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Teaching about Trump: UW-Madison professor whose syllabus drew backlash speaks out

Teaching about Trump: UW-Madison professor whose syllabus drew backlash speaks out

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Lecture hall

A group of students listens during a lecture on UW-Madison's campus in 2018, the year before a professor's syllabus sparked conservative backlash.

Ken Mayer watched on TV earlier this month as a violent mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, killing a police officer, pillaging the hallowed halls of democracy and delaying the process of certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

The UW-Madison political science professor had previously described how Trump critics’ feared this could happen — how Trump posed a threat to democracy — in a January 2019 syllabus for his class on the American Presidency.

A student enrolled in the course at that time considered Mayer’s description of Trump as biased and inflammatory. She posted the document to Facebook, which went viral, prompting stories in conservative media and a letter from a Republican lawmaker who leads the Assembly’s higher education committee.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson slammed Mayer for brainwashing students during a segment of his show called “Campus Craziness.” To Carlson’s millions of viewers, Mayer was just the latest example of liberal indoctrination of students on a college campus.

At the time, Mayer never spoke out publicly about the episode. In the days after the Capitol siege, he finally did, tweeting about death threats he had received and whether his critics should apologize.

In an interview with the State Journal last week, his first about the syllabus episode, Mayer said that before tweeting he weighed whether it was time to speak up.

On one hand, Mayer feared bringing up the incident would only reignite tension. But on the other, as Trump’s presidency churned to conclusion in unprecedented fashion, he felt it was worth reflecting on the difficulties of teaching in such a politically polarizing environment.

“Good teaching cannot be a sterile recitation of facts,” Mayer said. “There has to be context. But almost by definition that can be distorted into something that is partisan when it is, in fact, not.”

An obligation to truth

The syllabus, Mayer thought, captured the competing views of Trump’s presidency.

Sent to students shortly before the spring 2019 semester started, the first page included two lines about how the president’s supporters “rejoice in his contempt for what they insist is a corrupt D.C. establishment.”

It went on with an 11-line paragraph that began: “To others, he is a spectacularly unqualified and catastrophically unfit egomaniac who poses an overt threat to the Republic.”

Mayer mug

Mayer

Mayer has taught the American Presidency class for more than three decades. No matter who’s in office, he said every syllabus highlights the inflection points of a presidency to stimulate 15 weeks worth of discussion.

Many of Mayer’s students ask him how he votes, which he considers an indication of his neutrality in the classroom because they aren’t able to figure it out on their own. He doesn’t share that information with students, even those who approach him with the same question years after graduation.

Mayer also regularly teaches an introductory course on American politics that includes the same question at the end of every final exam asking students what they think his own political leanings are. He said students most often check the “unclear” box.

“What I’ve always told students is I have an obligation to be nonpartisan and neutral but I also have an obligation to be truthful,” he said.

Truth, however, is much harder to teach when unambiguous facts are suddenly seen as partisan and the world is flooded with disinformation and propaganda, Mayer said. Throughout Trump’s presidency, he had extensive conversations with colleagues across the country teaching similar classes about how to discuss the unusual, unprecedented, norm-flouting style of the 45th president in real time.

“This isn’t something where I walk into the classroom and ad-lib for 75 minutes twice a week,” he said.

The false idea that college professors are out to decide on students’ behalf what’s true has become weaponized, Mayer said. A professor’s job is to help students work out how to think, not tell them what to think.

He offered the example of an American Government class taught in 1852. An instructor sharing where slavery exists while leaving out a discussion on the moral implications of slavery has failed his students.

“The notion that you can teach politics by stating a series of facts — that’s not right,” he said. “That’s not accurate. There has to be an element of judgment. I can say as a matter of empirical fact, what last week demonstrated, is that the president is not committed to democratic principles. That will be taken as a partisan statement and that’s unfortunate.”

An obligation to speak up

UW-Madison administrators, the political science department and even the university’s chapter of the College Republicans came to Mayer’s defense in 2019. Even so, hate mail and death threats filled Mayer’s inbox, mailbox and voicemail box. A stranger tracked down one of his children to ask if Mayer was their father. He eventually had to delete his Facebook account.

“I wonder if those critics in the state Legislature would now like to retract their claims that I was indoctrinating my students, and apologize for trying to get me fired,” Mayer tweeted. “I won’t hold my breath.”

