I’m not interested here in “Remember 9-11” jingoism or patriotic speeches. I do want us to remember 9-11, of course. I want us to never forget what it must be like to be a bombing victim. I want us to remember how that event brought us all together. I want us to remember what we are still sacrificing in terms of privacy and liberty for a feeling of greater safety. I would like us to remember that we live in a dangerous world, what it feels like to confront that danger up close and personally, and I would like us to ask ourselves what we’re doing as a country to make this world either safer or more dangerous than it already is. But that’s not my focus right now.
What I would like to write about instead is my personal memory of the events of 9-11, particularly teaching college during 9-11. The Fall semester of 2001 was my first semester teaching a college course all by myself as a third-year graduate student. It was Freshman Composition, of course: first year college writing. Freshman Comp. courses aren’t so much content oriented as skill oriented: students need to learn to write certain kinds of essays, and that’s it, so once they learn content related directly to that skill, they can write about whatever they want. Instructors then pick whatever readings they decide are the best and most interesting for that particular class, and students do their writing assignments based on those readings.
For further context, I would like to place myself geographically. I attended graduate school at Drew University, which is located In Madison, NJ. Drew is about thirty miles due west of lower Manhattan, so it takes about an hour to get to Penn Station by train from Madison’s train station, making Madison a commuter town for people working in lower Manhattan. When I first researched the area, I found out it was one of the top ten most expensive places to live in the US at the time. IT and Finance people who work in NYC live in Madison and commute there daily. At least some of my students were local and had parents who worked in the financial district in NYC.
Now, can you guess what I’d assigned that semester? Among all of my readings, I’d assigned readings from Salman Rushdie and Edward Said, both of which related to western imperialism and the Middle East. And can you guess what we were discussing the first day of class after 9-11? You got it. Yes, I was discussing Middle Eastern postcolonial theory in class my first class meeting after 9-11 during my first semester teaching.
Now forget the content for a minute. I had students in class that day who knew someone who died when the Twin Towers collapsed. Everyone was in shock — the whole world was in shock. But it hit my students literally close to home. We could see the smoke rising from the collapsed buildings for weeks after the event. It seemed like it was just always there. I remember hating the sight of it after about a week but not being able to ignore it or look away.
What did I do in class that day? I barely remember. This was my first semester teaching college. I remember I let students express their grief. I remember carefully discussing the content of the readings. I remember more shock and grief than anger at the time. I remember sitting down at the front of the class to talk rather than standing up. I remember over the next few weeks talking to angry male students who wanted to drop out of college to join the Army, and I remember trying to talk them out of it, or at least delay: If you join ROTC now and then finish college you can join as an officer and do more good.
But looking back, I think I got my first experience, without knowing it, of what college classes are really for.