Teaching Psychology in September 2001

Memoirs from a second-year teacher.

Posted Sep 11, 2019

Robert Mather
Half mast flag at the University of Central Oklahoma ROTC Building on September 11th, 2019.
Source: Robert Mather

September 2001 was a defining time for Generation X. My own experience is intertwined with my experience as a 25-year-old psychology teacher. After watching the horrors unfold on national television with the rest of America, I drove my truck to the first of two campuses where I was teaching that day. All classes were cancelled at both campuses by the time I arrived, but I will never forget the uneasy serenity of those long drives. Few cars were on the highways of Oklahoma City at that time, and the sky was eerily unblemished as all flights were grounded. Only an occasional AWAC flew over, reminding me that we were under attack and threats could be anywhere.

Before that day, I was beginning a new school year, my second as a college teacher. We were several weeks into a fantastic semester and had just enough time to build a strong rapport. After September 11, I was confronted with the harsh reality that being a psychology professor means that you don’t have time to fully come to grips with events like that yourself before you must step in front of a class. Across our university we had been instructed that when classes resumed that week, we should be willing to take the time to discuss the events and help students process it.

I taught both introductory and advanced courses. How was I supposed to reassure the students when I was basically their age? I decided that they would get enough of the events on the news every day and in the rest of their classes, so I chose to teach psychology and not address the events at all. Thirty seconds into my first lecture to a freshman class, a hand was raised and asked if we were going to discuss the events, since this was a psychology class. I responded with “Aren’t you talking about this in all of your other classes?” The reply was “Yes.” I continued “Do you feel like it helps any to talk about it in all of your classes?” The reply was “No.” I added “Well, we aren’t going to talk about it in here today. I’m going to teach you psychology instead and give you a break.” I was surprised at how excited the class was to move on to the material and distract themselves from the tragedy.

What followed in the weeks afterward presented challenges. There were many veterans in my classes, both men and women. I would estimate that 80 percent of my male students were in the military reserve, either just having completed active service or serving in the Reserves or National Guard. I watched my classes lose students every few weeks to deployment, and more deployed immediately after the semester. Many of these young men were the same age as I was at the time, leaving their schooling and families to fight on our behalf. It was humbling. How important was a grade in a class to a student who was about to deploy to Afghanistan? There are administrative processes in place for this—awarding an incomplete, etc. However, the simple fact was that most of them just stopped caring about school as they saw they would be deployed. Supporting them through that became part of my job.

As a more seasoned professor looking back now, I don’t know if I would have handled the subsequent class periods differently. Students often look to professors, particularly psychology professors, for comfort in times of disaster. I suspect I would have handled it the same way now, but I don’t know.

In May 2011, I visited Ground Zero where the World Trade Center had stood. By coincidence, President Obama was also visiting that day and laid a wreath at the site. I stood in the quiet crowd for hours waiting to see what would happen. There was no plan, and no one knew what was happening, but the city had basically just showed up because a rumor had circulated that the president might stop by. I stood pressed against a fence on the front line, wedged against a woman and her child for hours. As I listened in, I discovered that she was a widow. Her husband was a New York City police officer who had died at the World Trade Center on September 11. Her son had barely known him and she was explaining to him why this place and moment were important, how proud she was of her husband, and how sad she was that they had lost him. Soon her family battled through the crowd to join her. September 11 taught us about evil, but it also taught us about unselfishness—the altruism of the men and women who ran into the chaos instead of away from it (Batson, 2011; Mather, 2011).

Nearly a decade after that, I met a young woman who was a toddler at the time of the attack, living in New York. She told me about the fear she felt watching the news in a language she didn’t understand (English) and the hysteria of the adults. This taught me that these powerful events have lasting effects for everyone, even the children we try to shield from such things.

Reference

Batson, C. B. (2011). Altruism in humans. New York: Oxford.

Mather, R. D. (2011). A new monument to human altruism. [Review of Altruism in Humans.]. PsycCritiques, 56(37).