Two years ago, the day after the presidential election, the atmosphere at the University of Michigan was astonishingly somber. Students and teachers alike were visibly upset, with some crying, and many unable to concentrate on class at all. It seemed as though every student was only talking about the outcome of the election and the impending inauguration. However, many professors chose to simply ignore that the election had happened and ignored the students who tried to discuss the election, going on to teach the class as though nothing had happened.
It’s likely that these professors did not want to discuss the election either because they were upset themselves and did not want to think about the outcome, or because they were happy about Trump being our president-elect and did not want to receive backlash from the students, who are largely liberal and anti-Trump. However, I felt upset with my professors for not speaking about the election — I didn’t understand how they could pretend there was nothing happening when students were clearly upset and looking for some kind of reassurance from others. I feel professors have an obligation to address current events during class.
I don’t believe instructors who do not agree with me on political or social events should not speak about current events affecting students. When there was the contentious debate about whether white supremist Richard Spencer should come to the University to speak, only a few of my instructors spoke about the issue. While a couple of them expressed their disappointment in the University’s inability to deny Spencer the opportunity to speak on campus, one of my instructors told us he supported Spencer’s right to speak on campus in the name of free speech and asked us what we thought.
While I am a firm believer that Spencer, or any other figure who may seek to invalidate students’ identities and make them feel unsafe, should not be allowed to speak on campus, I appreciated that some of my instructors, including the one I disagreed with, acknowledged an issue that had been at the forefront of many students’ minds. Even if one of my instructors did not agree with me, his openness to discussing a contentious issue that affected students reassured me that he was willing to go beyond his obligation to teach us coursework and acknowledge certain events may affect his students’ mental health and ability to focus on the class.
I understand this might not be possible for certain classes: for lectures that have hundreds of people and are on a strict schedule, it might be hard to facilitate a short discussion about the many events that affect the United States. Smaller discussion sections and seminars might also be uncomfortable settings to discuss controversial events, because having a debate in classes with fewer people can feel uncomfortably intimate and awkward.
In addition, many students and instructors do not want to think about upsetting issues when attending class and would rather focus on their coursework and have a break from the political and social strife of the United States. In this case, perhaps a message on Canvas or an email would be a better option — however, even if professors do not choose to discuss every contentious event that occurs during the school year, it’s important professors ensure their students know they aware of impactful events outside of class. This way, instructors communicate to their students they genuinely care about events that affect students and their well-being, rather than just their academic performance.
A currently contentious topic among students is Brett Kavanaugh’s recent confirmation to the Supreme Court. None of my instructors have acknowledged that the confirmation even happened. One of my professors was very amenable to discussing it during office hours, and she acknowledged the situation while giving a trigger warning about one of our readings that had content involving sexual assault. If she hadn’t, however, I think the entire case would have seemed surreal because it’s so easy to read the news that affects the entire country, yet at the same time, feel isolated. While I did watch parts of the hearing, read the news and even watch the Saturday Night Live “Kavanaugh Hearing Cold Open” skit with Matt Damon, because none of the figures of authority in school were addressing the topic at all, it seemed as though the case wasn’t actually happening.
A reason most of my instructors have not discussed Kavanaugh at all might have to do with the current controversy involving U-M Associate Professor John Cheney-Lippold and Graduate Student Instructor Lucy Peterson. Both instructors refused to write recommendation letters for students who wish to study abroad in Israel and are being met with harsh criticism, both from the people affiliated with the University and from people who had simply heard or read the news. Despite the backlash, many people also believe the instructors had the right to refuse the letters, and the news sparked a debate in the comments section of various articles about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Of course, it’s also possible that my instructors simply don’t have an opinion about the events occurring in the news, or do not feel as though they know enough to speak about it. However, it’s hard to believe they don’t know what’s happening, and it’s even harder to believe they don’t have an opinion. While it is their job as instructors to educate others, they also have an obligation to educate themselves, especially on events that affect their students both negatively and positively. Just as students are expected to be aware of events that happen outside of the classroom, instructors should also hold themselves to the same responsibilities.
There may be a whole myriad of reasons why instructors do not want to discuss current issues during their class, but it’s getting harder to act like nothing’s happening when there are so many changes happening, not just in the United States but also in the world. In order to be more in touch with their students and make them feel as though the school cares about how certain events may be affecting their mental health, it is imperative that instructors who have the most direct contact with students facilitate discussions and address events, as contentious as they may be.