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Penn State professors on how 9/11 changed their teaching

Old Main flag 911_2.jpg
Min Xian
Penn State's Old Main administrative building was decorated to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

The September 11th attacks have changed many aspects of society, including academia. Penn State professors spoke to WPSU about how 9/11 affected their fields of study and what it’s like to teach a generation of students who have no memory of 9/11.

For fields like Political Science, History and Journalism, 9/11 signaled a shift, moving from the Cold War era to one focused on Islam, terrorism and the increasingly digital world.

Jonathan Brockopp is a professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State. He studied Islam before the 2001 attack, when he says most universities had few experts on Islamic studies and the history of Islam. There were only a few at Penn State.

“I was the only person who was a specialist on the history of Islam as a religion per se,” Brockopp said. “That's changed dramatically. We now have everyone from Jyoti Balachandran who works on Muslim networks across the Indian Ocean, to Faisal Husain and works on the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin to scholars of the modern study of of the middle east and Islam including Michelle Campos and Lior Sternfeld felt many others in not just fields of not just history but also literature.”

Political Science Professor D. Scott Bennett says after the attacks on 9/11, terrorism became increasingly prominent in American foreign policy.

“We had to pivot what we're teaching in part because U.S. foreign policy really pivoted,” said Bennett. “Before 9/11, there was still a big focus on major power politics, on economic development or conventional military war, and U.S. foreign policy pivoted so that more terrorism was the centerpiece of a lot what we were doing in foreign policy.”

 A Penn State student takes a picture of Old Main draped in an American flag to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Min Xian
A Penn State student takes a picture of Old Main draped in an American flag to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

For Penn State journalism professor Curt Chandler, 9/11 signified a new era in news media. Chandler was the editor of online innovation for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette during 9/11. When residents of Pittsburgh looked for answers about what was happening in Shanksville, which was nearby, as well as New York and Washington D.C., they began turning to the paper’s website to see live updates on the events.

According to Chandler, that day was the first time people really looked to digital media as a source for breaking news. Many TV stations on the East Coast were down. People were at work, so they turned to their computers instead.

“And they went to digital news sites, and watched and read there what was happening, even though it was an event that was covered really well by TV, most of the TV or a large part of the TV audience couldn't access it, '' Chandler said.

Brockopp has noticed differences in teaching students post-9/11, mainly revolving around their attitudes toward Islam. Before 2001 students didn’t know much about the religion and were open minded about it. But after 9/11 students had a much more negative view of Islam.

“Now its quite common how students who feel that they can be very negative about the study of Islam coming into the classroom saying things like, ‘I'm taking this class because I need to know about our enemies’ and saying that with Muslim students in the room who are concerned when they hear non-Muslim students obviously saying things like that,” Brockopp said.

Chandler says there are moments where you never forget where you were or what you were doing when they happened, like President John. F Kennedy’s assassination, the Challenger exploding, and 9/11. While these were pivotal moments in his life, many of the students Chandler now teaches do not remember 9/11 or were not even born at the time of the event.

“I still think that I teach the same thing, but I'm doing it from a historic perspective,” Chandler said.