A professor I had in grad school once told us that the only occasion for which he had interrupted the regular teaching schedule was when the verdict in the OJ Simpson trial was announced. He said that this verdict was so important that he dedicated the class to waiting for it and then discussing it when it finally came in. Hugo Schwyzer, a popular blogger, mentioned two events for which he departed from the scheduled topic of discussion in class: the OJ Simpson verdict and the events on 9/11.
The fascination with the OJ Simpson trial has always baffled me. I was stunned when I heard a TV anchor say something to the effect that the entire world eagerly awaited the moment when the verdict would come in. I was even more stunned when quite a few of the Americans I met when I came to live in the US started asking me what we in Ukraine had thought of the verdict. Ethnocentrism truly rules if people manage to convince themselves that a verdict in some tawdry trial can possibly be of interest to people living on a different continent. It is as if we didn’t have our own issues, problems, natural disasters, political upheavals, and even – believe it or not – famous trials.
I wasn’t here, of course, when the entire OJ Simpson drama unfolded. At the time of 9/11, however, I was teaching my very first college-level course in Canada. I wasn’t scheduled to teach on Tuesday the eleventh (that was the day when I attended grad courses) but I did teach my Beginners Spanish course on the next day. People have often asked me how I addressed the issue with the students. The truth is, however, that I didn’t. I conducted a regular class where we conjugated verbs and did vocabulary exercises (I wasn’t a very good Spanish teacher then).
For me, the goal was to show to the students that a university is a temple of knowledge, a place where the learning process continues as planned no matter what. In this, I was inspired by the story of Fray Luis de Leon who, having been imprisoned for five years by the Inquisition, returned to the classroom and continued the lecture with the words, “As I was saying yesterday. . .”
Today, I read a post by feMOmhist who tried to talk about what was happening to her students 10 years ago. As you will see from the post, she found it very hard to establish a meaningful dialogue with the students at that time and only ended up being exposed to their feelings of the need for vengeance against vaguely defined “them.” Ten years ago, my knowledge of the US history and culture was quite limited. If somebody like feMOmhist, who is a historian and obviously a lot more knowledgeable about the US than I am, didn’t manage to get the students to discuss what was going on productively, I would have failed even more.
This is why I’m still glad I concentrated on Spanish verbs with stem changes in the classroom on 9/12.