Which Events Would You Interrupt Class For?

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.

23 thoughts on “Which Events Would You Interrupt Class For?

  1. Aside from university ordered cancellations due to weather, fire drills, etc., the only time I remember interrupting what I had planned for a class was the day Bertrand Russell died, back in February 1970, three months before his 98-th birthday. I read his New York Times obituary to the class. I had always felt that he was one of the most important people in twentieth century mathematics, and I had also always greatly admired him. (Some of my colleagues agree, some do not.)


  2. I can still remember my mother telling me that the only time her class was ever interrupted was when she was in grade 7, and the principal burst in to tell the teacher and students that the president (JFK) had just been assassinated.
    I was also in grade 7 when 9/11 happened, and I really didn’t understand the method the teachers used to approach it. I was in a private Catholic school, and they thought the best way to deal with it was to have us write letters to God asking for the victims to be “saved”, and devote the whole day to this drawn-out ritual of writing the letters, having the priest bless them, and then burning them under a statue of Jesus so they would “reach God”.
    I just wanted to start a fund raiser for the Red Cross or the local firefighters, which was rebuked. Even at age 12, I was very pragmatic about these things.


      1. As serious as the grave. It was exceptionally cheesy, but everything about that school was cheesy. A few other memorable things include being forced to walk on a labyrinth whenever we were “disagreeable”, doing the Lord’s Prayer while making Tai Chi poses, and being punished for picking a flower without “asking permission” first. Not the teacher’s, the flower’s permission.


  3. I was a senior in college when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. My classes that afternoon (Friday, November 22, 1963) were not cancelled, but as I recall the college did cancel classes the next day (Saturday) and Monday. The class I had that Friday afternoon was an E & M lab.


  4. The only time I remember class actually being interrupted for something other than a fire (drill or not) or gas leak (or burnt onion bagel) was…the most recent inauguration speech. I was a junior in high school (I think), and my math and history teachers each dedicated an entire class to watching it.


      1. For every class? No. For a history/civics class? I think that could be worthwhile.
        Oh, that reminds me, there was something else we interrupted class for. We watched the launch of a Space Shuttle (I can’t remember which one, it might have been Columbia)
        I think it was worth interrupting class for because it kindled a lifelong interest in spacecraft in me which lasts to this day.


        1. Depends if it is relevant to the subject. If it is not and the student is interested, there are so many ways in which they could watch the speech in their own time anyway.


  5. never interrupted for inauguration (usually use speech in class at some point that week), cannot fathom how not to interrupt for something like 9/11 which had happened just hours before. I’ve never done anything remotely like what I did for 9/11 again.


  6. Whenever I travel, I always discover a new way our ethnocentrism here in the US has shaped the way we view history. The strongest example is a conversation I had with a young Russian man on an overnight train from St. Petersburg to Vilnius, Lithuania about seven years ago. We were talking about cultural differences, history, politics, etc., and then this happened:

    Him: So what do you think about the war?
    Us: The war in Iraq? Afghanistan?
    Him: No, no…World War II.
    Us: Uuuhhh… (We didn’t understand specifically what he was asking, although I suppose it would be transparently obvious to someone not from the United States)
    Him: You know, the atomic bomb.


  7. I have just checked who OJ Simpson was in wiki and RE his trial. Why is this significant? That a rich man walked free from murder he (supposedly) committed? That he was black? May be it’s because I am very far from US realities, but… he is black, OK, so what? It’s not like he was usual Joe or got usual Joe’s treatment. I thought before checking that the trial was something very political, like Roe v. Wade on abortion, not Monica Lewinsky num. 2 scandal. Do I miss something big, Clarissa?

    Btw, have you written on Monica Lewinsky? Wouldn’t people laugh about it in Russia, instead of going for impeachment? I mean, who cares about private sex life instead of jobs, controversial wars abroad, rights on your own body (abortion), etc?


    1. The OJ Simpson trial caused a huge racial divide in the country to become glaringly obvious. The investigating officer in the case turned out to be a vicious racist, so the jury dismissed all the evidence gathered by the police.

      For me, the trial was the reason why I realized that the jury system was hopeless. Those jurors dismissed the DNA evidence because they didn’t believe in it. The whole trial was an emotional spectacle that had very little to do with justice.

      As for Monica Lewinsky, that whole debacle was taking place exactly after I moved to Canada. You are right, this was all too perplexing for a recent immigrant. 🙂 I thought that this must be a very rich country if people had time and energy to expend on such silly stuff. 🙂


  8. The only time I recall class being interrupted was for the Challenger Explosion in 1986.

    There were people in my class at the time who were convinced it was an attack by the Soviets – and I learned something profound that day from my teacher – calm reflection. While validating that the students hypothesis was as valid as any other at that point (not more than 15 minutes after the explosion) it was crucial to keep an open mind and consider all reasonable and likely causes, and not to jump to a conclusion before appropriate evidence was collected.


  9. I thought no post could surprise me any longer RE 9/11, but I was wrong:
    Never thought there would be any such opinions about the victims.

    Btw, have you visited Post Secret site, Amanda links to? Sometimes the secrets can give food for thought and provide insight. Sometimes I identified with them (used to read them more than now). The ones on unemployment and with this falling man stood out to me.


  10. From comments:

    “Religion brought a great deal of pain to the relatives of Norbert Hernandez and Jonathan Briley, two victims tentatively ID’d as the individual known as “the Falling Man”.

    The Hernandez family – devout Catholics – were torn apart, with those who believed him to be the falling man becoming persona non grata. They were so tortured by the idea that he might have jumped that one of his daughters began having visions of him in the house, and they had to move. Another daughter angrily insisted that the “piece of shit” in the photo was not her father. They were besides themselves that people on the internet were saying he was in hell. Religion brings comfort, indeed.”


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