Understanding 9–11

syllabus for Signature Course, University of Texas, Fall 2016

This medium-based narrative-style syllabus is a work in progress and supports an inter-disciplinary course required of all undergraduates (other instructors choose other topics). A more complete document is provided elsewhere to address the contractual relationship with students and the university, but below I use this space to think out loud — around selected readings, topical reflections, and emerging questions — as we proceed through the semester.

Americans are often told “9–11 changed everything,” and indeed the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, became a watershed spectacle of modern terrorism. Al-Qaeda’s attack led to ongoing U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, giving birth to ISIS and continuing controversies over issues such as “Ground Zero” memorials in New York and concerns over civil liberties, all revolving around how we view our country and the “enemy.” Fifteen years later but no less powerful and controversial (including in the current political campaign), this class approaches 9–11 with an inter-disciplinary perspective.

As examples of the various perspectives available, international communication and media sociology intersect with political science — along with globalization, military and cultural studies — to help examine media framing of the “war on terror” and its deep ideological elements. Religious studies and international relations insights also help explain why 9–11 was characterized as an attack on our freedoms, by an enemy with a distinctive Islamic character, later conflated with the secular Saddam Hussein to produce what many have argued is perhaps the worst foreign policy blunder in our history. To illustrate the diversity of angles on the subject, a recent academic conference featured the following range of titles: The architecture of terror, designing the security society, the concept of the “Just” war and asymmetrical warfare, the politics of the “war on terror,” rethinking empire, globalization and sovereignty after “9/11”, rethinking ourselves: torture and identity; Islamophobia; immigration, asylum and refugees, Culture after “9/11”: art, literature, film and popular culture; the politics of death after “9/11”: “Remembrance” and demoralization.

As an exceedingly broad topic, we narrow it in considering what 9–11 has been understood within a media-saturated culture. That’s the perspective I come from (in journalism education), and the subject of my own research. The media mix includes those who have distorted our understanding and others who have made important contributions to that understanding. Specifically, we must understand the U.S. press as an institution, its historical relationship with foreign policy and military elites, and its location relative to other global media voices in helping frame the ensuing “global war on terrorism.” We compare different journalistic perspectives: insider, “boots on the ground,” and dissenting. This helps us discern the blindspots of American journalism and what additional insights, including dissenting and scholarly perspectives, would have been valuable in helping produce a well-informed and culturally aware citizenry.

Photo by Ron Cogswell https://www.flickr.com/photos/22711505@N05/26431391120/sizes/l

What questions should we be asking:

Understanding begins with questions: What happened? Why did it happen What did we do about it? What should we have done about it? You’ll have your own questions, but obviously they all tie together. What we think happened shapes our thinking about what ought to happen in response.

I hope that as a result of taking this particular course you’ll Understand the significance of 9/11, be able to critically examine the claims surrounding 9/11, Identify how different perspectives shape that understanding (political, cultural, religious, etc.), and Assess the performance of the press in helping the public understand 9/11 and the ensuing “War on Terror”

As a signature course, we have some larger objectives regardless of subject matter.

  1. To learn about a topic from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including how it is playing out in contemporary events
  2. To develop skills in information literacy and library research
  3. To develop writing ability
  4. To communicate effectively in oral presentation
  5. To become aware of the world-class resources for learning on the campus, and
  6. To participate in the larger campus-wide conversation through University Lectures and other related events

Things we’ll be reading

A wealth of material has been published since 9/11, and I’ve resisted loading you down with a lot of books — tempting though that may be. I expect that a lot of what you read will come in the course of your own research. Otherwise, as required readings I’ve selected the following to read as a class, representing insider and critical accounts by, respectively, a journalistic “insider,” Bob Woodward, and by someone who could be considered a “public intellectual” journalist, Howard Zinn, an historian but also one of the more familiar dissenting voices at the time. Other writers will be represented in selected readings I’ve chosen from among the best journalists and public intellectuals.

Woodward, Bob (2002). Bush at war. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Zinn, Howard (2002). Terrorism and War. New York: 7 Stories Press

We will leave space available for choosing your own readings to share with the class.

National Archives

Gems of the University:

Signature Courses help acquaint you with the university “gems.” Of particular interest to our topic is the collection of historical and journalistic papers (including Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, and Harry Reasoner) in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, in addition to its Institute for Studies in American Military History. The LBJ Library also has relevant material concerning the press role in the Vietnam War. These all provide valuable historical perspectives on press coverage of conflict — particularly from World War II, comparing it now to the “war on terror.” We will arrange a class visit to one of these facilities.



