Election Education: History Department Gets Community Talking

The day after the election of Donald Trump was met with strong emotion for many. Regardless of political standing, an air of divisiveness and uncertainty has people on campus and across the nation asking: where do we go from here?

While most students, faculty and staff at SUNY New Paltz were at a loss for the better part of last week, the history department stepped up, joining forces with faculty from political science and Black Studies, to make a constructive first step toward educating about the election and creating space for respectful conversation. History Department Chair Andy Evans, with the help of assistant professor of history Andrea Gatzke and secretary Martha Tech, quickly organized “The 2016 Election in Historical Perspective,” which took place on Nov. 15. 

At the history department’s scheduled faculty meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 9, the day after the election, professors expressed that students were eager to talk and had questions. Evans saw this as an opportunity to use academic resources to put the election in a broader context for students. He said the purpose of the lecture was to “begin to develop and mobilize intellectual tools to gain some perspective” on how the election happened and what it means going forward. 

Lauren Scarzfava, a third-year double-major in Women’s Studies and psychology, attended the event. 

“This is really important, especially in such a controversial time, to have substance to back up what you’re talking about, or to figure out if we’re looking at completely new situation,” she said.

Six faculty members shared their insights to an eager Lecture Center room 102: history professor Lee Bernstein, political science professor Nancy Kassop, library dean and head of Conversation One at New Paltz Mark Colvson, assistant Black Studies professor Cruz Bueno, assistant history professor Reynolds Scott-Childress and assistant history professor Susan Lewis.

Bernstein spoke first about growing up during the Reagan and Bush presidencies. He highlighted the “historic precedents for what we might do next,” such as the 1980s’ Sanctuary Movement, divestment movement and the ACT UP organization. 

Kassop explained the role of the Supreme Court and the checks of power on a president, saying that “the president is only one part of a vast administrative structure.”

Colvson addressed the audience on the topic of national oppression of African Americans throughout history. He also encouraged face-to-face conversation among people with opposing viewpoints.

Lastly, Lewis took the stand and discussed sexism. 

“Why are the things that make a man a strong candidate, make a woman annoying and nasty?” she asked, rhetorically.

After faculty members’ opening remarks, Evans asked students to write a brief reflection about the election on an index card. The room then broke into groups of about five students each and discussed issues concerning them, working off of the index cards and facilitated by professors in the audience who stepped up to volunteer.

“It was such a powerful thing to have a spirited discussion and see so many people turn out to this. It was cathartic, even,” said Kristine Harris, associate professor of history, who conducted one of these groups. 

Harris’ group conversation delved into topics such as international relations, diversity, race relations, sexism and how the election has brought these issues to the forefront. They also discussed the difficulty of speaking with the opposing side and methods for bridging the gap between those we may disagree with.

Professors thanked Evans after the program. He said that while it is still too early to tell what the election means for the future, he hopes that the evening began to deliver new understanding to faculty and students.