A Preamble for Teaching Media during the Trump Administration

23Jan17

Over the course of these harrowing couple of months since the election, one of the many questions that has plagued me is how media educators can effectively teach about media under the Trump administration. This spring semester, I’ll be teaching my cornerstone course Television & American Culture, where media & democracy are a core topic. I’ve racked my brain trying to figure out how to frame my approach to this topic, encouraging students to develop their own positions based on the course materials while not understating or ignoring how much of a threat to democracy I believe his approach to the media poses. Events in the first days of his administration have helped me develop an approach—here is what I’m thinking of saying on the first day of the class in mid-February (knowing that much may change in the coming weeks, making these examples seem quaint and inconsequential). I would love any feedback from fellow educators and citizens:

I want to say a few words about how I will approach politics in this course. As you all know, we have a new president occupying the White House, and his rise is directly connected to television – both in the typical ways that television news and advertising play key roles in elections, and the atypical way that his fame and reputation were largely built by his role as star and producer of The Apprentice, a reality TV show. Normally, this course engages with politics by providing the tools and contexts for you to analyze how the media impacts politics, and encouraging you to draw your own conclusions and political positions in light of that education. While I never attempt to hide my own political beliefs – a syllabus that foregrounds feminism, critical analysis of racial representations, and critiques of consumer capitalism is not apolitical! – students are never expected to agree with my beliefs to succeed in the course, as exams and essay will judge how you think and analyze, not what you think or believe.

However, the current administration and its engagement with the media is not normal. For a telling instance, on the very first day of Trump’s presidency, his press secretary Sean Spicer conducted a so-called “press conference” (with no questions permitted, it was really more of a statement or decree) in which he scolded reporters for (allegedly) misrepresenting the crowd size for Trump’s inauguration, while making false claims with no evidence that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.” The next morning, Trump’s political advisor and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said that Spicer was offering “alternative facts” to counter the media’s claims. The “fact” that Spicer’s claims were patently untrue, unsubstantiated, and easily disproved by visual evidence was dismissed by Conway as just a difference of opinion. This skirmish about the trivial matter of crowd size is typical of how the Trump administration treats and uses the press.

In my role as an educator and your role as students, treating facts as opinions or beliefs to be debated is unacceptable, whether they are trivial issues of crowd size or substantive matters of policy and practice. The fact that this administration actively works to undermine facts, to dispute science, to undercut history, and to normalize the distrust of knowledge, runs directly counter to the educational mission of our course and our institution. In this class, we will try to understand how television factors into Trump’s election and presidency, as I have done for the two previous administrations, and that assessment will not be sympathetic to the current president—you are free to disagree with my opinions on these topics. But no matter one’s political positions, we cannot dismiss or ignore factual evidence as a matter of political disagreement. Thus on day one, I would like to make my position quite clear: attempts to undermine knowledge, evidence, and facts is antithetical to being both a student enrolled in a college class, and an educated citizen in a democracy. That is not a partisan political opinion, but a position that is simply not up for debate in a classroom. If that assertion makes you uncomfortable, you might want to sign up for a different course, and perhaps rethink your relationship to education itself.

[Again, I would appreciate any feedback on this, and tales from what others have done to frame these discussions as educationally and politically effective.]

Update: I realize I forgot to include one important contextualizing factor, especially for other educators looking at this statement as an example or model: I am a straight, white male tenured full professor at a private institution that has very few students who openly supported Trump. Thus I am as insulated from repercussions as possible – most fellow educators are far less privileged in their situations and contexts, and thus part of the reason why I wanted to make such a statement public is that I am least at risk from doing so.

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6 Responses to “A Preamble for Teaching Media during the Trump Administration”

  1. This is very difficult. Facts, like statistics, can be shaped to serve different ends. I think that instead of resorting to a claim that actual facts exist, I’m planning to try to help students see why/how facts can be used/misused for different ends. I teach at a religious institution: many students accept religious doctrine without question, such as the non-fact of virginal birth. Likewise, I’ve already encountered students who’ve repeated disinformation as “fact” to me, and to counter that with my “own” facts seems like a losing battle. I’m extremely concerned too about student cynicism (the ultimate outcome of this campaign to destroy facts) and helplessness. I may try to use historical contexts to make contemporary points–not that students always acknowledge the parallel, but that way I’m less likely to be perceived as “partisan.” Look forward to seeing what others hope to do in the classroom!

