Supporting Our Students Through Collective Turbulent Times

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By Michele DiPietro, Executive Director for Faculty Development, Recognition, and Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

January 8, 2021

The events of January 6, when terrorists breached Capitol security and forced an evacuation, have reopened a deep wound in America, highlighting the poisonous tribalism that feeds on racism and misinformation. Some of us have been deeply impacted as educators and are wondering how to show up to class next week and support our students as they too process the events. I have done research in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks (DiPietro 2003; Huston & DiPietro 2005), studying what professors did in the classroom to help the students and how the students felt about those actions. I offer the highlights of that research here in the hope that it might help educators make informed decisions about their teaching. A disclaimer—the two events hit differently. The magnitude of the 2011 attacks shook the whole nation to the core. The thousands of lives lost in one morning created ripples all around the nation as their families grieved. It was the defining event of a generation. The human cost is not comparable with this year’s events, even as their symbolic significance casts dark shadows over the very idea of democracy. I say this to invite everybody to contextualize my research findings with the current situation. 

  • We know from neuroscience research that the brain responds to traumatic events in predictable ways. As fear and anxiety increase, so does the wish to affiliate and feel part of a community. Some high-level cognitive functions decrease, such as the memory for integrated information and the capacity for planning and problem-solving, and the brain compensates by increasing its reliance on standard practice and automatic reactions. Those can be more or less pronounced reactions, depending on each individual’s coping skills. 
  • My first piece of advice is to do something. The most common response after 9/11 was to do nothing, show up and teach as if nothing had happened. There were various reasons for that. Some didn’t know what would be advisable. Some had an idea of what would be recommended (maybe hold a discussion), but they did not feel equipped with the skills to do so. Some were processing the events themselves and were not ready to help students process. Some intentionally wanted to foster a sense of normalcy in the midst of the chaos. Whatever the reason for not doing anything, students found it very frustrating when the tragedy wasn’t even acknowledged.  

  • As you brainstorm ideas for what to do, think of the cost/benefit ratio. Some actions cost nothing and are very effective. For instance, students reported that doing a moment of silence was very helpful. Similarly, they appreciated reassurances. A few simple statements can be very helpful, such as “if you find yourself unable to focus, know that that is normal. I am available to help you brainstorm study strategies. If you need an extension on an assignment, please do not hesitate to ask.” 

  • In the wake of events that make us feel powerless, the operative principle is to help students regain a sense of control (Carver et al. 1989). Students absolutely appreciated faculty who reminded students of campus resources (like counseling services), mentioned ways that people can help, or asked students to brainstorm ways they can help (check on your friends, donate to democracy-supporting or voting fairness organizations, donating blood in the case of 9/11, and so on). Conversely, statements such as “Yeah, this horrible thing happened but there is nothing we can do, so we might as well go on with the program” were not appreciated and are unsound from a theoretical perspective. 

  • Discussions can be very powerful, but in fact they had a very mixed reception. Students were split exactly 50/50. Some loved the discussions the had in class when those happened, some hated them. The reason for that is these discussions, by their very nature, cannot happen on the intellectual plane only. They will bring up feelings, emotions, histories of past pain, factions and grievances. Professors who are not ready to hold all these emotions and channel the energy in a productive way might do more harm than good. I would advise people to reflect honestly on whether they are prepared to deal with multiple, disagreeing perspectives, and ensure the discussion is a learning opportunity for all students. If not, simply fall back on low-cost options such as the ones above. 

  • One of the things that can happen in the aftermath of tragic events is a retreat into dualism—clinging to simplistic black and white explanations with no shades of grey (Perry 1999). A great strategy is to employ the tools of your discipline to help students embrace the complexity and facets of the situation. Some disciplines might be particularly suited to the task (in this case political science, sociology, and so on) but your creativity is the limit. In my research, I encountered professors from many disciplines not usually consider to study terrorism who folded the 9/11 attacks into the curriculum. For instance, a statistics professor created an activity where students had to use Bayes theorem to calculate the probability that a random Muslim person would be a terrorist using commonly available data. Spoiler: it’s negligible, because the probability that any random person is a terrorist is negligible. He used the tools of statistics and probability to fight Islamophobia in a very simple way. 

  • If all else fails, writing is always an option. The long-term benefits of expressive writing in the wake of trauma are well established (Pennebaker 2011), and you do not need to be a professor of English to ask the students to free write for 5 minutes about their reactions to the events. As the research would predict, students whose professors asked them to write appreciated the opportunity to get their feelings out of their system and felt more ready to refocus on the content afterwards. 

We are living through momentous, historical events but we are not helpless. There are some concrete actions we can take to support our students. I hope these ideas jolt your pedagogical imagination. 


Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Kumari Weintraub, J.  (1989).  Assessing coping strategies:  A theoretically based approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 267-283.
DiPietro, M. (2003) “The Day After: Faculty Behavior in Post 9/11 Classes” To Improve the Academy, vol. 21, 21-39. 

Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2005) “In the Eye of the Storm:  Students’ Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy,” To Improve the Academy, vol. 25, 207-224. 

Pennebaker, J., & Chung, C. (2011) Expressive writing and its links to mental and physical health. In H. Friedman (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology. Oxford University Press. 

Perry, W. G. (1999) “Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in College Years: A Scheme.” San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.