Stay the course, or adjust content?

Disconnection: College classes can seem like a refuge or a bubble of irrelevance since Sept. 11.

October 19, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

When University of Baltimore students signed up for Jon Shorr's seminar on "Scandals, Sleaze and Celebrities" this fall, the class seemed relevant. The Chandra Levy story was in full flower; the tabloids were dissecting Julia Roberts' breakup and Mariah Carey's breakdown.

Then came the Sept. 11 attacks. Rep. Gary A. Condit disappeared from the headlines, and Shorr's class on the media's obsession with scandal seemed less timely. Shorr adapted, and splits class time between discussing the media's coverage of the attacks and talking about the books about gossip and celebrity on the original syllabus.

"Before, it was the perfect class," said Stella Prodilaylo, 27, an undergraduate corporate communications major. "Now, it's totally shifted focus."

Around the Baltimore area, university students and professors are facing a common challenge: staying engaged in classes and studies that don't, on the surface, seem to have much connection to the drama gripping the nation and world.

While some campuses have seen limited anti-war protests, teach-ins and memorials - including a "day of silence" last week at Goucher College, where 40 students refrained from speaking, even in class - local college students are questioning the relevance of their studies.

"I feel very disconnected from what's going on," said Michelle Lynch, a Goucher College freshman studying English and dance who was attending a campus panel discussion on the attacks Monday night. "My classes have nothing to do with what's going on. And this is a very pleasant place, where it's very easy to forget about what's going on."

At the Johns Hopkins University, sophomore Janelle Burke found herself glued to the television the day the U.S. airstrikes against Afghanistan began, instead of studying for a Spanish exam. "I had so much to do, but I wanted to watch the news all the time," said Burke, a behavioral biology major. "It seemed so much more important."

While instructors of Middle Eastern studies and national security issues have reported an increased interest in their subjects, professors in other fields are left with a corollary quandary: how to hold students' attention in classes that don't have a direct link to what's going on?

Some professors have deliberately shifted the focus of classes to try to increase their relevance to the war on terrorism. Instead of discussing the media's role in covering the Monica Lewinsky scandal or Princess Diana's death, Shorr spent much of a recent class asking students whether networks should be allowed to air Osama bin Laden's latest speech.

Western Maryland College biology professor Bill Long was planning to organize his freshman seminar around the issue of stem-cell research, a matter of much debate during the summer, but dropped that in favor of bioterrorism after Sept. 11. "Stem cells just faded into the background," he said.

Others have decided to stick with their original syllabus, believing that the crisis shouldn't be allowed to distract students from their chosen studies.

"I've made up my mind that while the campus is certainly a place for discussion for topical events, the classroom is not," said Larry Mintz, an American Studies professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Students pay for a physics class or geometry class and that's what they should get."

Some students say they appreciate the chance to lose themselves in classes that have no bearing on the uproar. "I'm into film, and my classes have been almost a refuge," said Johns Hopkins sophomore Andy Moskowitz. "I don't want to think about what's going on. Not to say that I'm apathetic, but my classes have become kind of an escape."

For students with friends or family killed or injured Sept. 11, or for those involved in the military, such distance from the attacks is impossible. But with a volunteer army - and little immediate prospect of a draft - the conflict has little pull on others, students say.

"We're not directly threatened by it," said Kyle Robinson, a Johns Hopkins sophomore. "It's not like we're personally going to be fighting people."

Robinson is an international relations major, but he says even these classes seem somewhat irrelevant to the fight against terrorism, since they are concerned with relations between nations - not with dispersed networks like al-Qaida. "It seems like what we're learning won't be applicable to the current situation," he said.

Students' feelings of disconnection from recent events have turned up in discussions with campus mental health counselors, says Jerry Kaufman, the director of mental health services at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"For students who have been feeling depressed or anxious, or having a feeling of not having direction, not being sure what to do or what the future holds, this is another log on the fire," he said.

Some students say they hope to become more involved in what's going on by signing up for classes on relevant topics next semester. "I really wish I was taking a politics class this semester," said Johns Hopkins freshman Kate Purvis, who is in a premed program. "I feel like I've been living in a bubble, and that bothers me."

And some professors are thinking the same thing. Shorr was planning to focus his winter drama class on plays about the family but will likely switch to a focus on war plays.

As for his summer semester course on literature and film? "I'll probably do the genre of fear movies from the 1950s," he said.

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