Teaching in a Trump Country: The Political Potential of Introductory Sociology

Shelly Steward

Shelly Steward discusses the experience and challenges of teaching sociology at a community college in a conservative, rural area during the 2016 election cycle. She concludes that teaching introductory sociology can provide common tools for students to use that can bridge ideological divides, suggesting a need for quality sociology educators across educational institutions.

Photo: Michael Thomason

From Berkeley to North Dakota

Berkeley, California and Williston, North Dakota are 1,470 miles apart. A lot changes when you make the drive. The landscape slowly flattens out, the air becomes drier, and rich green gives way to endless brown. Speed limits go up and populations go down. Roads get narrower and the sky gets bigger. There are other changes, too. When I headed east during the beginning of presidential primary season, campaign signs took a decidedly red turn; it was in Idaho that I saw the first Trump banner. I came to the northwest corner of North Dakota in late 2015, planning to study workers’ experiences of the shale oil boom. Like so many, I did not predict the turn national politics would take. I did not envision my research dealing with explicitly political ideas. As the primaries heated up, though, discussing the election became unavoidable, both with colleagues back at Berkeley and my subjects and friends in Williston. Many people working in the oilfields saw the election as a chance to counter a slumping industry with decreased environmental regulation. The people I talked to alongside oilrigs, in frack-sand trucks, and on the streets of Williston looked to the election to turn the tide of falling oil prices and vanishing jobs.

As a Berkeley sociologist living in Williston, I found myself caught between two discourses—one held by the oil workers I spent my days with, another among fellow academic sociologists. Based on contributions to political campaigns, academics and oil and gas workers make up the most ideologically liberal and conservative professions.[1] These differences run deep, and are rooted to the careers themselves. Many academics see freedom of speech and accessible education as central to their profession;[2] oil workers see environmental deregulation and privatization as central to theirs. I heard these two discourses daily and struggled to draw any lines between them; each side seemed closed to the other.

As the election cycle developed, so too did my discomfort with my research. What was my role as a researcher when the worldviews of my participants were at times so deeply misaligned with my own?

As the election cycle developed, so too did my discomfort with my research. What was my role as a researcher when the worldviews of my participants were at times so deeply misaligned with my own? How could I reconcile my deep concerns for the world with the daily task of interviewing for my emerging dissertation? What was the value in understanding the experiences of insecurity among this particular population of workers when there were pressing, disturbing realities that called for immediate action? I felt increasingly disillusioned by my research, isolated from social action, and doubtful of my discipline’s role in instigating change.

Photo: Michael Thomason

Teaching in Trump Country

Once settled in Williston, I started teaching sociology at the local college, hoping to establish closer ties to the community and develop a sense of connection to the place I was living and studying. As with my research, I did not initially see this endeavor as holding political significance. Williston State College is a small 2-year college, one of 11 campuses of the North Dakota University System. It offers free tuition for local high school graduates, the result of a partnership between a private trust and matched public funds. It has a strong petroleum sciences department and several popular vocational programs. I was the sole sociology instructor.

As the primaries developed, I faced the dilemma—and the opportunity—of how to deal with the election in the classroom. Campaigns were increasingly permeating everyday discourse and occupying much of my own mental space. Dealing with electoral politics in the classroom seemed unavoidable. Nonetheless, initially, I avoided the topic, worrying that the emotion of the elections would detract from an inviting classroom experience. I was aware of vastly varying ideas, attitudes, and emotions among students, as well as a gulf between my own views and those of many locals. This was, after all, the center of Red-State America. New to the campus and an outsider to the community, I made a largely unconscious decision to avoid touching too heavily on politics. I pulled examples from seemingly neutral topics—local news developments, pop culture, campus goings on. I avoided what might be seen as loaded terms or a liberal bias; I did not want to limit conversation before it happened. Many students seemed largely disengaged. I worried; perhaps I had not avoided touchy topics enough and been written off as a Berkeley liberal. Or perhaps I had watered things down, avoided controversy, and made class boring and un-relatable. I visited other classrooms—agriculture, anatomy, industrial safety. These looked more like the classrooms I was familiar with at Berkeley: some participation, some signs of engagement as students asked for clarification or related curriculums to their lives. I tried different approaches, introduced new classroom activities, and talked to other instructors. I rearranged desks and showed comedic YouTube clips. Most significantly, I turned to the students. I asked them relentlessly what they thought of concepts and ideas. I asked them what was interesting and what did not make sense. I got a lot of shrugs.