Rep. Dave Murphy

Murphy

In an interview with the State Journal this week, Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, who leads the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, asked for what he would be apologizing.

Murphy sent a letter about Mayer’s syllabus to nearly 60 university and political leaders, taking issue with Mayer’s tone and saying it may be more appropriate to design a new course taught by a less-biased instructor.

Murphy viewed Mayer’s syllabus as indoctrination, one of his biggest concerns on campus, and said he had an obligation as committee chairman to say something. After sending the letter, he said he never received a response from Mayer to sit down and discuss it.

Anyone who lodged a death threat owes Mayer an apology, Murphy said, but he did not advocate for any such action.

And he, too, said he has received hate mail. When holding a position of power, such as a state representative or tenured professor, Murphy said, “You need to put your big boy pants on.”

Reflecting on the events of Jan. 6, Murphy said he didn’t know if Trump incited the mob but that he was disappointed in the president and how he handled the events on that day.

“It’s really hard when there’s hardly anything you can read or hear that you can count on as being factual,” Murphy said. “Nowadays, everybody’s so far apart and calls each other’s facts junk that it ends the discussion. There’s no principles or facts we can base the discussion on.”

No regrets

To McKenna Collins, the student who drew attention to the syllabus by posting about it on Facebook, Mayer’s language was not neutral. Neither was the uneven amount of words devoted to explaining the controversies clouding Trump’s presidency in comparison to his accomplishments.

Collins, in a brief phone interview on Thursday, said her issue was always about the syllabus’ wording. The class itself was a “totally different story.”

She told The Daily Cardinal shortly after appearing on Carlson’s show and attending a few classes that she didn’t expect the course to be biased.

Still, Collins doesn’t regret posting the document to Facebook, even when informed that her professor received death threats and hate mail because of it. She said she also received hate mail at that time and that it comes with the territory of being a conservative student speaking out on a liberal campus.

“What I said stands to this day,” she said. “I still think he was in the wrong and he should accept responsibility. While events have transpired since then, sure, that doesn’t make what he did OK. Professors should present information in an unbiased way and at the time he failed to do that.”

Mayer has taught the American Presidency twice since the spring 2019 semester. He thought carefully about subsequent syllabi, adding a disclaimer at the top stating that no one will be punished, rewarded or evaluated based on their political views or anything other than the course requirements.

The updated document contains fewer adjectives and references to more recent history, such as Trump’s first impeachment proceedings, but for the most part reflects what he wrote two years ago. Perhaps the most noticeable difference is the addition of footnotes pointing students to where Mayer found his facts.

Two years later

Two years since the syllabus made national headlines, the stances of those involved haven’t swayed.

Collins, a senior at the time she took the class, declined to share what she’s been up to in the two years since then. University records indicate she has not completed her degree, a UW-Madison spokesperson said.

Murphy, who still chairs the Assembly’s higher education committee, said he’ll continue to keep an eye out for what he considers slanted syllabi.

Mayer is scheduled to teach the class again next fall. Students, he said, will examine Biden’s presidency with the same method of scrutiny as they examined Trump’s.

Editor's note: The story corrects Collins' graduation status. According to the university, she has not completed her degree.


Fave 5: Higher education reporter Kelly Meyerhofer shares her top picks of 2020

The first story I wrote this year was about a two-legged dog. 2020 only got more weird from there.

In early March, I sat in a room with about a hundred others listening to UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank brief professors on how the coronavirus might affect campus operations. During the Faculty Senate meeting, she encouraged instructors to consider what classes or meetings could be delivered online.

"We have no idea quite what may be coming, if anything,” she said on March 2.

Oh, how quickly did the world change. 

Over the next nine months, I wrote stories that would have seemed surreal a year ago: dorm rooms considered for potential hospital overflow, online commencement ceremonies, campus mask mandates and students stuck in lockdown

It's been a privilege to bear witness to all of the seismic changes 2020 brought to college campuses, most of which I reported from my kitchen table (OK, and sometimes my couch). I'm grateful to the State Journal's subscribers who help support my job as one of the few higher education reporters in Wisconsin. The five stories listed below were some of my favorites, but you can find the 172 other stories I've written so far this year here

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