Katie L. Acosta, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University where she teaches courses on race & ethnicity, sexuality, gender and the family. In this post, Dr. Acosta reflects on teaching and academic freedom under the Trump Administration.
I recently attended a meeting designed to explain the boundaries of academic freedom to faculty members and to brainstorm best practices for creating a non-hostile classroom environment that presents students with a balanced picture of contemporary political happenings. “Try not to make statements that directly disparage a political candidate,” we were instructed. “Consider focusing on policy issues rather than personal characteristics. Consider avoiding clothing or paraphernalia in the classroom that directly support a particular political candidate. You don’t want to wear anything that might appear antagonistic to students who may not share your point of view…”
This is where we are in higher education under a Trump administration. I’m supposed to teach my students about their social world, about Racism, Gender, Sexuality and the Family – while remaining neutral on the hostile and deeply-offensive statements that our president has made during his campaign and since he was elected. But herein lies the problem, my political ideologies are shaped by my sociological lens and my sociological lens is shaped by my personal experience. These three things do not, nor have they ever, existed in separate spheres for me. Arguably this is what makes me a good professor, or at least it is what fuels my passion for what I do.
Sitting in this meeting hearing the suggestions being made brought me back a few years to the morning after Trayvon Martin was killed. That morning, I was scheduled to be in my Introduction to Sociology undergraduate classroom teaching about racial bias. I remember my heart racing as I scoured through social media learning the details of this awful tragedy. I desperately wanted to cry, but instead I pulled myself together and walked downstairs to teach. I had decided I would avoid the topic entirely. I was certainly not in any position to have a “balanced” conversation about it with my students. Avoiding the topic was the only way that I knew how to keep myself from feeling my pain. Inevitably, however, ten minutes into the lecture a student raised their hand and wanted to discuss the events. Most of the class still did not know who Trayvon Martin was. And as this student explained the events that transpired, I remember looking at their mostly blank, white faces, first with perplexity and then with anger.
I began to feel myself shaking behind the podium. How could so many students have such blank stares hearing about this boy’s death? My rage regarding this incident is deeply personal. As a mother of a black teenage boy, I imagined my son walking at night with a bag of skittles. But, my rage was also fueled by my sociological understanding of this incident as part of a larger systemic problem in our society – of this country’s fear of Black men and boys and of this country’s failure, time and again, to give them the benefit of the doubt during these encounters.
Channeling my sociological lens and harnessing my personally-driven passion helps me bring intellectual material to life for my students. It allows me to make their learning about more than just words on a page, key terms, or lecture notes. It allows me to make their learning about something real, tangible, and consequential. How do we get our students to understand the consequences of political happenings without letting them see why we are invested in these issues? I would never want a student to feel alienated in my classroom, but I have no interest in perpetuating an idea of myself as a disembodied worker whose personal life and work life don’t intersect. I can’t think of a single Sociologist that I respect who maintains these artificially separated worlds.
Keeping our political selves out of the classroom also presumes that our bodies do not advertise this self. I am an Afro-Latina queer cis woman. Don’t these identities speak for me even if I don’t? How many of my students believe they know my political leanings before I ever open my mouth? And if my students do make assumptions about my politics, then why not make my political ideologies clear in the interest of transparency?
I spent the first few weeks of this semester stumblingly awkwardly over how to teach my courses without being too political. But I don’t believe it’s done me or my students a bit of good. Instead, it’s flattened my delivery and robbed me of the passion that used to come with every lecture I delivered. So now, I’m going to take a different approach. Our democratic system as it currently stands is the most illustrative example I could possibly come up with for the prevalence of racism in the United States.
Rather than ignoring political happenings, I can draw connections between sociological theories about racism and our contemporary reality. Only in a country that refuses to take an honest and direct look at the deep-seated racism that plagues it, can we have fertile ground for the Trump phenomenon to flourish. And only in a democracy that is largely run by white men who refuse to acknowledge their privilege do we see such willingness to overlook the racist, Islamaphobic, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic actions and policies of Trump’s cabinet picks.
While this is something that I do not have control over, I do have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation doesn’t so thoroughly miss the boat when it comes to understanding the covert and overt ways that racism exists and persists in our country. I will continue to encourage my students to engage in respectful dialogue with me and one another on the many issues we currently face not with a forced or feigned sense of neutrality but with the promise of respect, integrity and in the spirit of understanding. For creating this environment in my classroom, I apologize to no one.