It was the silence that drew her attention. As Leslie-Jean Thornton showed her class an example of an interactive infographic – a map indicating terrorist training camps in the Middle East – she glanced to the side and saw a student falling apart. “She had her head down on her arms; her shoulders were shaking, but she made no sound,” said Thornton, a lecturer at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Seeing other students growing concerned, Thornton quickly pitched her next scheduled assignment – an AP style and grammar exercise – in favor of pairing the students off to interview each other about their most memorable moment. The diversion gave her a chance to speak with the crying student, help her leave the classroom, and talk with her outside for 15 minutes. “She was confused, scared, feeling betrayed by others’ reactions to her Middle East background,” said Thornton, whose student has not returned to class. “Mostly I felt like sobbing with her.” On Sept. 11, journalism professors across the country began reworking their assignments and policies to reflect a world suddenly full of the unexpected and unthinkable. From midterms that deal exclusively with the attacks, to the suspension of deadlines, to counseling and trauma management, many found their greatest classroom tools were flexibility and grace. And what they found in their students besides bewilderment was a real appetite for news. “The news hasn’t seemed to matter to them in recent years,” said Glynn R. Wilson, who teaches in the Communication Department at Loyola University in New Orleans. “It obviously matters to them now; they’re paying attention now.” Wilson, who will defend his dissertation this fall at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, changed the content of every assignment, including the midterm. “Our midterm exam story focused on local threats from potential terrorism on the Port of New Orleans and the Chemical Corridor in Louisiana,” he said. “Scary stuff, but it worked.” Scary stuff is what classrooms are made of these days as the impact ripples through the seats. In many classes, students have either known people who were killed or injured in the attacks, or were related to them, coincidences and tragedies that professors – with the students’ consent – have used as teaching tools. “Take as much time as you need” and “Whatever I can do to help” were the first words out of Dan Fost’s mouth when a student e-mailed him with the news that her cousin had been killed on one of the planes that hit the towers. When she returned to San Francisco State University from Massachusetts two weeks later, she spoke to the class about how the media covered her cousin’s death when the family chose not to comment. “I had the class write about her talk,” said Fost, who is the media reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and teaching for the first time this semester. “She was eloquent on the subject of how she had stopped reading newspapers and had to turn off the television, as she couldn’t bear to watch the footage of the plane over and over.” It is this kind of intense personal experience that has made the subject matter so compelling for classrooms – and so difficult – as the unexpected pops up every time someone turns on the television. Kaylene D. Armstrong’s class met on that Tuesday morning and watched as the second plane hit the towers. A student whose sister worked in the World Trade Center “just stood up and said ‘I have to go home’,” said Armstrong. The student, who attends Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio, flew to New York with her brother, searched the hospitals, searched the lists of missing and dead, and finally found their sister in a New Jersey hospital where she couldn’t tell anyone who she was. The family recognized the woman, swathed in bandages, from a ring she wears. The student later wrote about the experience for the college newspaper. In another class, two students lost relatives killed in the Pentagon attack, another dropped because his reserve unit was called up and a fourth has just disappeared. “I wish he’d come and let me help him deal with school if I can,” said Armstrong, an instructor of journalism and English at the college But if the news is filled with loss and suffering, it’s also full of opportunities to reinforce the basic lessons of journalism. “There is so much that’s illustrative of what we teach,” said Thornton, who is near the end of her doctorate program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Editing, layout, news judgment, the ethics of dealing with people who are scared, how to overcome your own feelings … . There’s a tremendous range of issues we can address.” And it isn’t going to end with the semester. Already some schools are gearing up for what’s ahead, including Roosevelt University in Chicago, where they decided to add a course for the spring called “Covering War.” The class, an upper level or graduate course, will examine in three case studies how the rules of reporting such conflicts have changed over time. “This is the time when history comes to life,” said Norb Tatro, who will teach the class.
Elizabeth Birge is an assistant professor of journalism at William Paterson University in New Jersey.