Magazine article The Quill

Terrorism Coverage Takes Toll on Teaching

Magazine article The Quill

Terrorism Coverage Takes Toll on Teaching

Article excerpt

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. …

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