Aug. 25 Introduction to the course, me and each other

I want you to start thinking about your own curiosities regarding 9/11 and what it represents. What are your questions? What do you want to know more about? 9/11 is not covered much in high school history books, and much of what we think we know is distorted if not outright false. Our own political culture has become degraded with conspiracy theories, as 9/11 and global terrorism is framed to suit various ideological narratives (as revealed in this year’s campaign rhetoric), so there is work to be done in better “understanding 9/11.”

30 What happened? What did and does it mean?

First, we get a sense of what happened from real-time news accounts, including in this television news archive. They reveal the crucial function of journalism at a time of national crisis, and the press was praised for its vital work. Soon the press would be focused mainly on president-led policy agendas, as George Bush addressed congress and the nation nine days later.

Understanding that phase through the “insider journalism” view, brings us to reporters like Bob Woodward.

BAW: Chapters 1–5 (p. 1 to 73)

As we turn our attention to the first journalistic account of the post-9/11 period, the “insider” account, we get some important insights into administration thinking from Woodward’s account–the thinking that would soon lead to the “Bush doctrine”? What is the evidence Woodward presents for his account? (Here’s a post from a prior blog about some of Woodward’s other recent work and related commentary.)

**Intellectual craftsmanship checkup due (email me document before class)

1 **assignment 1 due, “9/11 and its impact”: discuss in class

6 Introduce exercise: Evaluation of research “sources”

In The Atlantic magazine September issue, Steven Brill poses the question: “Are we safer?” With a particular focus on homeland security measures taken in the last 15 years Brill argues that a “never again” policy would be impossibly expensive and a ultimately an unachievable fantasy. Terror “is not an existential or apocalyptic threat — unless we treat it like the apocalypse,” thus ensuring our enemies can spread the hysteria they intend.

BAW: Chapters 6–7 (p. 74–109)

BAW: Chapters 8–9 (p. 110–138)

8 Required library session, with Librarian Elise Nacca

(We will meet at Learning Lab 3, PCL)

13 Introduce Essay 1 assignment: “9/11 in popular culture”

  • *Source exercise due, discuss in class

What does 9/11 mean? This year’s 9/11 commemoration fell on a Sunday, and led to many incorporating memorials in the context of faith experience (a tradition begun with a service at the National Cathedral on 9/14/01). What does 9/11 mean from a spiritual perspective? What questions do we grapple with? These are embedded in the memorials, designed to “Never forget.” (But forget what?)

album cover, Wikipedia

This naturally leads to the idea of justice. How shall the US pursue justice in the face of terrorism and a new enemy? To what extent is revenge an appropriate goal? Should we follow the Geneva Convention guidelines in handling enemy combatants? In the news recently is a bill in congress to allow U.S. citizens to sue Saudi Arabia for 9/11 damages. Is that justice, and if so to what extent would we accept granting that right to citizens of other countries that have been victimized by our actions?

Beyond organized religion lies a powerful civil religion expressed through popular culture. The scholarly and diplomatic calls for a dialogue of cultures and civilizations seem self-evidently desirable, but to what extent are they culturally likely? The nationalistic impulse, fueled by popular culture and news media, acts as a counter-weight. One of the most illustrative examples of this in popular music was produced by country artist Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the red, white, and blue.” In this version, accompanied by selected images by a Youtube poster, we are invited to patriotism, but in the latter half guided in our response as to what to do with that patriotism. Compare, however, with Allan Jackson’s “Where were you?” Jackson chooses a more inward-looking perspective.

15 “The Islamic State and Media Framing of Terrorism”

Guest scholar: Eytan Gilboa, Bar Ilan University, Israel, and Visiting Prof. of Public Diplomacy, Univ. of Southern California

20 BAW: Chapters 10–14 (p. 140 to 204)

BAW: Chapters 15–19 (p. 205 to 277)

BAW: Chapters 20-epilogue (p. 278 to 311)

**Essay 1 due and present in class (distribute copies to peers for review)

Introduce Essay 2 assignment: “9/11 as media spectacle”

22 open, instructor out of town

27 The public intellectuals

Didion, J. (Oct. 5, 2006). “Cheney: The fatal touch. New York Review of Books.

