(Originally I posted this to my collective departmental blog, but it's more appropriate on a site that I take full responsibility for myself, I think.)
Like many of you, I've paid close attention to some of the media retrospectives on the ten year anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and I've intentionally ignored others. I've managed to avoid seeing those film clips of the twin towers falling again, but somehow I keep hearing replays of the aftermath sound bites from then-President George W. Bush. I listened to a bit of the NPR coverage this Sunday morning, and skimmed most of a New York Review of Books essay, but I declined to take a free copy of my hometown Wisconsin State Journal, with its commemorative cover page. For me, I guess, 9/11 is less something that happened ten years ago, and more something that is still happening today — in the form of an economic crisis across the globe, two frustratingly complicated wars that have yet to end, and ongoing news reports, almost weekly, of anti-Islam, or anti-Middle Eastern, or anti-Arab, or anti-anybody-who-looks-like-my-Hollywood-movie-idea-of-a-terrorist prejudice here in the US.
We all personalize such global media events, I think. (And I mean no disrespect in calling 9/11 and its ongoing aftermath a "global media event" — after all, terrorism is by definition meant to grab headlines, soundbites, and video clips, in order to inspire fear and provoke a response; wars against terrorism, whether noble, misguided, or both, are inevitably waged with marketing campaigns alongside, and seem to wind down only when public-opinion polls turn negative.) This anniversary is all the more difficult for me because, like many of my friends at UW-Madison, it is also the tenth anniversary of my first semester on campus as a teacher and researcher. September 2001 was the first month of my first "real" faculty job, in the new career in public service education that I had chosen several years earlier (and not without a great amount of anxiety) over the private corporate ladder.
The academic decisions that I made in the hours, days, weeks, and years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — with much assistance, advice, and inspiration from my colleagues — still stay with me. Do we continue teaching courses on the day of the disaster? (We did, but we allowed students to go home to be with friends and family.) Do we work these events into our syllabi that semester, even in courses without a direct connection to the topic? (Absolutely, though hopefully we did so without dogma and prejudice.) Do we return to the event each year or do we let it fade from memory? (We keep it alive, though with each new class comes the realization that our students were younger and younger on that horrible day.)
The events before, during, and after September 11 became a regular part of my syllabus for "Introduction to mass communication," in a series of lectures and readings that slowly morphed from "Media responses to tragedy" to "Media engagement with war". The research project that I was working on for most of this period, an historical study of the human/machine practice of automated stenography, ended up being grounded by an introductory vignette of the ways that live television closed-captioners dealt with the non-stop news cycle on 9/11. And the final unit of my newest course, "The information society," now deals with the threat of "cyberwar" and the constantly-changing definitions of terror and justice in a world with both robotic Predator drones and crowdsourced Wikileaks archives.
It seems almost inappropriate for me to use this forum to call on my friends and colleagues to remember this day, to honor those who were lost, and respect those who continue to work for a better, more peaceful world ten years later. Other leaders, activists, and writers will call on us to remember these things with much more grace, authority, and power than I can. But maybe I can call on readers of this blog post to simply offer their own perspectives on how that day ten years ago ended up changing their work as academics — or their work as students — and how it again may inspire us to change our curriculum and our university for the better. We still need such ideas, more than ever.