Unplanned, Unrehearsed and Unintended — The Best Class Session I Ever Led
“I think about that class quite often. I know it’s imprinted on at least a handful of us.”
“That was an extraordinary conversation that has stuck with me years later.”
“That class really sticks in my mind as a turning point and it was an honor to be there that night.”
“That class was the most meaningful one I ever had.”
“It was an incredible class and I won’t forget the impact it had on me and my friends.”
Most of us remember November 2016 for Donald Trump’s election as president. That time also resonates with me because of the opportunity that stunning outcome created just two days later. As I did on every Thursday evening that Fall, on November 10, I met with my regularly-scheduled class. With apologies to all the classes and students with whom I met before and since, it is the most memorable single class that I’ve conducted in my 25 years as a university classroom instructor. Nearly four years later, I contacted members of that class to ask about their memories of that meeting.
The day before, like many Americans, I was in a stupor, unable to process the new reality on our doorstep. I’d slept poorly on election night, waking up the next morning feeling much as I did on the days each of my parents was buried. It felt to me as if something had died on November 8. Whether it was a piece of America, our collective soul, or the democracy, I wasn’t sure. As one student now says, “The mood was very somber.”
I later learned that my students felt much the same, maybe worse. One of them says, “We all felt a sense of despair and dread, like someone just told us all of our dreams and desires were now dead. We were all truly scared, scared for what the country might become.” A relatively secure existence had been shattered. “I remember that week was devastating to so many of us,” another student now says. “It felt like a fog was over the campus as everyone accepted the reality.” Or couldn’t accept it. “The days after the election were really disorienting,” says one student. “The sense of defeat and confusion was heavy.” According to another student, “a feeling of shell-shock had settled.”
The next day, I was a bit more prepared to face the music. I met with a large class that afternoon, but I have no recollection of it or any uniqueness about it. My almost-three-hour evening class, starting at 6:00 p.m., would be different. In some ways, it always was. It was a smaller group — 19 that semester, nearly 80 percent women — and all honors students. This group was especially bright, and I think that suggested to me subconsciously that these young men and women would be receptive to ideas and viewpoints, and would discuss them seriously.
But none of that had entered my mind at 6:00. “We had filed into our class silently,” a student recalls, “everyone finding their seats around the conference table without exchanging a word. Normally, people would at least say hello and chat, but it was as though nobody had the energy that night.” Another student recalls, “I remember all of us looking tired, as if we hadn’t slept in ages.” When I walked into the third-floor conference room, another presentation by me on an aspect of Mass Communication Law was on the agenda. For those presentations, I always stood — not by design, so much, but instinctively. On a few occasions when a meeting was going to be more discussion-oriented, I sat at the head of the rectangular table. Reflecting now, I suppose it’s a “talking to” versus a “talking with” mindset. By that point in the semester, already in its second-half, I had done both.
With notes in hand, I was “this close” to presenting “Free Press — Fair Trial.” I looked at the students and realized that at least briefly, we needed to address the elephant in the room. “So, how are you all doing?” The response from one student: “How are you holding up?” U-turn! I sat down, signaling that I sought their thoughts and opinions. But even then, my plan was a short discussion, then to move on to the planned topic. Instead, Plan B became Plan A. With apologies to Buffalo Springfield, There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. Whatever it was, I sensed that it shouldn’t be stopped merely to stay on schedule. “I remember feeling very relieved and appreciative when you said we would talk about the election, since it was something we were all still processing.” As another student remembers, “I remember feeling grateful for that class to not just be the normal lesson plan as if nothing huge had happened just days before.”
The discussion that ensued was intensely emotional, liberating and necessary. What also became apparent was that I was providing the students something for which they yearned, particularly at that moment — a safe space to have opinions and feelings. “As a student, it meant so much that an educator recognized those feelings, and felt the same, and wanted to unpack it. Your class that night was the first catharsis, the first exhale.” Feelings poured out, trickles initially, eventually in a flood of emotions. “You made the class a safe space for all of us and made it so we got to be open about our beliefs and thoughts about the future.”
