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Monday, September 12, 2011

Cancelling Class Due to National or Global Tragedies

If you were teaching law ten years ago, did you cancel class when the terrorists attacked?  Just on that day, or for the whole week?

Yesterday, I was listening to NPR's lengthy coverage of the 9/11 anniversary.  One caller described her experience from that day.  She was a college student at the time -- I can't recall at what school, but I think it was somewhere in the midwest.  She said that on 9/11, she and her fellow students in a particular class asked to be let out of class in order to watch the President's address to the nation.  This would have been President Bush's speech delivered from the oval office at 8:30 pm EST.  So presumably the student's class met some time around 5-7 pm central time.

The professor denied the students' request, telling them, according to the caller, that their task for the day was more important.  This prompted the students to walk out.

Here's where things get a little funny.  The professor apparently attempted to fail the students for their departure.  The students complained to higher authorities at the school, and at the end of the day, the professor was reprimanded.  I tried to dig up some actual reference to these events, but haven't found it.

This particular professor seems to me to have displayed some insensitivity to the emotional effect of the attacks on students; in particular, while the professor's desire to stay on schedule might be understandable (if not agreed to), going after the students for their departure seems like a bit of an overreaction and does not acknowledge the singular significance of the 9/11 attacks. 

On the other hand, where does one drawthe line?  I've never confronted a situation in the last seven years of teaching in which I've been tempted to cancel class due to national or global events (snowstorms are another thing). 9/11 would have been a day I would have cancelled class (for a number of reasons; although there seems to be a bit of a difference between letting students watch the coverage of the attacks themselves versus politicians' speeches).  But what about when the first bombs fell on Iraq?  What about the death of the Pope?  Is this just a "know it when I see it" kind of decision?

Posted by Geoffrey Rapp on September 12, 2011 at 10:57 AM | Permalink


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For a discussion of 9/11 in classrooms across the country -- high school students also insisted on watching "their" history on television -- see this essay, excerpted on the Legal History Blog (http://legalhistoryblog.blogspot.com/2011/07/teaching-911.html) and in full here: http://maghis.oxfordjournals.org/content/25/3/5.full)

Like Vladimir, I remember being a wreck. There were so many rumors, e.g. about more planes, some headed to LA, and we didn't know how expansive the attacks would be. For my seminar the next day, on global issues in US legal history, I told students we would not cover the readings (I knew they wouldn't read), and instead we would talk about what was happening, and that they could invite other students to join us. The students were upset that the law school had not announced any plans to "do something," and they felt that 9/11 and its impact had to be acknowledged in some way within their school. So I said: well, you could do something. Nearly everyone stayed after class to plan a school-wide program. When the Student Bar Association declined a request to host it, concerned that it would be "divisive," this ad-hoc group of students got, if I remember correctly, nearly all student groups to co-sponsor. And they put on a simple and beautiful commemorative/memorial event the next week.

Posted by: Mary Dudziak | Sep 12, 2011 8:12:50 PM

I was in my first month of teaching. I called the Dean at home to find out if classes would go forward; he was flustered and didn't know. That was the kind of day it was. I had planned to spend the morning preparing for class, but I couldn't emotionally, and I was glued to Peter Jennings' coverage on television besides. I went to class at the appointed time, just to tell my students that I wasn't prepared and I didn't want to teach that day. But they asked me, unanimously, to teach nonetheless. So I did, well enough to put the day aside in my mind for 45 minutes, after losing it to tears at the beginning.

Something that sticks in my memory is one of the students (mistaking this rookie for some kind of expert) asking me if I could speak to the connection between the terrorist attacks and the law. I replied that it was all too raw to me, and that I couldn't fathom a connection at present. Amazing, isn't it, given what followed legally over the ensuing years?

I remember a bunch of us faculty, standing in the hallway later in the day. Several others recounted classroom experiences similar to mine; most everyone went ahead with teaching. And we were all unable, for once, to say much of anything else to one another.

Posted by: Vladimir | Sep 12, 2011 7:44:55 PM

I like you was in my first semester of law school. I actually got ready and was watching TV when the second plane hit. i called my fiancee and family, made sure they were all right and got on the bus and went to school. When I got to school, the second tower was coming down. The dean of the law school was watching TV with us. He then cancelled classes for the day but we were right back in class the next day, going through our stupid torts cases...

