Guidance for UM Instructors Leading Class Discussions on the Tragedy of September 11, 2001

Resource Title:
Guidance for UM Instructors Leading Class Discussions on the Tragedy of September 11, 2001

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 tragedy, the President of the University of Michigan asked faculty to dedicate class time to discussion of the events. The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) compiled the following guidelines to help faculty and graduate student instructors prepare for classes on September 12, 2001. These guidelines continue to be useful as instructors respond to student concerns about the tragedy and, whenever possible, integrate the intellectual frameworks of their disciplines into discussions of surrounding issues. In particular, the guidelines may be helpful for discussions on the one-year anniversary of September 11th.

These guidelines are also addressed in more detail in “Discussing the Unfathomable: Classroom-Based Responses to Tragedy,” by CRLT staff Diana Kardia, Crisca Bierwert, Constance E. Cook, A.T. Miller, and Matthew Kaplan, published in Change, January/February, 2002.

  1. Think through supportive ways to introduce and close the session.
  2. Ask the class to establish ground rules for the discussion. Some ideas you might want to propose to students before they begin discussion include:
    1. Avoid blame and speculation.
    2. Respect each other's views and avoid inflammatory language.
    3. Share personal stories and feelings. (Be prepared for students to be emotional, and try to support and comfort them.)
    4. Express anger and frustration within limits. (While it is important for students to express themselves, it is also vital to control the class and maintain an environment that feels safe for all students.)
  3. Be prepared for blaming. A backlash might emerge against people who share an ethnic/cultural/religious heritage with those accused. It is important that students not be doubly hurt by this tragedy -- first by the horrific news that has shaken us all and second by misguided generalizations.
  4. Be mindful that when someone compares the severity of this event to historical or other events, it might offend or estrange those who see themselves in different relationship to the examples given. For many reasons, students may have different relationships with the examples, such as personal history or age, past experience of violence or tragedy, group membership, or geographical or cultural origins or reference points.
  5. Create a framework for the discussion. Possible discussion topics include:
    • What hopes and fears do you have about this discussion?
    • In what ways are you personally affected by these events?
    • How might these events affect your/our future?
    • What positive actions can individuals take in response to this tragedy (e.g., give blood, support students new to campus or far from home)?
  6. Allow everyone a chance to talk (when possible), but don't force students to participate. Ways to accomplish this include:
    • Use a "round." Give each student a chance to speak in response to a guiding question without interruption or discussion, allowing students to pass if they desire. Following round, open the discussion for general response.
    • Divide students into discussion partners or groups.
    • Give students a chance to write before speaking. Ask students to do some writing when discussion seems to be getting out of hand.
  7. Where you can, explore links to the content of your class or discipline. Try to balance emotional and intellectual approaches.
  8. Collaborate with other instructors:
    • Join sections to have more than one discussion leader.
    • In large classes, break people into small groups with instructors and/or graduate students as discussion leaders.
    • Exchange ideas or strategies with other instructors, including debriefing the class discussion.

CRLT consultants are available by phone (764-0505), by e-mail ([email protected]), or in person (1071 Palmer Commons) to discuss additional strategies or concerns you may have about these discussions.

Counseling support is also available on campus. Instructors may contact the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FASAP) at 763-9700. Students may contact Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at 764-8312.

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