• Cassie Smith

When Facts Aren't Facts

I was having coffee with a colleague a few days ago when she shared with me an especially tense moment that occurred in her early American studies course.

On this particular day, the class was discussing the democratic ideals of our white, male founding fathers. My colleague pointed out that many of the conversations among the framers of the Constitution in those first decades after independence centered on who should be able to participate in US government and vote in national elections. The framers worried about investing too much (voting) power in the hands of a mostly uneducated populace. Out of those debates emerged our representative Democracy. The idea is that less educated elements in the national body politic depend upon the good judgement of more educated representatives to vote on their behalf. This, in part, is why we have a Congress and an Electoral College.

Like me, my colleague aims to draw connections between early America and the present day to make the subject-matter relevant for students. To that end, she pointed out that the same paranoia that led the founding fathers to dismiss American voters who lacked formal education and elite status took center stage in the wake of the 2016 presidential election when Donald Trump claimed a shocking victory over Hillary Clinton. A number of news outlets and political pundits, some with consternation, examined polls run by the Pew Research Center, ABC News, The New York Times, and others that all demonstrated more voters without a college degree, especially among white Americans, supported Trump.

My colleague stated what she knew to be true: “Trump enjoyed massive support among uneducated voters. They helped him win the election.” In the face of what she assumed to be numerical, empirical evidence, how could anyone find fault with her conclusion?

Her students, in fact, did reject her assessment. One student quickly raised his hand, eye brows furrowed and said, “But that’s not true. It’s the exact opposite.”

Another student chimed in, “Trump won because he was the stronger candidate.” Several other students nodded their head in agreement.

To avoid confrontation, my colleague quickly capitulated, saying “Of course Trump’s victory was based on a number of factors.” Then she steered the conversation in another direction.

My colleague was able to keep the peace, as it were, and continue with the day’s class. She still, nevertheless, walked away feeling uneasy about the class session because she knew that she hadn’t actually made the connections she intended to make. The goal was to facilitate a discussion that would bring insights for students about how even today we are still guided by class-based prejudices – that also parallel with gender and race prejudices.

Her students also walked away from the class feeling uneasy. In her end-of-term evaluations, students commented on that class session. They experienced it as her efforts to indoctrinate them, to blame poor people, which they extrapolated from the term ‘uneducated,’ for the outcome of an election. They dismissed her as a liberal fanatic abusing her power as a teacher.

In our conversation, my colleague was seeking strategies for engaging students in those moments when students seemingly reject lecture content––in particular, lecture content based on what she viewed as undisputable facts.

In the example above, my colleague’s students succeeded in shutting down the conversation by presenting what we might call ‘alternative facts’––a term first deployed by Trump political advisor Kellyanne Conway in a 2017 NBC News interview to justify the Trump administration’s inflated claims about the attendance at his presidential inauguration ceremony. In the face of empirical evidence, which included aerial footage, photos, and head counts all proving a lower number, Conway insisted that the Administration’s higher estimates were correct, based on ‘alternative facts.’ Despite Conway’s later attempts to clarify her comment, many viewers were left with the idea that facts are not incontrovertible proofs. They can be rejected, supplanted, even without evidence.

What, then, is a teacher to do in a classroom when students revert to alternative facts as a means to shut down discussion?

One response we might offer in such moments is to interrogate our students’ statements. We might ask them to explore the sources of information that are the basis for their claims while we explore our own, to make it clear that no source of information is sacrosanct, beyond reproach––even us!

This exploration can lead to discussions about rhetorical aims and agendas of the texts we read and from which we learn. Why, for example, do media outlets conduct polls during election seasons? Why do they break down demographics the way they do, noting peoples’ economic class, education level, race, gender, sexuality? The particular questions we ask lead us to particular answers. When we ask different questions, we get different answers.

Another strategy is to interrogate terminology because sometimes it isn’t about what we say but how we say it. In the example above, a key term is ‘uneducated.’ There is a world of difference between saying a person does not have a college-degree (which is how the polls label the demographic group) and saying a person is ‘uneducated,’ (which is the term my colleague used). One is a verifiable statement of fact; the other is a judgement. Without realizing it, my colleague’s own prejudices crept into her lecture.

We always want to choose our words carefully. Sometimes, of course, we cannot anticipate how certain words or phrases will land with our students. If we sense that a term is problematic, that’s an occasion to stop the lesson plan and open up space for students to express their thoughts about it.

Sometimes terms are so vexed that they can’t be interrogated in classroom spaces as doing so could pose harm to students having a traumatic response. In such cases, we acknowledge the term as problematic, apologize and redirect. Afterwards, we want to be sure to check in with students individually as this is an issue of safety.

In my next blog post, I will talk more about the importance of prioritizing student safety in the classroom. As a primer for that next blog post, you can watch this helpful video discussion.

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*Note: portions of this post (the content at the end) are taken from Inclusive College Classrooms: Teaching Methods for Diverse Learners, co-authored with Anne-Marie Womack and forthcoming from Routle