GU REACTION Professors Approach Terrorist Attacks Differently in Class By Rebecca Regan-Sachs Special to The Hoya

Like every other Wednesday for the past two weeks, Professor Ivo Jansen walked into his accounting class at 8:50 a.m. But this time, instead of delving into income statements and balance sheets, he called for a moment of silence and then asked his students if they wanted to share any of their thoughts and feelings.

It was a scene played out in classrooms across Georgetown’s campus as professors struggled to proceed with lesson plans that seemed suddenly irrelevant in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

“It was very difficult to do a class under those circumstances because emotionally you’re very involved,” said Professor Steven Kramer, who teaches comparative political systems. “I opened [the class] up to students to say what was on their minds … instead of my trying to give a lecture about it. I was very impressed with what they had to say.”

Professor Betsi Stephen had just learned of the death of her colleague, Leslie Whittington, on board American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. “It was a very difficult class for me because [of that],” she said. “I had worked with her over the years, so it was a devastating blow.

“I spoke first to the students and told them about Leslie’s death, though most had heard about it. The proseminar is on immigration, so it was natural to speak of xenophobia and the outcome of the attacks on the Muslim community at Georgetown and elsewhere,” Stephen said. “We then proceeded with most of what I had originally planned for the day, and it was helpful to do some `work.'”

Several professors made similar efforts to connect the recent tragedy to the material covered in class.

Rev. Joseph Palacios, S.J., who teaches sociology, noted to students how the field “lends itself to the problems of theorizing about terrorism without enough data.” He said his class discussed the events of Sept. 11 within the context of sociology and, in Palacios’ Latino sociology class, harmful ethnic stereotypes.

“Education should be reality-based,” Palacios said. “This is a special time in American history, and we want to be part of it.”

In his economics classes, Professor Eric Finch fielded questions about the effects of Tuesday’s attacks on the economy and reminded students that “an objective of the course, particularly macro, is to help them analyze such events independently.”

Women’s Studies Professor Bonnie Morris described herself as feeling “motherly,” and brought in dessert treats for students as they discussed women’s roles in the peace movement, the current debate over drafting women into the army and the educational conditions for women in countries such as Afghanistan and Palestine.

Many students responded favorably to the open discussions, with some writing E-mails thanking the professors for talking about the subject.

In some classes, however, little or no reference was made to the terrorist attacks, and class proceeded more or less as usual.

“I invited people, if they had acquaintances or friends or family [in the attacks], that they mention it; none did,” philosophy Professor Wilfried Ver Eecke said. “The topics of the classes did not immediately lend themselves to prolonged discussions, and therefore I did not do that.”

Jansen faced a similar silence in most of his classes when he opened the floor for comments. “I really didn’t know what to say about it,” he said. “I was still trying to make sense of it all myself. I just kind of struggled my way through class.”

Professor Ian Gale delivered his previously planned economics lecture after noting the death of Whittington and her family. “I felt it was best for me to carry on with my normal routine,” he said.

Nevertheless, professors said it seemed almost impossible to conduct class as it had been before the attacks occurred. “The goal of every professor is to sell [the students] on the importance of the topic,” Levinson said. “It was hard to get worked up about the significance of the minimum wage law or the tax cut debate when 6,000 people were killed in New York and Washington.”

At the same time, many professors discovered a new meaning in their classes and their work after last week’s unforgettable tragedy. “I found myself very thankful for the opportunity to teach at a Jesuit institution such as Georgetown,” Finch said.

“The Ignatian ideals fostered here empowered me to begin my classes last week with a moment of silent reflection. It even made me consider starting all of my classes in such a fashion,” he said.

“At Georgetown, we are creating a moral sentiment,” Palacios said, “[teaching] students how to think critically and act reflectively … to be reflective leaders and use their knowledge [well].”

Many professors expressed similar hopes for the generation they are now training to take its place in a world that seems to have changed dramatically in the course of just a few days.

“This is a critical moment for students to learn leadership,” Palacios said.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Comments are closed.