Supporting Our Students Through Collective Turbulent Times
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
- 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.