Once we as a class could see society as an object of study—as important, complex, and approachable—we could move on to further questions—why inequality is problematic, what is shared among citizens in a society, why we should question social structures.

Eventually, though, basic questions began to emerge—questions I had never explicitly answered before, questions I had always taken for granted. One student raised his hand for the first time in weeks to ask why we were still asking questions about society. Another shared over lunch in the cafeteria that she struggled to see herself in a discussion about gender in society. I had jumped too deep into topics that I assumed had relevance—gender, race, family dissolutions, economic insecurity. But students had a much more basic series of questions; they asked how studying the make-up of society could help them, and why understanding society was a worthwhile goal. They struggled to see themselves in questions of structure, gender, class, race, and even politics. These were questions underlying the topics I had introduced, but had not taken the time to explicate. I slowly realized the assumptions underlying so much of sociology were not nearly as universal as I had unconsciously thought. To me, society was inherently fascinating and studying it made sense; after all, I’d been doing it for more than a decade. When I took an introductory sociology course my first year of college, I started with an interest in social life and an understanding of myself as part of a larger system—one I wanted to understand then and continue to interrogate now. This interest has been shared by most of my students at Berkeley. But without that foundation, many of the students in my North Dakota classroom saw questions of society and inequality as removed, a distraction from their vocational aspirations rather than inseparable from them. Once we as a class could see society as an object of study—as important, complex, and approachable—we could move on to further questions—why inequality is problematic, what is shared among citizens in a society, why we should question social structures.

In other courses—like the agriculture and petroleum sciences lectures I had observed—students saw their connection to the material from the outset. These students drove by oil derricks and through wheat fields every day. They understood their relationship to these industries. They did not have the same sense of familiarity when thinking about structural inequalities, institutions, or national policies. I had seen many students at Berkeley enter the classroom eager to discuss their relationship to these broad structures; I had expected the same from students at Williston State. I spent weeks articulating to myself, and then to students, how everyone is embedded in social relations, and that there’s value in examining them.

“Why sociology?” provided a set of understandings, a framework for conversation, that was not political or emotional on its own, but that allowed students to engage with one another and current events using common themes and language, and to see connections to issues and candidates that extended beyond the campaign signs they saw in their neighborhoods.

These conversations and clarifications provided a framework for so many more and more lively discussions—including the explicitly political. “Why sociology?” provided a set of understandings, a framework for conversation, that was not political or emotional on its own, but that allowed students to engage with one another and current events using common themes and language, and to see connections to issues and candidates that extended beyond the campaign signs they saw in their neighborhoods. Students asked one another questions, asked how their ideas, experiences, and opinions related to concepts like institutions, social norms, and culture. They began conversations that challenged their own views, using sociology as common currency. One student wrote in a response that he thought of himself as a part of a global society for the first time, paralleling the way he understood individual plants to be a part of a larger crop. He went on to write that issues at stake in the election—immigration, healthcare, education—mattered to everyone. For this student, a metaphor allowed him to realize the gravity of national politics in a way he had not previously.

As the term wore on, I continued to focus on examples and applications that were removed from electoral politics and hot-button issues. Conversations I had with both academic colleagues and Williston oil workers assumed the partisan politics of those involved. These conversations allowed for the frank expression of fears and concerns, and discussions of action and mobilization, but also would likely alienate anyone not in agreement. In my classroom, I tried to create a different atmosphere, where the commonality was an interest in similar questions rather than political persuasion. As a discipline, sociology has a liberal reputation that precedes it. This makes it an approachable ally for many progressive causes, and an obstacle or annoyance to many others. I learned that to engage students in this setting in meaningful debate, and in potentially belief-changing conversations, I had to get beyond this reputation. I had to introduce ways of seeing and thinking that were not polarized, polarizing, or explicitly political. And that was the most politically effective thing I could do.