It’s important to note that this was a class within a school of journalism and mass communication — one of the nation’s best schools, in fact. In journalism, objectivity is revered, the Holy Grail in the pursuit of fairness and excellence. “That week we heard from so many professors and journalism role models that we weren’t allowed to ‘feel’ anything about the election results,” says one student who now works at a major metropolitan newspaper. “We weren’t allowed to share our views or concerns without giving up our objectivity. But you allowed us to do that, and I was so grateful because that week I really doubted my ability to work in this profession without ‘feeling.’”
When thoughtful people believe that an outcome is inherently wrong, they seek the causes. For this group, that included self-examination: What had we — i.e., journalists — done wrong? Were the news media too objective in their campaign coverage? Asking that meant dissecting “objectivity.” Does it mean repressing or compartmentalizing feelings? Does it mean ignoring facts that serve as evidence of disparity? Does it mean ignoring a stark reality for the sake of “balance?” As defined by some, objectivity requires it. Instead, we discussed that conclusions lacking even-handedness may be acceptable. Ignoring the facts for the sake of appearing objective is arguably a far worse journalistic transgression than distortion. As CNN’s Christiane Amanpour advocates, “Be truthful, not neutral.” And so, one result of the discussion that evening was knocking “objectivity” off its pedestal, redefining it along the way. “We discussed morals and how some things are inherently wrong and that it’s okay to say they are wrong,” one student recalls. “We talked about how the idea of ‘objectivity’ is changing to allow our biases because it’s more transparent to know them, acknowledge them and do the extra work to counteract them when necessary.”
As for feelings, I revealed mine early on that evening. I recall responding to one student’s call to action by responding, “And when the ___ is that going to happen?” As one student recalls, “The whole thing was very raw.” Whether what I said was proper, it showed that I, too, was angry and disillusioned. It gave the students license to reveal themselves. They did. Moreover, it signaled that we were in this together. “The fact that it was a night class gave us privacy,” says one student. “We [had previously] dealt with issues of law and American values and the negotiation between the two. Maybe that primed us to discuss things meaningfully. And your demeanor, up to that point and in that class, is what ultimately made it possible.” Another student echoes that sentiment:
That night, you gave me the space to feel like a human and have my human reaction so I could go out into the world and be the fair, open-minded journalist I know I can be. I’ve carried that night in my memory as a testament to the fact I can be a human and be a journalist. I’m better when I don’t turn my humanity off. It convinced me that being fair and open-minded is different from being unbiased, and I shouldn’t strive for what humans cannot be.
I listened and mediated, keeping the conversation moving and inside some very broad boundaries, mostly by asking questions. Fear permeated the room. “I felt so vulnerable during that time,” recalls one student. “I don’t think any of us really knew what to expect in the days that followed.” There was a sense that a new, troubling era was on the horizon. “We were worried for what was next. In a class of what I recall as mostly consisting of women, I remember the friends I had in that class being concerned about our rights being protected going forward. Would Roe v. Wade disappear?” This is echoed by another student: “I remember talking about our fears and feeling affirmed that others had fears, too. The recognition that we could be affected by things going on in the world — instead of just covering them — was so reassuring.” In a similar vein, another student says, “It was so comforting to see that not only were other people feeling like I was feeling, but that we weren’t being told to be quiet or stay objective or put our feelings aside.”
Another student recalls, “The class was full of thoughtfulness and hope, even in a time where we had no idea if we could even hope for a good future under the presidency. I know everyone in there had each other’s backs and supported everyone through that difficult election and our fears of our new reality.” People of color were especially afraid of the unknowns that were ahead. “I worried about my place in the world as a minority — both as the granddaughter of first-generation Chinese immigrants and as a woman.” One of her classmates affirmed that sentiment: “As a woman of color, I could not just act like it was business as usual.”