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I often use Lippmann’s “the world outside and the pictures in our head” and “news, truth, and a conclusion” in the first weeks of my media criticism course as a launching pad for a discussion on facts. These essays become a way of discussing how something *becomes* a fact, i.e. on how observations, beliefs etc. are legitimated and accepted. What we’re seeing now by Trump et al is a perversion of what we often teach: to question how certain norms, beliefs etc. become enshrined as “truth” or “fact.” So, as we try and recover some baseline reality as a shared ground for critique, I think asking students to recognize how “facts” are not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but are produced by systems of legitimization is useful. Trump and co. can say things like “alternative facts” because they use varied and inconsistent–and troubling–systems of legitimization such as “because I say so” or “have faith in the great leader” rather than the scientific method, or scholarly authority, or logical reasoning. I want to retain the ability to question “facts” because so often an insistence on facts has been used to marginalize other systems of knowledge because it recognizes only one system of the production of facts as legitimate (e.g. statistics rather than qualitative experience, or eminent political theorist X rather than social group Y). So, I’d suggest asking students to focus on the process of legitimization on display in denying or accepting facts, in deciding what counts as evidence, and in what we take as knowledge. Is the process itself one they can morally and intellectually subscribe to? (sorry about ending with a preposition!)

    • Great points! Context is important here – this is for an intro survey course, where we don’t really dive into theories of epistemology and production of knowledge, so I don’t want to open that door without enough time to really engage. (We do that in my advanced theory course, where I found these issues really instructive for teaching Foucault in the fall!) My main goal here is to stake the position that a critique of Trump’s use of media is not a political debate (in the electoral politics meaning), but one of core non-negotiable values of the institution & mission of education. (The advanced level can grapple with how education and its institutions define such truths and axioms!)

      • 4 mobinahashmi

        Spicer is on TV right now still going on with the disinformation, so an emphatic ‘yes’ to staking out a firm position on core non-negotiable values! The deliberate strategy of wasting time debating factual evidence by taking it as political opinion is maddening enough to witness on cable news; yay to deciding to not chase the squirrel in the classroom and instead focus on what is actually going on in Trump’s relationship with the media. I hope you’ll keep us posted on how the semester proceeds!

  3. 5 Mark Sample

    The same questions have come up for me at Davidson College, where I am aghast to say there are _some_ Trump supporters, though not many. The issue of “alternative facts” has hit especially close to home with the NYT revelation that it was a Davidson alumnus behind one of the major fake news sites.

    I’ve said plainly to my students that Trump doesn’t represent the values of Davidson College and I therefore have no problem critiquing the man, his actions, his policies, and his followers. Your post here gives me more language to help with this, and I can see quoting this line in particular: “attempts to undermine knowledge, evidence, and facts is antithetical to being both a student enrolled in a college class, and an educated citizen in a democracy.” Well put.

  4. Thank you for your post. I am teaching my television class and we are in our third week (the first class was held on January 18, two days prior to the Inauguration Day aka “Doomsday.” We are using your book, Television & American Culture, as our primary text. My students are clearly angry about the turn our country is taking, but they are reticent so far to engage in any political conversation.

    I should add that last year was a difficult one for our college–there were protests over the administration’s insensitivity to our student population, particularly our students of color. There was a vote of no-confidence for our president, who would not step down immediately (he is leaving in July of this year). (NOTE: I am not on the home campus. I run their college’s Los Angeles Program, which has a very large class this semester–114 students).

    In the past, I have set general ground rules for the class, namely that we all have our personal views and opinions and the class is certainly a place to share them as long as we are respectful of each other. I also explain that my views and opinions are mine alone–and should not hinder anyone from expressing an opposing viewpoints. As others have stated, I have expressed my views (last semester I wore my POTUS shirt with the female symbol on it). I explain that the classroom is certainly one place where students should feel they can express and share their viewpoint. As Mark stated, Ithaca College is certainly not grounded in the values of the Trump administration. Yet, at the same time, I am careful not to assume that all of my students are liberal Democrats, as there are always a few Republicans, who, in the case of Trump, are likely to agree with the majority.


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