If you are like me, Tuesday night was shocking, scary, and probably a lifelong memory. If you're like me, you're faced with teaching on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and trying to carry on in the classroom like you are not completely shell-shocked. You have no idea which students voted for Trump, or voted for Clinton, or didn't vote at all. And if you are like me, you are completely out of words.
Most college students are Millennials, the same generation that helped Barack Obama win two terms in office and were inspired by his leadership and grace within the Presidency. As a part of my dissertation research, which later became my first book, I watched the Millennial Generation age into adulthood, managing to become one of the largest and most powerful voting blocs in American history and somehow be resilient enough to continue to be politically engaged even when most media stereotypes of the age cohort are negative and derogatory. It was the resilience of the Millennial Generation that I fell in love with. It's probably one of the reasons I wanted to become a professor. But that resilience was shaken last night.
Millennials are largely left-leaning and democratic. Although they supported Bernie Sanders overwhelming at the start, most converted to Hillary and became actively involved with her later-campaign. Millennials have very little experience with an electoral outcome like this. Although they were alive during the 2000 Bush-Gore election, most have few memories of the emotional toll the country went through. After two successful Obama elections where Millennials were a big part of the victory, it's hard to be on the other side. I have real concerns about the long-term impact that this loss may have on their feelings of political agency and ability.
But as one student reminded me, Millennials are more resilient than we can possibly image. After being called "Moochers, Parasites and Takers "in 2012 by the Romney campaign, they still voted. After facing voter suppression efforts on college campuses across the country in 2008 and 2012, they still voted. After being blamed for the collapse of the motor car industry in Detroit, they financial crisis of 2008 and basically everything bad that's happened in the last decade, they still vote.
They will still vote. They will still be engaged. They are more resilient than even the best researchers in the world give them credit for. That's probably what makes my job as a college professor so difficult today. I have to look a resilient group of people in the eye and acknowledge a failure of the rest of society to support their needs and interests.
The toughest part of being a college professor is that even when you don't have the words, you still have to teach. There is no hiding under your desk or putting in earbuds to ignore the feelings of impending doom. The reality of the situation will be staring you in the face during your noon class. And you'll have to talk to them, because they will see the reality of the situation on your face.
So how do we talk to our students about what just happened?
First, remind them of the origins of our country come from a series of compromises, similar to what we saw last night. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson fought relentlessly over voting and who should be allowed to select our next President. Hamilton wanted it to be reserved for political elites or a small group, while Jefferson wanted public opinion and citizen suffrage to be the process. What makes American democracy great is not the person we elect, but the process of compromise that makes up our government structure. Any person we elect, therefore, is the product of one of the globe's greatest compromises and agreements which gives the power directly to the people.
Second, remind them that the President is more of a follower than a leader. Yes, the President sets policies; yes, they help create the structure of our country; however, they also have to be accountable to the public. Their re-election relies upon it. Most presidents tend to reflect shifts in public opinion more than lead the shifts in public opinion. The power is still in the public's hands, an election night decision doesn't change that.
Finally, tell them you are there to listen. Shutting down, telling them you don't want to talk about it, or stopping their expression of political belief goes against the foundations of education, which is to create an environment where students can learn from you and each other. It doesn't mean everyone is going to agree with everyone, it doesn't mean everyone is going to be comfortable, it doesn't mean you too can't share your own views responsibly.
The next few weeks will be filled with meaning-making conversations from political pundits, media personalities, and even the candidates themselves. Getting your classroom to become part of that conversation is imperative if we hope to create a space where Millennials will continue to be engaged and part of the political process. We can all do our part, but it involves looking our classes in the eye and doing the hardest thing possible on a day like today: talking.