A day after the result of the US presidential election was announced on November 9, Aren Aizura, an assistant professor at the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies department of the University of Minnesota, received emails from students saying they were “scared to leave their dorms”.

Ever since it was learnt that Donald Trump would take over as the 45th American president, Aizura said students had complained of trauma and panic attacks. “The general inability to focus is all-time high,” said Aizura, admitting that he too has been unable to finish the book he is writing.

Aizura was speaking at a panel discussion on teaching in the age of “alternative facts” organised by his department to address the uncertainty that students and teachers were experiencing in the American political climate. The public event was held on March 3 at the University of Minnesota.

The concerns of Aizura and his students concerns stem from Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric during his campaign, which was followed by a series of executive orders restricting the entry of outsiders and suspending the country’s refugee programme.

A report in the Pioneer Press said that the University of Minnesota had extended support to 125 of its students who were from the countries listed in the travel ban imposed by the Trump administration in January and revised on Monday. The president has banned the entry of people from six Muslim-majority countries – Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Iran – into the US.

The murder of Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in a hate crime in Kansas on February 23, followed by the shooting of a Sikh man in Seattle on Saturday – which too is being probed as a “potentially hate-motivated crime” – have also raised concerns about the safety of immigrants, especially Indians in the United States.

Change of course

David Chang, professor of history at the university, said that he was deeply distressed and threatened by the election results. His immediate response was, “Should I build walls to protect my children?”, a reference the construction of a wall along the US-Mexico border on the president’s orders.

Chang told students and teachers in the audience he was not sure what his responsibility was in the Trump era. He said 36 hours after the US Presidential election results, he planned a course on he planned a class on “Donald Trump and the Far Right in the American History and Society.”

The course, Chang said, aims to explain to students the “present politics and heritage from which Donald Trump emerges, which is the history of far right politics in US and globally”.

Chang said he wanted to “abnormalise” Trump – show that he occupies an abnormal position in the American history by tracing the history of far-right politics and showing how the US president’s politics differ. “The task in the class will be to learn more about the far right so that we can understand how Trump is and is not a part of it and how his history relates the history of the far right,” he explained.

Panelists discussing teaching in the age of “alternative facts”. (Photo: Priyanka Vora)
Panelists discussing teaching in the age of “alternative facts”. (Photo: Priyanka Vora)

Opportunities and fears

Other teachers are also weaving Trump into their courses. “Each day some kind of Trumpism is integrated into the course content,” said Panelist Michelle Garvey, from the Institute of Environment.

Garvey said she is using Trump’s victory as an opportunity to improve the political understanding of students. For instance, she has created a manual of sorts to explain to students how they can engage with their elected representatives.

Similarly, Aizura is encouraging students to connect over social media platforms, paving the way for them to organise politically. “Students are thinking about going to a political protest [or] organising one,” said Aizura, adding that he had come across students who were wondering if they should quit studying and becoming activists.

Most professors at the university are also trying to devote some time during their classes to discuss what students are feeling about the current political scenario.

Alongside encouraging charged political discussions, some professors have also set ground rules to enable healthy debate. For instance, Chang said he has asked his students to “discuss respectfully, attempting to understand why people think the things they do.”

However, some panelists had apprehensions that discussing their political stance openly could have “consequences”, especially in states that voted overwhelmingly in favour of Trump. Teachers spoke of the the possibility of being put on a watch by the government machinery or losing a chance at securing a permanent position. The sense of immunity that academia has is false, said a panelist.