Hard Questions, Few Easy Answers


Hard Questions, Few Easy Answers

Faculty and students struggle to make sense of terrorist attacks

Even before the shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, began to settle in, the Boston College community began searching not only for answers but for lessons to learn.

This past weekend saw displays of patriotism and unity around the Boston College campus. The annual "Pops on the Heights" concert held in Conte Forum Friday night (above) featured a performance by the University Chorale and the United States Military Academic Glee Club. Prior to Saturday's game between the Eagles and Army, students joined local firefighters and members of the Boston College Police Department in unfurling a huge American flag (below-right).
("Pops" photo by Mike Mergen, pre-game photo By Chris Minkiewicz)
To foster this inquiry, the University has hosted specially arranged panels, lectures and seminars, such as one held this past Monday in McGuinn Hall, which included panelists representing disciplines such as theology, English and history [see related story].

But it is the University's classrooms that have borne witness to much of the discussion, formal and informal, about Sept. 11. Faculty - some with a direct link to the disasters and their effects - say these conversations have the potential to be both comforting and educational, and have encouraged students to talk about the issues raised by the attacks, America's response, and possible outcomes.

A microcosm might be found in a seminar taught by Asst. Prof. Crystal Feimster (History), whose students displayed a typical gamut of emotions and reactions: concern for friends, anxiety for Muslim acquaintances, bewilderment and anger toward the terrorists and their motives. Some students advocated a strong, immediate retaliation, others expressed doubts about the long-term effectiveness of such a response.

At the end of one intense session, Feimster said, she told her students: "I'm glad you disagreed with one another. Don't apologize for having different opinions. It helps us all to rethink, and perhaps to be more articulate about, what we believe."

If this unprecedented national crisis has brought Boston College to new and uncertain territory, say administrators and faculty, the University is relying on some traditional and steadfast tools for the exploration.

"One of the tasks for Boston College in the wake of Sept. 11 was to make a pastoral response," said Vice President for University Mission and Ministry Joseph Appleyard, SJ. "The liturgies, the prayer vigils, the offering of spiritual counseling - all have taken place in an atmosphere of general watchfulness and cura personalis.

"But also important is our academic response, as a Jesuit and Catholic institution that strives to examine perennial questions of human existence, even as we confront a changed, and changing, world.

"For our faculty and students to look at the events of Sept. 11 in the classroom is very appropriate in our vision of this university."

Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculties John J. Neuhauser said, "As a liberal arts university in the Jesuit and Catholic tradition, it is an expected part of our culture that we reflect on and talk about events that dramatically affect our life views. I know these conversations are taking place around campus in many kinds of settings, and we hope to encourage more."

For some faculty, the events of Sept. 11 were impossible to put aside. That morning, Prof. Ann Wolbert Burgess (CSON), an internationally recognized expert on the treatment of trauma, had flown from Boston to New York, where she was preparing to offer legal testimony when the attacks on the World Trade Center took place.

Burgess was therefore an eyewitness to the emergency response efforts that captured the nation's admiration. She said she was impressed "by how fast the country moved [in response to the attacks]. I would give the emergency response an A-plus."

In addition, Burgess's students in her Forensic Science class are seeing the importance of this work play out in Washington, DC, New York and Pennsylvania, where forensics teams are gathering evidence and identifying remains.

"We had someone in from the Boston Crime Lab last week and this week we are having someone come in to discuss the use of dental records in crime scene identification," said Burgess.

The horrifying nature of the terrorist attacks would have been daunting enough for faculty to attempt to discuss. The fact they occurred so early in the semester, with faculty still establishing a rapport with their students, made for a greater challenge.

The dreadful uncertainty surrounding the fate of those missing in the World Trade Center disaster further complicated matters. Sociology Department chairman Prof. Stephen Pfohl heard of one University colleague who expressed concern as to whether discussing the attacks might upset students who, directly or indirectly, were connected to families and friends affected by the disaster.

Faced with these and other questions, administrators organized seminars at Connolly House for faculty and teaching fellows, as well as representatives from University Counseling Services, to discuss ways of confronting the crisis.

"There was a general inclination among faculty to let students speak about what's on their minds," said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Joseph Quinn, a co-organizer of the seminars. "But most faculty members are not experts in psychology, so it was helpful to hear some insights we could all bear in mind. Making sure to take attendance in class, to help determine if there might be students who were isolating themselves, for example, or being aware of others who had experienced past personal or family trauma."

In the hours and days immediately following the attacks, some faculty briefly set aside the classroom work to allow for free-ranging discussion, then resumed the curriculum. But other faculty say they found aspects of the disaster and aftermath which resonate with themes relevant to their classes, and continued to explore the events.

Feimster's students in her Racial Violence seminar, for example, undertook research on the Middle East, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and other issues and personalities related to the Sept. 11 disaster, and shared it with one another.

Students of the Great Books, meanwhile, found echoes of Greek tragedy or Machiavelli.

"A number of students commented how recent events had brought vivacity to their reading of older texts," said Prof. Donald Hafner (Political Science), who joined A&S Honors Program Director Mark O'Connor and Asst. Prof. Christopher McDonough (Classical Studies) in discussion with freshmen and sophomores in the Honors Program.
The theme of the late-afternoon gathering in the Honors Program Library Sept. 25 was "the life of the mind meets the life of the troubled spirit," said O'Connor. "Our discussion focused on how one brings together what one studies with the vicissitudes of life."