In addition to tackling objectivity, we talked about journalism generally. “We felt a deep threat to the journalism community as a whole,” one of them now recalls. Another says, “The biggest thing I remember from that night was our conversation about how much journalism is changing with our generation — that we could no longer ditch our identities and pretend we weren’t included in the minority groups that would be hurt with an administration change.” Thoughts extended from journalism in the present to its near-future fate: “I remember worrying about what a Trump presidency meant for the press. How would our industry change? I feared what journalism and journalists would face from the public, but I also worried about how the industry would rise to the occasion and do what we’re supposed to do: shine a light in life’s darkest corners, give voice to the voiceless and hold the powerful accountable.”
Among my most vivid memories involves a reading — that is, an attempted one. I had brought with me a printed copy of a letter that legendary screenwriter Aaron Sorkin had written to his daughter and ex-wife. I had seen it online that day and apparently believed that an opportunity to refer to it may surface. Our scheduled three hours nearly over, the time was right.
I reached for the letter, fully aware that my emotions were resting on a knife edge. What lied ahead would not be easy. “You started to read it to us, but got too choked up,” a student recalls. The tipping point was a sentence about how the office held by the likes of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln would be, according to Sorkin, now “held by a man boy.” Unable to continue, I handed the letter to the student closest to me. She tried to read, but also succumbed to her feelings. “We all began to tear up,” a student recalls. “I think when we all saw our own professor start to break down, we truly felt the gravity of what took place in our country just a couple days before. It was a surreal moment.”
Believing that I was re-composed, I resumed, but only until another passage got the best of me. Sitting in silence and unable to speak, I heard a voice reading from where I left off. A student had accessed the letter on his laptop. I was so grateful. He read a section until I was able to re-take the reins and finish. I looked up. Through the prism of my tears, I saw a student sobbing at the opposite end of the table. She wasn’t alone. “Many in the class were crying at this point,” says one student. “I’m usually not somebody who tears up, but I remember crying with fellow students at the end of the class.” Another recalls, “I remember sitting across the table from my good friend, and reaching out to hold her hand.”
“It was so nice to be openly emotional with the small group of us, especially since [journalism] strives to be apolitical. It felt like we could be accepted for feeling frustrated about the election, instead of feeling like we couldn’t have an opinion about it.” Another student says, “It felt good to get it all out there.” For one young lady, it included a unique experience: “It was the first time I personally saw men be vulnerable about the election, and acknowledge the absolute fear a lot of females felt.”
The Sorkin letter, complete with the starts and stops, was the final phase of the gathering. Emotionally spent, we realized that while nothing was resolved, there was nothing left to say that evening. “Once that class was over, many of us walked downstairs and stood outside the building crying, hugging and further discussing the future of journalism and our role as soon-to-be professionals.” A sense of harmony was in the air, with everyone realizing that whatever had just happened, it was special. “Once we had cried, I felt unified with the class and free to have a candid conversation. Taking the time to feel what we had to feel and speak so openly about our concerns was unlike anything that any of my other professors did during my four years there. I walked out feeling less alone and less fearful.”
Though everyone realized that challenges were ahead, the experience was therapeutic and cleansing. “We all agreed that this was an uncommon class session in unprecedented times. We walked out commenting how it felt like a collective group therapy had just occurred. There was an inexpressible relief in processing thoughts and emotions together.” My final image was leaving the building and seeing that many of the students had gathered just outside the door. I asked if everything was okay. Hearing, “Yes,” I sensed that this was their time and walked away. One student tells me that once their group decided to leave, rather than separating as usual, they walked together, continuing their conversation.
To my fellow classroom instructors, the takeaway lessons are layered: When the situation warrants, go off script. Let students talk. Let them feel. It’s potentially cathartic and may result in a powerful and resonant bonding, not only among them, but also with you. As one student says, “I remember feeling a sense of community in that room I had never felt in another class.”
Show your true colors now and then. It’s more than okay. When you open up, your students will follow your lead. Let them be themselves occasionally. Not only will they benefit, the person who learns the most may be you. And you just might help in creating lifetime memories: “I hope I said it at the time, but thank you for that night. Thank you for letting us have a human moment and particularly for having it together.”