This week we begin to consider how the press did in carrying out its role in helping the public “understand 9/11.” Many critics have pointed to failures of the press to adequately demand accountability. There are important journalistic voices that have stepped in with important analysis, including Joan Didion. Pres. Bush declared he was the “decider.” Joan Didion traces this thinking back to Dick Cheney’s career in government (views on Watergate, Vietnam, Iran-contra, etc., leading to unitary executive theory) What’s the problem with that position? Is it wise to take the position that whatever the president decides is legal? (Cheney’s view). She shows how this has led to warrantless wiretaps, lack of “checks and balances,” and the claim to absolute power. That’s not helpful with an administration determined to go to war in spite of the evidence (or lack of it). It also gives them power to determine who is a “terrorist.” How is political leadership to be held accountable? That’s where media come in to play.**peer review due

Review writing issues

29 9/11 press performance: The profession reflects

Special guest, RB Brenner, Director of the School of Journalism

Massing, M. (Dec. 15, 2005). “The press: The enemy within.” New York Review of Books.

Bonner, R. (Sept. 9, 2011). “The media and 9/11: How we did.” The Atlantic.

Bonner, R. (April 21, 2015). “After 9/11, we were all Judith Miller. Politico website.

Oct. 4 **revision of Essay 1 due

Farrell, H. (Sept. 24, 2014). “If policymakers had listened to political scientists…” Monkeycage blog, The Washington Post.

Kellner, D. (2007). “The media in and after 9/11” (review essay). International journal of communication, 123–142.

6 The dissenting view

TAW: (pp. 1 to 61)

11 TAW: (pp. 61–120)

13 **Essay 2 due: discuss in class

18 Introduce Essay 3 assignment: “Scholarly perspectives”

Wright, L. (Sept. 16, 2002). “The man behind bin Laden.” The New Yorker.

20 Hoffman, B. (2007). “What went wrong?” (review article) Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 30:93–96.

25 State of Deception

From the US Holocaust Museum

Today we pay a visit to the Bob Bullock Museum to see the US Holocaust Museum’s traveling exhibit on the power of Nazi propaganda: “State of Deception.” Consider some of the relationships between class issues and this historical review. 9/11 has given rise to a number of social dynamics (xenophobia, militarism, authoritarianism) that have parallels with the rise of Nazi ideology and the mobilizing of communication in the service of that ideology. An historical perspective provides important lessons regarding these dynamics.

27 tba

**Essay 3 due, “Scholarly perspectives on 9/11”

Nov. 1 Introduce Final Project: Putting it all together

Where now?

Cole, D. (Nov. 7, 2013). “The end of the War on Terror?” New York Review of Books.

3 the Iraq question

In considering the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, some fundamental questions remain: (1) Are we safer as a result of the War in Iraq? (2) Are the Iraqis better off without Saddam Hussein? (3) What is the role of the US in world security? Pulitzer-winning journalist Dexter Filkins (one of the premier “combat journalists”) provided some of the war’s best reporting in The forever war, returning in today’s reading to report on the difficulties faced with the Maliki regime after the U.S. military withdrawal.

Filkins, D. (April 28, 2014). “What we left behind.” The New Yorker.

8 tba

**Final paper proposal due

10 Al qaeda’s successor: ISIS

In 9/11 we see in microcosm what’s going on in the world: contending forces within the modern world of globalization and fundamentalism. Through that microcosm we consider a few key questions:

  • What causes a society to hang together? Whether a nation-state or a non-state networked movement.
  • What motivates people to act? (even in frightening ways)
  • Where do they find meaning? (corrupted version of religion)
  • How sustainable is the value of security compared to other values?

This week we are considering a society that emerged, based on a sense of dislocation, disenfranchisement, and fear. A group that used to be in charge, and enjoy the privileges of the society was now cut off — feeling affected by distant forces beyond their control, feeling disrespected and a sense of humiliation. These are familiar social dynamics.

A counter-society was formed, based on strict rules, appeal to rigid black and white theology, fear of other ethnic groups and a promise to provide security. It has to eventually go beyond the rhetoric and produce results. In over-promising it sows the seeds of its collapse.

Motadel, D. (Sept. 23, 2014). “The ancestors of ISIS.” (opinion pages) The New York Times.

` **Bibliography for final paper due

15 Al qaeda’s successor: ISIS

Ruthyen, M. (July 9, 2015). “Inside the Islamic State.” New York Review of Books.

17 9/11 Conspiracy theories

Understanding 9/11 means understanding the controversy surrounding the conspiracy-based 9/11 “truther” movement, a manifestation of something deeply embedded in what historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” of American politics. We will discuss the roots of this phenomenon, including the decline of traditional “truth-checking” institutions in society. How do we trust those who base their ideas on the fact that one can’t trust anything?!