More than a dozen students took part, with much talk centering on Machiavelli, whose book The Prince is being read by Honors Program underclassmen. "He argues for amorality in dealing with others that some argue is appropriate in international affairs, and describes a world that is ruthless, which some would say describes the terrorists," Hafner said.

O'Connor said he was struck by the readiness with which students applied current events to ancient texts.

Homer's Iliad, for example, catalogues at length the participants in various battles. "One freshman said the long list of names in the Iliad took on enormous relevance when she saw the long list of names at the World Trade Center," O'Connor said. "She noted she had visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, but that it hadn't meant much to her until she had seen the names from the World Trade Center."

The conversation was so engaging that two or three more are planned over the upcoming semester, organizers said.

Because not all BC students' education takes place on campus, the events of Sept. 11 brought other, unexpected challenges.

Assoc. Prof. Judith Shindul-Rothschild, chair of the Connell School of Nursing's Psychiatric Mental Health and Community Health Department, supervises eight senior nursing students on a psychiatric-mental health clinical rotation at Deaconess-Waltham Hospital. Since her students have their psychiatric clinical shift on Thursdays, they had to report to the hospital just 48 hours after the disasters.

"These students weren't able to be in a classroom talking with fellow students and faculty about the attacks," she said. "They had a job to do. Their clinical rotations take them off campus 20 hours a week, away from some of the prayer services and the opportunities to connect with classmates. And while at clinical, they need to be reassuring, calm and self-assured, because the number one priority is to make their patients feel safe."

Many of the patients coming to the hospital's emergency room are "fresh to mental health services," she said, but are now experiencing anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. Last week her nursing team assisted a flight attendant afraid to get back in the air and a worker who could not return to a job at the John Hancock Building.

Recounting her nursing students' experiences, Shindul-Rothschild said, "I have been so proud of them. They have shown energy, a sense of purpose and have been very attentive to their patients' needs. That's why I love teaching undergraduates at BC."

Assoc. Prof. Thomas Hibbs (Philosophy), a culture critic who has written for the Chronicle of Higher Education and National Review Online on the reaction of Generation X to the current crisis, said the wisdom of the ancients has taken on new relevance for his philosophy students.

"We have had some excellent discussions and on a number of topics," he said. "My impression is that students are eager to learn more about the Middle East, about the role of US foreign policy in the region, and that they are searching for precedents in American history to help them put them events of Sept. 11 in some sort of context.

"Many are also eager to learn what kind of wisdom about current issues can be found in our western traditions. We discussed whether the terrorists should be called evil and whether the terrorists are cowardly or brave or something else that Aristotle calls 'rash.'

"In one class, questions about war and justice led to a discussion of Aquinas' criteria for a just war and of how a Christian like Aquinas, who thought of vengeance as corrupting the vengeful, could also hold that some wars are just and that attacking evil is sometimes morally obligatory.

"Teaching and learning can be difficult in the wake of such attacks, but the unsettling of all sorts of assumptions following the events of Sept 11 can make students more open to philosophical reflection, less willing to dismiss philosophical issues with an insouciant shrug."

The week of the attacks on New York and Washington, Adj. Asst. Prof. Bonnie Jefferson's class in Communication Criticism was studying "rhetorical situation," focusing on occasions when sweeping events have required leaders to speak publicly. They had planned to analyze the church-state speech John Kennedy gave to Houston ministers during the 1960 presidential campaign.

The syllabus changed with the events of Sept. 11.

"I had two or three students e-mail to ask, 'Are we going to talk about the president's speech?'" Jefferson said.

"It wasn't just an exigency that the president needed to speak. We all needed to talk."

The 20 juniors and seniors in the course have since given careful scrutiny to President Bush's remarks, mulling the evolution of the presidential speaking style over the course of the crisis.

Jefferson said the president has increasingly found his voice, his rhetorical delivery steadily improving since a somewhat tenuous performance the first day of the crisis.

She gave him good marks for his words of consolation at a national prayer breakfast following the attack, and said his address to the joint Houses of Congress combined elements of Franklin Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor speech and Ronald Reagan's address following the Challenger explosion.

But what might otherwise have been a purely academic exercise has been given gravity by the stakes involved, she said.

"It's sometimes difficult to look at things in a critical way, to say this or that didn't work," she said, "because it's so frightening."

For Prof. Paul Lewis (English), class discussion since the events of Sept. 11 has required a particularly delicate approach. Lewis, who is teaching Poe and the Gothic this semester, said he has been challenged by the need to balance the course material against what is going on in the larger world.

"You're torn between two impulses. On the one hand, you don't want to minimize what happened, but at the same time you have to see literature and art in their appropriate contexts in the world," he said.

Some of the required readings for the course include The Monk by Matthew Lewis and Weiland by Charles Brockden Brown, novels that include characters motivated by religious fervor. "There are some obvious connections, but you can't forget the differences as well." said Lewis.

Emotions may have been heightened by the national crisis, but faculty say they are pleased by students' civility and sincerity in seeking answers.

"I've found that our students are almost unfailingly polite to one another, even if they can't agree with each other," said Hafner. "BC prides itself on the intellectual quality of students it now attracts, and I think that might be reflected in the sophistication with which many are looking at this event."

"I'm quite impressed with our students," said Pfohl. "They've shown themselves to be very thoughtful, and quite willing to consider the events of Sept. 11 in many dimensions."

-Stephen Gawlik, Sean Smith, Kathleen Sullivan and Mark Sullivan


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