies that make it difficult to teach about Trump. I recall no consternation about teaching politics during the George W. Bush administration, for example. Rather, President Trump presents challenges for two primary reasons.

First, a scientist's job is to be detached from her subject, and that is difficult in the current era of hyperpartisanship and outrageous events. Like most of my colleagues, when I'm in the classroom I encourage objectivity, curiosity, neutrality, and a nonjudgmental point of view. Such dispassion is necessary in the scientific process. As teachers of politics, this can be a challenging perspective to impart on students who select to study the topic because of their political passions, but this is a normal part of being a political science professor that many of us enjoy.

However, the challenge of getting students to take a detached, nonjudgmental viewpoint on current events is maximized in the Trump administration. How can one be dispassionate in the face of a leader who aligns himself with white supremacists? While commitment to scientific principles remains priority, it would be unethical and morally irresponsible not to express judgment against repugnant behavior that is baldly bigoted. As a social scientist, I can talk about the president breaking with democratic norms and precedent, but as a human being, I also want to expose the dehumanizing effects of vitriolic language and the violence it encourages.

My strategy in class this semester is to be both scientific and human. We can retain a commitment to social science by analyzing behaviors in the context of strategic behavior, institutional incentives, social influences, individual psychology, or any other typical and academic way of examining politics. We can respond as humans by openly noting when behavior is inhumane, immoral, unethical, or racist. American political scholars may be less accustomed to doing the latter when discussing current events and the US president, and instructors may feel like they are breaking scientific practice to do so, but we need only look to our colleagues in other subfields for guidance.

Comparativists do not wince at describing despotic regimes. They do just fine objectively identifying authoritarian, tyrannical, or violent leadership. No one accuses scholars in international relations as being ideologically motivated for observing warmongering or international exchanges that threaten American security. Americanists simply need to do what comparativists have been saying for years: treat the US as a single case, not a special one.

Calling out policy proposals that dehumanize classes of people is more of a normative discussion than I typically have in my courses on American political institutions, but not doing so would be irresponsible and naive. Allowing for some humanity does not invalidate the objective perspective I bring to 95 percent of my course material. If you include lectures on civil rights and the civil rights movement, for example, in your classes, you already have practice integrating humanizing and social scientific content.

To be fair, it's different when it's your own country. It's easier to appear to be a neutral observer when one is not enmeshed in the society of study. But it's not impossible, and we might seek advice from some anthropologists for further advice.

This is the second reason dispassionate study of Trump is challenging: He’s one of us. We participated in a voting system that selected him, and we must expect that we have colleagues and students who have, and may still, support him. We have to insist that critical observation of the president is not the same thing as supporting or opposing him as president. The nature of modern partisan polarization, and the extreme nature of negative partisanship in current American politics, means that criticizing Trump sounds an awful lot like expressing a partisan preference for Democrats, but it need not, and teachers should push back hard against this interpretation.

Even though our politics is governed right now by extreme partisan identity, and citizens are using party ID to decide their preferences over everything from candidates to vacation spots, this does not invalidate a social scientist’s observations about partisan behavior. If we teach about the powerful effects of negative partisanship and show a willingness to be challenged on our objectivity, we can teach our students to view politics with the same critical eyes we use, and not the partisan-dominated lens promoted in media. Further, doing so does not mean ignoring politicians’ morally reprehensible behavior.

To that end, here are some of the additions I'll be making to my opening-day lecture in Introduction to American Politics this term. First, I’ll encourage students to develop a consciousness about whether they are viewing an event using a partisan filter. I want students to observe news, rather than react to it. Avoid the temptation to immediately agree or disagree with what you read, and resist the urge to respond emotionally to every headline. It helps to consume news from sources that aim for objective reporting rather than emotional responses. Evaluate the quality of news sources and aim to get most news from outlets with high integrity. Favor sources with the following characteristics:

  • Opinion pieces are clearly designated as opinion-editorials and are segregated from news articles.
  • News stories avoid opinion-oriented language, adjectives, and superlatives.
  • The source uses a systematic, regular, and easily accessible accounting of errors made in prior reporting (e.g., it has a clearly visible “errata” section).
  • Links in the article go to other reputable sources.
  • Claims made in the article are generally backed with evidence or quotes from experts.
  • The tone of news items is objective, and the aim is informative versus emotional (e.g., if the goal of the piece is to generate outrage, sympathy, action, or advocacy, it may not be objective).

My aim is to encourage social scientific thinking while maintaining a commitment to humanity. Students can develop greater self-awareness about their own news consumption habits and how they may affect their attitudes, and we can help them through modeling and instruction.

No one has to give up their social scientist card for calling out behavior or events that contradict American values or democratic norms. It may not always be straightforward, but I’m committed to doing both.