In his office in Eaton Hall, sociology professor Paul Joseph has accumulated multiple piles of books and files with article clippings to prepare for an overhaul of a class he’s been teaching almost every semester for the past four years. In response to this year’s election, Joseph is teaching an altered version of his Political Sociology course called, “The Trump Election and Administration: A Special Edition of Political Sociology.” Currently, the class is at maximum enrollment, with a full waitlist.
The Daily spoke with Joseph about the questions he plans to explore in the course, how to structure discourse around the election and what inspired him to create the new Trump-centered course.
The following is an abridged version of the interview.
Tufts Daily: How did the idea for this course come about?
Paul Joseph: Like everyone, I was stunned by the outcome of the election. It seemed to turn everything upside down in the country, and as a social scientist, I was mostly trying to understand why Donald Trump was elected and what the implications of that would be for the country.
I’m teaching two courses this semester. [Both courses] met on the Wednesday following [Election Day], and there was a very strong intellectual/emotional reaction to Trump’s election that clearly needed to be reviewed and processed. And I thought to myself, since I’m teaching a political sociology course [next semester], this seems like a great opportunity to turn it inside out and to take some of the events in the campaign and some of the events that are sure to take place in the early days of the administration, and back those up … to purpose some of the deeper sociological questions around those events.
TD: What are some of the questions you’re thinking of addressing in the course? How is this course going to look, seeing as the Trump administration is still in the process of forming?
PJ: You’re absolutely right about that. Just constructing the syllabus is going to be a real challenge, and I have some questions that I know will be in the course. [But] when I’m thinking about developing the syllabus over winter break, I’m going to try to preserve some flexibility in it. The first class is going to be a discussion with the students to see what priorities they might have, and I’m sure there will be some suggestions that I have not anticipated.
Anyone who is a political sociologist would want to think about issues such as media coverage and the social media dimensions of the campaign. There [are] questions of inequality — why voters seemingly vote against their self-interest. If you’re of modest economic background, how do you end up voting for a millionaire? There are issues about conspiracy theories and why so many Americans are prone to believing conspiracy theories from all parts of the political spectrum. [There’s] the shape of the country. Are we a red-versus-blue country? Other sociologists, political scientists and historians have suggested that we are some kind of amalgam of six countries or nine countries. So what does it mean to say that we’re more than one country?
Those are questions that already existed in political sociology, so those are the things that I know I’m going to cover, although they’re going to be informed by specific moments in the election.
TD: How is planning this course different from planning other courses?
PJ: I always try to revise a course. Typically, I keep two-thirds of a course and rotate the third part, so maybe after four or five years, you have a different course, but it won’t be that different from one year to the next. I’ve already cancelled the books that I ordered for “Political Sociology.” I’m starting over with that. So this is almost 100 percent different.
TD: The election created some difficult discourse and emotional reactions among some students. Do you have an idea about what continuing these conversations in your class will look like?
PJ: That’s a really good question. [It’s] about paying attention to the multiple dimensions of what happens in a classroom, not only the understanding of ideas, [such as] how many “countries” are there in the United States and what are the boundary lines. But what happens when, for example, women [ask], “How could a country elect someone who perpetrated assault against women, not just harassment or antiquated attitudes, but professed to that?”
I will try to do my best to be attuned to the multiple dimensions of [the election]. I think I’m going to use a lot of comedy in the class, like [Stephen] Colbert and Key & Peele, [to offer] various takes on this. I think it’s a mistake to pretend that there isn’t an emotional dimension to this. How can we appreciate the emotion, but also [ensure] that it’s not destructive? Comedy might be a useful device.
TD: What do you mean by destructive?
PJ: Well, if people have different points of view — and this was happening in [my class] the day after [the election] — and they feel strongly about [their positions], and they express them, that can feel chafing and disrespectful. People can feel disrespected and that their views have not been acknowledged or understood. So you have to establish some rules about classrooms [for] different kinds of opinions. I hope to bring someone from the Trump campaign, or at least someone from the GOP hierarchy, to class. There will be different points of view from people who did not vote for Donald Trump. Then there’s another point of view from people who are pro-Trump, so I want to create space for all of those opinions. We’ll have a talk about rules of engagement inside of the classroom.
TD: It’s kind of funny that the course description for “Political Sociology” for Spring 2016 originally began with the question, “Does it make a difference who is president of the United States?”
PJ: [laughs] I think that question has a new urgency.