Following Donald Trump’s victory, several students reported significant distress and requested that midterms be postponed.
As it was becoming clear that Trump would win the election, sophomore Michael Gulcicek posted a draft email in the All Duke Facebook page that students could send to professors, asking that any Wednesday midterms be pushed back due to the election results. Several other students commented on Gulcicek’s post naming professors who had scheduled Wednesday midterms.
Some professors have been willing to postpone midterms, but others said it was either infeasible or not necessary.
“I ask, respectfully, but also urgently, that you consider postponing the midterm for another day,” Gulcicek wrote in the Facebook post, which has more than 430 likes. “I do not think it is fair to expect students to learn and review material as they consider the future of their country and what electing either candidate could mean for their safety, their identity.”
Speaking to The Chronicle, Gulcicek said he was unable to get his statistics exam postponed as he had hoped, but that his professor allowed students to not take the midterm—with the caveat that if they did not take it, the final would be weighted a larger percentage of their grade.
“It’s better than nothing, because if he was inflexible, I could have just gotten a zero on the midterm by not showing up,” Gulcicek said, noting that his first choice would have been for the midterm to be pushed back to Saturday.
In an email to his class obtained by The Chronicle, Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience named in one of the comments, did something similar. He allowed students to skip the exam if they wanted—with the understanding that they were losing an opportunity to improve their performance on past assignments.
In his email, he wrote this was the only way to not penalize those who were prepared for the exam and yet be fair to those who were negatively impacted by the election.
David Rohde, Ernestine Friedl professor of political science, said he did in fact postpone his midterm exam until Monday—not only because of students' reactions to Trump winning but also because of how late the election was decided. Although he acknowledged it was not an attractive option, the purpose of the exam would have been defeated had he kept it the way it was.
“When you give an exam, you’re doing it to elicit information on how much students have learned, and if things would seriously affect the accuracy of that, then you have to wonder whether it’s desirable to go ahead with the exam,” he said.
Affecting his decision was the predominance of first-years in his class, whom he said were more likely to be strongly impacted by the election. With a class of seniors and graduate students, Rohde said he would have been less likely to postpone.
Sophomore Jordan Cline was similarly successful in convincing his professor to give students the option of taking the exam during the weekend instead of on Wednesday, which Cline called the “optimum option.” At the same time, Cline noted he would have had no ill will had his professor refused to extend the date.
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“Ultimately it is the professor’s decision, and if a syllabus is provided showing the date of a midterm, it falls on the student to be prepared,” he wrote in an email.
Although he understood why a professor would not be able to change plans so suddenly, sophomore Harshil Garg, who also requested an extension, said it was unwise for professors to schedule midterms after election day in the first place. He added that professors should make some accommodations given students’ distress, and Gulcicek argued that professors have the option of swapping different lessons on the syllabus to accommodate students.
Garg's professor allowed students to submit a Short-Term Illness Notification Form for emotional anxiety if needed, he said. He noted that he would have been upset had his professor not taken the election into account.
“I would probably be a bit disappointed,” he said. “I think I would have been very disappointed if he hadn’t even addressed the issue and simply administered the exam, just because I think every student’s voice should be heard.”
David Banks, professor of statistical science, said he had no plans to either change his grading scheme or the exam date solely due to an election.
“In life, you may be disappointed, but you still have to get up and go to work and do your job,” Banks said. “Certainly I understand many students were unhappy with the election results, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t do what you’re responsible for and do the next thing.”
This was largely due to the rigidity of his syllabus, Banks said, which did not allow him to deviate or else material would not be covered.
Revisiting safe spaces
Other groups on campus have stepped in to help students cope with fears about a Trump presidency.
The Chronicle reported in August that the Sanford School of Public Policy was creating a safe space room for students, which was soon met with backlash from conservative media outlets. In response to the vote, however, the room’s organizers are using the room to help students respond to the election.
The “Sanford Safe Space” was open for drop-in visits from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Wednesday, and will be open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Thursday and Friday, said Quinton Smith, associate in research at the Sanford School of Public Policy.
Among the topics discussed by the 16 people who dropped in during the day were “disillusionment and disappointment,” Smith wrote in an email, as well as fear that they can no longer “express their identities in a way of their choosing.”
One of the room’s main organizers—Kathryn Whetten, a professor of public policy and nursing—said that she has had poignant conversations about the election. For example, she told the story of a student who was brought to America with her family, but was scared of deportation and “having to go to a country she doesn’t know without her family.”
Pushing back against the notion that safe spaces were somehow for “coddled liberals,” Whetten argued the election proves the necessity of safe spaces to facilitate dialogue.
“I would say that the election has shown the importance of these kinds of spaces so that we can have the intellectually rigorous discussion,” she said. “If we had been able to use this earlier, it would have been really good to have people who felt so disenfranchised that Trump spoke to them, instead of hiding they were supporters because they felt others would look down on them.”
The Center for Multicultural Affairs did something similar to the safe space, holding a healing space from noon to 3:00 p.m., and it has opened itself up to anyone fearful after the election.
"This morning the CMA professional staff received a text message from one of the students we work with, and she asked us first if we could have a healing space for students. We've had several in the past in response to various national tragedies like the uprising in Charlotte for example,” said Joanne Kang, a staff member. “And our doors are open all day, so if any students want to talk to any of the staff, they definitely can."
Samantha Neal contributed reporting. The Chronicle communicated with Smith by phone and by email.