These lessons, students told me, helped them see why sociological thinking was relevant to them, and equipped them to think about politics as something more than posting campaign signs that matched their neighbors’. They began to see themselves as part of a wider society, and to place their own community in an increasingly divided nation.

I tried to neutralize, as much as possible, the discipline, to move beyond its reputation. My goal was not to avoid politics; on the contrary, I envisioned creating a point of understanding for later debates, questions, and arguments. To do this, I had to fight my inclination to politicize content explicitly from the beginning. It was hard to watch an increasingly upsetting election cycle unfold, and then enter the classroom to talk about basic concepts applied to junior varsity basketball and the small-town diner that recently closed on Main Street. At first, these applications seemed trivial. When I began teaching at Williston State, I had worried that focusing on local and campus issues meant that I was ignoring pressing national politics, that I was retreating into an isolated classroom and ignoring what so loudly called for attention. Using everyday examples that seemed apolitical, though, allowed students to develop an understanding of society and their own relation to it. And that understanding held great political potential. For some students, it meant giving them a way to articulate the fear and discomfort they felt. For others, it meant coming to see the election as more than a distant news event or a one-issue matter. These lessons, students told me, helped them see why sociological thinking was relevant to them, and equipped them to think about politics as something more than posting campaign signs that matched their neighbors’. They began to see themselves as part of a wider society, and to place their own community in an increasingly divided nation.

As the year progressed, I began bringing more and more potentially sensitive or divisive topics into the classroom, always relating back to the premises that we had established, about the importance of society as an object of inquiry and students’ participatory role in it. What I hope to have accomplished was not an expressly political classroom, but a classroom in which students both came to see the importance of considering society as a unit of analysis and to see themselves as capable of that analysis, regardless of their preexisting and unfolding beliefs. That analysis could allow for dialogues and exchanges that were not happening elsewhere in students’ lives, or in many places across the country.

As academic sociologists, we will likely never be asked to justify the belief that inequality is worth interrogating. But if we are unable to clearly justify it, we lose a large audience.

As academic sociologists, we will likely never be asked to justify the belief that inequality is worth interrogating. But if we are unable to clearly justify it, we lose a large audience. The place for that justification is introductory classrooms at all types of educational institutions, especially those who might be most resistant to social inquiry in the first place, where sociology may be able to build a foundation for later conversations.

Teaching as tool of change in troubling times

There is great potential in rigorously studying the roots and implications of Trump’s presidency. Many sociologists and others have begun to address these questions, to shed some light on seeming paradoxes, and to increase understandings of the divisions that permeate and threaten contemporary American life. Disseminating these findings and engaging in explicitly political conversations and debates is important.

But another task is also crucial: rather than approaching these divisions as topics of inquiry, we must also cross them as educators. This pedagogical work lays the groundwork for further conversations. Universities are widely seen as having a liberal bent. Many sociology classrooms provide rich forums for like-minded students and their instructors to come together, to analyze recent trends, to strategize for social change, and to support one another through the anxieties of political trauma. But in other classrooms, a different potential exists. There are countless institutions like Williston State around the country—schools with strong vocational focuses, schools that are accessible to a wide range of students and distanced—geographically and culturally from elite echelons of academia. These institutions, too, have great political potential.

For it to be realized, we need a professional respect of teaching at institutions like Williston State College. It’s a slow road, it can feel disengaged and removed from pressing debates, and more than slightly frustrating. But it is on these campuses that some of our discipline’s greatest political contributions may lie.


Shelly Steward is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. She focuses on economic sociology, work, and inequality. Her dissertation examines experiences of workplace insecurity in the oil and gas and tech industries, spanning North Dakota, Houston, and Silicon Valley. She is interested in using sociology to inform effective labor and education policies in a changing world.


References and Footnotes

  1. Adam Bonica, Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections: Public version 1.0 [Computer file]. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Libraries. Accessed July 1, 2017. ‹http://data.stanford.edu/dime›.
  2. Neil Gross, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).