As one of the basic questions of the course, “What happened?” we find that even this is not easily answered in a post-factual environment, stoked by social media and paranoia.

*Final paper due

review and catch-up

22 Paper presentations

24 Thanksgiving, no class

29 Paper presentations

Dec. 1 Paper presentations

(No final exam)

A note about Medium

I’m experimenting this semester with a digital platform, Medium (on which you are reading this syllabus), for sharing some of the work I produce in this class. Over the years I have been unsatisfied with the traditional writing model, in which you write for the instructor to satisfy a course requirement. I would rather you view your work as potentially contributing to an educated conversation about our issues — thus, I hope, taking it more seriously. Therefore, you will set up an account on medium, through which you are free to write whatever you like, but through it I will collect some of your class-related work for featuring on a class publication. My expectation is that your work should meet basic professional standards in order to be shared with the world, and that “share-ability” is a requirement for a top grade. Medium is very user-friendly, but I’ll provide more information on the details of this digital platform later.

C.S. Lewis

Guidance for your written work:

1. 9/11 and its impact: (2%)

I used to have students do an oral history assignment as their first writing task, given that college students are now too young to have any memory of 9/11. Now I’d rather have you do some deep reflection about the subject, even if you didn’t have first-hand experience at the time. What impact has 9/11 had on the country? What impact has it had on you personally. For this assignment I don’t intend for you to do a lot of library research but to begin to reflect on your own relationship with 9/11. (As a throwback to the oral history perspective, you may find it useful to consult with your parents or others older at the time for their perspective on the events themselves and continuing questions.) For example, how do you think it has changed people’s behavior, concerns about safety, and attitudes about America and the world. I’ve posed some questions in this syllabus, but what are the big questions and issues raised by the events of 9/11 that you think are worth exploring further? I hope this will provide the basis for our further discussion and exploration.

Write two pages double-spaced. Your assignment will be graded on clarity and proper use of grammar. There are no “correct” responses. This will start the reflection process and provide an opportunity with my feedback to see how well prepared you are in basic grammar and writing ability.

2. Evaluating sources exercise (5%)

We aim in this class for greater information literacy: the ability to distinguish evidence-based arguments from B.S. (of which there is ample supply on the internet). In understanding 9/11 through a journalistic lens this class aims to help you think critically about the information circulating in the news media — the way it’s framed and the motives behind it. An important step toward this goal is to be able to identify appropriate sources of information (whether individual or institutional), assess whether they are representing the facts fairly — and determine their perspective and interests.

This is a critical skill for students in general: knowing how to distinguish the quality of various sources, especially as their volume has proliferated on the internet. All sources are not created equal, and a few minutes in front of the computer cutting and pasting from a quick Google search is not sufficient for college-level research. You will be provided a worksheet to fill out, asking that you identify your sources and examine their quality. You will select an issue and identify three sources: scholarly, popular/factual, and popular/opinion. Complete the form provided with your analysis of these sources. This exercise will help you carry out your essay and final project assignments, in which you will include a variety of sources for evidence.

3. Gems of the University (2%)

We will visit one of the key learning resources on the campus (e.g., LBJ Library), and you will write a brief one-page response suggesting how it might provide insights into our class themes.

4. Short Essays

These essays will address a different aspect of 9/11 that you will choose. Each paper will be no more than 3 pages, not counting the bibliography on an extra page. There are three aspects of 9/11 that we will address in these essays (which will prepare you for a final research paper on a topic of your choice). In general degree of increasing “seriousness” we deal with the popular culture, the performance of the media and press, and the evidence provided by scholarly analysis.

Essay 1: “9/11 in popular culture” (12%)

In your written essay version, address the following question: What does 9/11 mean for Americans? How do we know what something means? We look at places where it has become embedded in the culture and try to interpret those cultural “artifacts.” You will answer it with reference to some aspect of how 9/11 was handled in the popular culture, using examples from one or more forms: music, film, graphic art, novels, photography, ceremonial occasions, architecture, sports, videogames, memorials, etc. In answering the larger question, you may consider the following: How was 9/11 presented, how was it interpreted, what were the special meanings relevant to the cultural form (music, art, etc.), what emotional and/or political response did it invite from people? How was patriotic and critical sentiment expressed? You will include at least one popular source and one scholarly source, which you will cite in your bibliography.

I’ll ask you to present your essay in class, so be prepared with video, graphic, musical or other examples to show, no more than 2 or 3 minutes worth (probably most convenient in the form of a PowerPoint file that you can show in class to illustrate your pop culture references). On the basis of peer review and my own comments, you will rewrite this essay before being assigned final credit.

