Teaching the Tragedy: Students analyze our generation’s most formative moment

By Dylan Cinti, Daily News Editor
Published September 8, 2011

University lecturer Jonathan Marwil has taught a course on 9/11 every fall since 2007. And though the students in every class experienced that day in one way or another, Marwil has never once asked, “Where were you when the towers fell?”

That’s because, as Marwil points out, he’s teaching a history course — one that requires students to detach themselves from their own experiences in order to see the bigger picture.

“I’m not interested in turning the class into 35 personal stories,” Marwil said. “I want the students to be, so to speak, historians — not witnesses — of the event.”

As Marwil was interviewed outside his classroom in Mason Hall yesterday, his History 360 students were watching a 2002 documentary called “9/11,” a film composed of first-person footage from that day. It’s films like these — along with books, documents and guest speakers — that constitute the course curriculum.

After finishing the documentary, the students will read the 9/11 Commission Report and listen to a presentation by Lorry Fenner, a staff member of the 9/11 Commission. They’ll also read works of fiction such as John Updike’s “Terrorist,” a narrative account of an American-born Muslim recruited to be a terrorist.

Marwil said his goal for the course is to address 9/11 from every possible angle.

“By the end of the class I want them to have a critical understanding of what happened and how we have thought about it, how we’ve dealt with it and how we’ve chosen to remember it,” Marwil said.

The inspiration for the course came from a 2006 freshman seminar Marwil taught on the coverage of significant events, including 9/11. It was from that class Marwil said he began considering the wealth of information on the tragedy and realized there was enough for an entire class.

“I thought, ‘Why not a whole course on 9/11, and a course devoted to the consequences across a wide spectrum?’ ” Marwil said.

However, he said he understands when people question why a course on 9/11 is considered “history.”

“For a long time it was thought that you couldn’t write the history of anything closer than 50 years to your own time,” Marwil said.

Of course, 9/11 is quite the opposite — a contemporary event with a significant and ongoing impact on the world around us. That makes the class more challenging, Marwil said, but it’s a challenge his students rise to.

“Wipe away your feelings, your tears, your memories,” Marwil advised. “Now let’s discuss this.”

Several students in Marwil’s class pointed to the continuous relevance of 9/11 as the reason they enrolled.

“Normally in a history class you’re learning about someone who died 300 years ago,” LSA junior Christine Irish said. “The difference is, (this) is something that’s very real for all of us.”

LSA junior Glenne Fucci added that the highly specialized nature of the course made it appealing.

“It’s really interesting that there’s a class so specific, focused on such a unique moment in time,” Fucci said.

And as Irish pointed out, it’s a moment in time that’s engrained in every student’s past.

“I was only 10 years old at the time but still remember it to this day,” Irish said. “I guess the fact that it was the first major historical event that I was a witness to made me really interested in it.”

But for Marwil, the course is about moving away from memory toward understanding. As he put it, “I want them to learn, not just emote.”