Students seek understanding of Sept. 11 issues in classes

Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Princeton students are expressing strong interest in classes that deal with the issues raised by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Departments have responded by handling enrollment increases in relevant classes and adapting existing classes to include examination of these issues, as well as adding courses on topics such as counterterrorism and gender and education in Islamic countries.

Robert Hutchings, assistant dean of the Woodrow Wilson School (right), is discussing the effect that Sept. 11 will have on the future of the Atlantic Alliance and on U.S.-European relations in his graduate-level class on "The Atlantic Partnership."


Enrollment is up in many existing classes that cover subjects related to Sept. 11. In the Near Eastern studies department, for example, enrollment numbers this year are breaking records. "The United States and the Middle East" has attracted 155 students this spring -- a huge increase from the 47 who took the class last year.

"There's a big thirst for these classes," said Sükrü Hanioglu, acting chair of the Near Eastern studies department. "Everybody wants to learn more about the Middle East. Everybody wants to learn more about Islam."

However, Hanioglu said that the large increase in students taking "The United States and the Middle East," taught by Assistant Professor Michael Doran, was not due solely to Sept. 11. "Professor Doran's performance has played a very significant role in this increase," he said. "I've received many e-mails from students telling me how great Professor Doran's teaching is."

Next year, the department will offer a class on Osama bin Laden and the phenomenon of al Qaeda, his terrorist organization. It will examine his rise from a historical point of view, exploring how Middle Eastern politics and the development of radical Islam fostered his emergence.

"We will look at the movements that feed into al Qaeda, the Saudi opposition from which bin Laden comes and the growth of radical Islam in Egypt," said Doran, who will teach the class with Michael Cook, the Cleveland Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies.

While the department expects a big enrollment for that class, it's unclear how strong interest in the Middle East will remain. Enrollment in "Elementary Arabic" jumped to 19 in the fall semester, about double the number of students who usually sign up for the class. Twelve students are enrolled for the spring term. Still, said Hanioglu, "we've never experienced such a big change in numbers for that course."

In the Department of Sociology, a class called "Sociology of Religion" has been refashioned to include an examination of the rise of violence in religious movements. "It is important to recognize that militancy occurs in various religious traditions," said Sharon Nepstad, the visiting research fellow teaching the course this semester. "My aim is to help students understand the growth of religious violence as a broader trend, not just a problem within the Islamic faith." In addition to considering Sept. 11, the course is examining religious violence in Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism.

And in the School of Architecture, students are considering how an architect thinks about memory and imagery in the wake of Sept. 11. "Sign, Image and Representation in Architecture After 9/11," taught this semester by Visiting Professor Peter Eisenman, is exploring how the relationship between a building and its symbolic purpose was altered by the attack.

Last fall Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, created a scenario in which students taking his "Constitutional Interpretation" course could consider an issue related to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. In a moot court exercise, students debated whether the words of a religious leader who advocates the murder of civilians would be considered protected speech by the Supreme Court.

"We always study the doctrine of freedom of speech in this class," George said. "To get the students to think about it, I took advantage of their interest in the current situation." Several other classes in the politics department also are using issues related to Sept. 11 to explore the themes of the courses.

Foreign policy to human rights

The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs has added two graduate-level classes this spring in response to last fall's events. "Counterterrorism and American Foreign Policy After 9/11/01" is addressing what drives terrorists, how they are armed and how the United States can fight terrorism at home and abroad. Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on national security policy, is teaching the class. "The Atlantic Partnership," led by Assistant Dean Robert Hutchings, is concentrating on the effect that Sept. 11 will have on the future of the Atlantic Alliance and on U.S.-European relations.

This spring the Wilson School also has added two undergraduate task forces, which are small seminars offered for juniors. "Gender and Education in Islamic Countries" is placing an emphasis on Afghanistan, although other countries also are being examined. "Lawful Responses to Terrorism After Sept. 11: A Human Rights Perspective" is exploring the responsibilities of the United States regarding Afghanistan and the appropriate means of bringing al Qaeda members to justice.

In addition, many professors who teach courses at the Wilson School about diplomacy, international politics and conflict are adapting existing classes to incorporate discussion of the events of Sept. 11. They are selecting new readings and case studies that deal with Sept. 11, as well as including the subject in their plans for class discussions and student projects. Some intend to focus one class meeting on the topic.

And several of those classes are much more popular with students this year than in past years, though the increases probably are not solely the result of Sept. 11, according to Surabela Fabian, assistant director for academic affairs at the Wilson School. The last time it was offered, Frank von Hippel's graduate-level course on arms control attracted a half-dozen students; this semester, the class has almost twice that number. Enrollment in "The Conduct of International Diplomacy," taught last semester by Hutchings, was 22 students, an 80 percent increase from last year.

Defining challenge

Wilson School graduate students also seem more interested in pursuing careers in government than they have in many years, Hutchings said. "I have found a trend back toward a willingness to consider a career in government as opposed to at a nonprofit," he said. "I think students recognize this is the defining challenge of their generation and they don't want to sit on the sidelines. They're calculating where can they go to make a difference."

While there was speculation that Sept. 11 would spur more students to apply to graduate programs in public service, the events of that day do not seem to be driving the increased interest in the Wilson School, according to John Templeton, assistant dean for graduate admissions. Applications for the school's master's degree in public affairs are way up this year -- 798 applications compared to 606 last year -- but Templeton doesn't attribute the increase to the terrorist attacks.

"I don't think it has much to do with Sept. 11. I think it has to do with the economy," he said. The last time the school experienced a record number of applications was in 1993, when the economy was in a slump, Templeton pointed out. In tough economic times, many people choose to enroll in graduate programs to upgrade their skills and wait out a tough job market.

Wilson School administrators haven't decided how much focus they will put on subjects related to Sept. 11 in next year's class schedule. "We want to have a dialogue with students to gauge how long this interest will persist," said James Trussell, acting dean of the school. "We don't know the rapidity with which student interest will gravitate to something else."

At the moment, professors will continue to keep an eye on the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan and elsewhere as they consider what topics to incorporate into their teaching. "Our courses are always being shaped by current events," Trussell said. "This is just a particularly powerful one."


February 25, 2002
Vol. 91, No. 17
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