Essay 2: “9/11 as mediated spectacle” (12%)

Much has been written about the media role in covering 9/11, and through our texts we are reviewing the issues in this class through a “journalistic lens.” On one hand, many news organizations acquitted themselves honorably in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, providing valuable information, reassurance, and a sense of national purpose; on the other hand, many have criticized journalism for failing to adequately inform the public, for blindly following administration sources, and failing to be sufficiently skeptical, especially concerning such issues as “weapons of mass destruction.” And, of course, the politicized realm of cable news and blogosphere generates many unsubstantiated claims. We can say, more broadly, that 9/11 itself was a mediated “spectacle.”

Select some aspect of media (serious news, social, pundits, international news, partisan, comedic, etc.) and consider how our understanding of 9/11 was affected (either for good or ill). You may also apply this analysis to broader issues tied to 9/11. You will cite and include in your bibliography at least 2 popular sources and 2 scholarly sources.

Essay 3: “Scholarly perspectives on 9/11” (12%)

One of the goals of the course is to understand what different scholarly disciplines have to offer in understanding an issue, and 9/11 is clearly an inter-disciplinary topic. Many academic perspectives are relevant to some aspect: law, economics, security studies, international relations, political science, history, religious studies, sociology, communication, and many others. Select one of these perspective(s) for a deeper dive, and consider a particular question of your own. In your essay, be sure to explain how the particular discipline you’ve chosen provides a particular kind of evidence helpful in understanding 9/11.

To help you with your own reasoning, find an argument already crafted by a serious scholar writing for the public. You will cite and include in your bibliography at least 1 popular source, written by an identifiable scholarly author. This can be an op-ed in a major newspaper, a column in a magazine or journal of opinion (e.g., The Nation, National Review, etc.). Be sure to describe the author’s argument and related evidence. In addition, find 3 scholarly sources to round out your discussion from peer-reviewed scholarly journals (likely, but not necessarily, in the same disciplinary area).

3. Final Research Project (total of 20%)

Building on what you have learned so far (including the previous writing assignments), you will conduct a final research project on some aspect of 9/11 of your choice, to demonstrate your knowledge of the topic, understanding of media logic, reasoning with evidence from multiple sources, knowing how disciplines handle questions, and communicating effectively in both written and oral form. You will need to choose your topic carefully and have it approved before proceeding.

Paper Proposal (2%)

Summarize the idea for your paper in 300 words (no less and not much more), the issues you’ll explore, a few sentences in length. I will work with you to narrow or broaden the topic to make a suitable basis for your project. The topic can be an extension of issues you’ve already dealt with in previous essays. Beyond a “report” on a topic, this should be closer to a question for investigation, for which your research will provide some answers. The main thing is to choose a question of interest to you.

In your proposal you will first establish your question, a question that addresses some substantive issue. You wouldn’t, for example, ask, “Who was Osama Bin Laden?” or “What kind of memorial was built to commemorate 9/11 in New York?” — these are more on the order of book reports or encyclopedia entries. Rather, “Would the end of ISIS mean the end of terrorism?” or “How did the 9/11 memorial compare to other historical commemorative architecture?” Then, describe the kind of scholarly perspective(s) you’ll rely on in addressing the issue (e.g., religious studies, political science, art history, architecture, etc.) That is, how will you go about answering the question?

Annotated Bibliography (2%)

In this part of the assignment, you’ll prepare a list of the sources you’ll use in your final paper (APA style). You should have at least 6 other sources beyond those already required as course readings and used in previous papers (which you may also cite), thus requiring original library research on your part. At least 3 of these readings will be from scholarly publications (journal articles, academic papers, and books). In the case of these three works, briefly in a couple of sentences describe the author’s general point or argument and related evidence. Others can be more popular (yet still serious) articles or books like the required and suggested readings in the syllabus. So you’ll have at least 6 references in all, three of them briefly described.

Final Paper (16%)

The final paper will introduce your question and introduce some insights from one or more key scholarly perspectives you have selected. This is a research paper, with well established reasons for your claims and intended to address a number of key questions, so you will not have room for a lot of extraneous padding and still stay within the page limit. Be concise. Submit a 7 page final paper, not counting references by 5:00 p.m. on the deadline day.

Note that in evaluating your work, for an A grade for the final paper and the overall course I am expecting that you will produce something suitable for publication on our class digital platform, Medium. That means a well-researched and polished piece of writing that shows you’ve met the objectives of the course.