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Campus Conundrum: For Professors, Trump Requires ‘Constant Adaptation’

‘You teach differently,’ one prof says. ‘You just get creamed,’ notes another.

Protesters hold up illuminated letters spelling "treason" in front of the White House during a rally Wednesday following President Donald Trump’s much-maligned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Protesters hold up illuminated letters spelling "treason" in front of the White House during a rally Wednesday following President Donald Trump’s much-maligned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

For Donald Trump, last week was perhaps the worst of his presidency. For some Republican lawmakers, his antics struck a nerve. And for political science professors, it will only make things tougher in the classroom.

The U.S. president started his rockiest week yet by referring to Vladimir Putin as a “good competitor,” appearing to agree with the Russian leader over his spy agencies on 2016 election meddling. Trump ended it by advising Putin to “make a deal” or else, warning he could quickly become the Russian strongman’s “worst enemy.”

To those who have followed Trump over the years and closely analyzed his 18-month-old presidency, the week’s contradictory bookends are likely not surprising. The president vacillates on issues and individuals. He’s an in-the-moment player, driven more by his moods and gut instincts than any traditional political ideology. And professors say he, more than even the brashest members of Congress, has made things more intense in college classrooms.

“You teach differently. You have to be more aware of how engaged the students are. You have to let them express their outrage. That’s your starting point,” said Paul Manuel, director of the Leadership Program at American University’s School of Public Affairs and a professor of government. “Then you can try to get to whether something happened because of good or bad leadership — or just due to human nature.”

[‘Worst Enemy’: Trump Warns Putin Even as Second Summit in Works]

Sure, other recent presidents have offered twists on the tried-and-true philosophies still found in political science and international relations textbooks and academic journals. And members of Congress since the republic’s founding have waged battles over legislation and contentious issues of the day that have made for unique teaching hurdles.

Professors who spoke to Roll Call late last week say that the era of Washington gridlock that often brought out the worst in congressional leaders and which came before Trump caused them to adjust their teaching tactics — but only in minor ways and unlike what they describe as their ever-shifting lesson plans of the Trump era.

George W. Bush — before his presidency was transformed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks — tried to offer a “compassionate” side of conservatism. Barack Obama, sensing public exhaustion with Bush’s Afghanistan and Iraq wars, campaigned on untangling the United States from the Middle East — only to act as the silent assassin in chief with his armed drone program that targeted violent extremist groups.

Watch: Trump Says He ‘Misspoke’ on Russian Election Meddling

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Going off book

But none have driven political science professors to alter their classroom tactics quite like the 45th president. Not even close, some say.

Chuck Schumer or Paul Ryan would become the leader of his party or the speaker, and New York magazine or someone would do a long feature on him,” said Daniel DiSalvo, who teaches political science courses at the City College of New York. “You could assign something off that. These are traditional politicians.”

“But the big question really is: How do you teach in the age of Donald Trump?” he said, adding with a sigh: “I don’t have a firm or fixed answer on that. It really is a process of constant adaptation. … The biggest challenge is teaching about Trump and not having things go completely off the rails.”

The sitting president’s norms-bending comments about topics from race to undocumented migrants to his use of executive authorities requires new approaches, academics say.

“You try to teach the regular course material, but it’s hard. Just like this week, he does something unexpected and the kids go, ‘What does that mean?’” David Brady, a Stanford University political science professor, said Thursday. “You just get creamed.”

DiSalvo’s New York City campus features a much different student body from the mostly upper-class pupils found over 3,000 miles away in Northern California. Most are middle-class, and many have come to the United States from other countries, places that gave them “exposure to much nastier politics than what we have now in the U.S.”

“Students want to talk about Trump and vent their frustrations. But their previous life experiences help to keep a lid on things,” he said.

Professors say they still teach political theory, though they are still unsure how to apply them to the White House’s current occupant.

“The best you can do is tell the students something like: ‘Donald Trump believes the United States has the most powerful military and people need it, and the United States has the biggest economy that people need access to. And he tries to use both to get other countries to give in on trade or security or other things,’” Brady said.

‘Punched in the face’

Trump’s leadership style often feels like he is governing and messaging solely for his political base, which roars its approval at his campaign rallies as he spouts hard-line messages.

“One of the toughest challenges is the race and gender stuff,” DiSalvo said. “You start off almost critical of the president. It’s a struggle to find relevant journal articles or other readings that you can even assign.”

But American University’s Manuel said the era of Trump and bitter congressional partisanship was directly addressed by the country’s founders and many of today’s issues were discussed in influential texts of that age like the Federalist Papers. “We need to read all the textbooks and things like Federalist No. 10,” he said. “They teach us about everything going on today.”

[Pence Again Presses McCaskill on Coming Supreme Court Vote]

To be sure, the president is not the only political official who creates classroom and curriculum challenges.

“You also see many of the same changes at the congressional level,” Manuel said. “If you disagree with a leader of one party, you’re deemed unpatriotic — and that goes for both sides.”

“There was a time when Ted Kennedy could befriend Orrin Hatch, even though they disagreed on policy,” Manuel said. “Congress was still able to function even though there were harsh disagreements. But those days are over. … Those are really now case studies on how Washington once worked.”

Another challenge in the age of Trump and hyperpartisanship on Capitol Hill is teaching from an objective standpoint, some say.

“It’s probably a lot like being a journalist. You want to stay as objective as possible. But then you get punched in the face 32 times in a week by this president,” Stanford’s Brady said. “You eventually have to say … what you really think he’s about and what he’s really doing.”

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