Posted by: Melissa | Sep 12, 2011 7:40:47 PM

I was teaching a legal research & writing class and it was meeting at 11:00 am (central time). I had around 24 students in class. I started taking attendance (everyone was present) and when I began the class I immediately came to the conclusion that this wasn't going to work. I let everyone go and they went to the student lounge to watch the news.

About five minutes later, classes were canceled throughout the university.

Posted by: anymouse | Sep 12, 2011 3:54:05 PM

I was a teaching assistant in a negotiation course and our professor (Richard Rueben at Missouri) held class that afternoon, which I thought was a mistake and told him so. However, Richard focused the class on 9/11 - how do governmental lawyers deal with unexpected events like those of that day? He split the students into groups representing various arms of the government - state department, CIA, military, etc. (my recollection is hazy as to exactly which ones) - and he asked them to come up w/ a strategy for dealing w/ the attacks based on what we knew at the time. And then the groups would negotiate amongst themselves to come up with the country's response. The students took their tasks very seriously and in the process they got the opportunity to debrief the event and their reactions to it. The class was a HUGE success. Kudos to Richard.

Posted by: Art | Sep 12, 2011 3:44:00 PM

Hmm. No evidence or reference to be found, eh? Wonder if our midwestern college student might have been spinning a bit of a yarn. Plenty of jerks out there, even on 9/11. But it's hard to believe that a case of such blatant insensitivity -- and, as Hillel suggests, procedural overreaction -- wouldn't have created some ripple of notice somewhere . . . .

Posted by: DubiousAnon | Sep 12, 2011 2:58:41 PM

I was clerking then in DC. You could see the smoke from the Pentagon from the roof of our building, but our judge insisted that we stay in the office and prepare for a sitting the next day. In retrospect, I think this was a great move by him. We were pretty safe in the courthouse, surrounded by heavily armed federal marshals, and it struck a nice note of not letting the terrorists win to keep working despite what had happened. It was also necessary, because the argument did proceed the next morning as scheduled. The first advocate to appear made a brief, respectful mention of the elephant in the room, and then we went on with the work of the day, as planned.

Posted by: Dave | Sep 12, 2011 2:23:37 PM

I was an executive in a large corporation on 9/11. We spent the day tracking down all of our employees who were traveling anywhere in the world. Recall that all flights were grounded immediately and stayed that way for most of the week.

My point is that 9/11 wasn't like the Challenger explosion or the verdict in the OJ trial (all of the employees in our building were down in the cafeteria watching that). The immediate reaction was akin to something like being in a state of war, and many organizations were treating it that way.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Sep 12, 2011 1:53:35 PM

I had a court appearance that day in California, and (to my surprise) the court did not cancel the docket. Downtown was deserted, but I appeared. It was a minor appearance, but what if it were an important motion? Would I have had someone to complain to if the court ruled against me for failure to appear?

This doesn't mean the professor was right - it was pretty petty. But it does mean that if you have obligations, you might have to follow through with them to your great discomfort - especially if you are a lawyer representing someone else's interests. Perhaps that's the lesson the professor was trying to convey, albeit poorly.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Sep 12, 2011 12:24:41 PM

I was a law student at NYU on 9/11. I did not go to class that day, nor did it even occur to me that class might have been held - but downtown NYC was quite different than most places in the country on that day. My recollection of the week following is hazy, I do not believe I went back to school for a few days, not sure if classes were cancelled or if I was just not dealing with school at that particular moment. I do remember shortly after the actual day seeing some professors crying in hallways and being very jarred by that. All of that said, as far as I remember, classes were held as normal the following year, on the first anniversary.

Posted by: anon | Sep 12, 2011 12:21:32 PM

Why would someone want to fail students for missing one class, even if by walkout? I understand having some kind of attendance policy that has consequences, but what pedagogical purpose does retaliating against students in this way serve, short of assertion of authority over students?

Posted by: Hillel Y. Levin | Sep 12, 2011 11:15:58 AM

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