Professors host ‘teach-in’ on election

by Daniel Kim | 11/14/16 9:48pm

Over 100 students, faculty members and town residents came together in Carpenter Hall 13 yesterday to discuss and learn about the ramifications of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. Chiefly organized by women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Eng-Beng Lim, the “teach-in” was a town hall style forum with a panel of eight professors from the fields of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, African and African American Studies, history and English.

“The purpose of the forum is to consider the ramification of the election and how to think about citizenship in a Trump nation,” Lim said. “Tonight’s event speaks to those progressive aspirations and cleared space for people to think as a collective, as a critical community, as a way to organize and move forward.”

Before the event began, students from Lim’s “Feminists in Queer Professions” seminar class gave a brief presentation on Trump’s history of sexual misconduct and abuse. The students juxtaposed Trump as a defendant with his status as president-elect.

“[In this class] we were working on how to profess feminism,” said Grace E. Carney ’17, one of Lim’s students who presented. “Following the elections, all of us realized that the question is more palpable than ever, so this was just a sort of a distillation of what we worked on.”

After each professor provided a five-minute perspective on Trump’s presidency, the audience engaged both with the professors and other attendees on the issues raised by the results of the recent election, including race, gender, sexuality, class and disability.

African and African American Studies professor Trica Keaton, the only black faculty member on the panel, emphasized the need to overcome the fear of Trump’s presidency to focus on tangible strategies to combat its possible consequences.

“I don’t share the same fear that most people here do because I come from a longue durée of history, encompassing genocide, enslavement, legal racism and mass incarceration,” she said.

English professor Jeff Sharlet, who has investigated Trump and the Republican party as a journalist for outlets such as The New York Times Magazine, extended the focus on action. He said that Trump represents the convergence of several different right-wing groups – secular, religious, extreme and alt-right. He added that students should spend more time learning about Trump’s transition team and its power structures.

Italian, comparative literature and women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Graziella Parati and German and film and media studies professor Gerd Gemünden brought up similarities between Trump’s campaign and the rise of fascism in 1930s Germany. English professor Andrew McCann said that the Trump phenomenon echoes philosopher Theodor Adorno’s ideas about the relationship between mass media and an authoritarian personality.

One debate that arose during the question and answer session was that of empathy and unity: how much should those affected by Trump’s policies attempt to understand the perspectives of those who voted for Trump?

Film and media studies and comparative literature professor Amy Lawrence drew a comparison between Trump supporters and those who appear in paranormal reality TV shows. Both groups are misunderstood by outside observers, but their pain is real even if it cannot be explained in rational or academic terms.

History professor Bethany Moreton said that although it is important to avoid condescension when addressing dissenting viewpoints, this “does not foreclose morality as a category of analysis.”

“Some interests are simply opposed to others,” she said. “This country has historically held interest in white supremacy. There has not been a time when black people were not met with outright terrorism when they tried to bring about social change.”

Music professor William Cheng questioned the dialogue’s focus on empathy.

“Actual empathy is not possible,” he said. “When I march for #BlackLivesMatter, I don’t presume I can perfectly empathize. Empathy is an imaginative ideal to overestimate our own capability.”

Sharlet echoed these sentiments, but added that understanding the opposition’s reasoning is important to dismantling the systems that give Trump power.

“It’s time for a fight,” he said. “In the interest of that fight, we need to understand why a small contingent of Muslims voted for Trump, and why 29 percent of Latinos voted for him.”

Other topics raised by the audience included violence, education, identity politics and political correctness.

Although the majority of the audience consisted of those who agreed that Trump’s presidency poses social problems, some expressed the opinion that the event placed a biased framework on the election.

“I fundamentally reject the notion that Trump supporters are all lower middle class white racists,” local conservative radio host and attendee Keith Hanson said.

Geovanni Cuevas ’14 said that the event was successful in generating a conversation.

“The event was an attempt of intellectual trying to think through the current crisis,” he said. “I think this event validated that there is a crisis. [The professors] were trying to speak to potential strategies and I appreciated hearing where they were coming from.”

Lim said that while there are no further “teach-in” events currently planned, he hopes that others will take the lead and create similar spaces for thinking about these issues.