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Flags cover the mall on the University campus.

Twin Cities campus College Republicans planted thousands of flags on the lawn at Coffman Memorial Union to commemorate those killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Rethinking September 11

A new gateway course in American studies has grabbed the attention of U students

By Jim Thorp

Sept. 11, 2006

When Roderick Ferguson entered Anderson Hall last Thursday, he intended to speak for the duration of the class. It was, after all, the first lecture of the new semester, introducing a brand-new course to a room that included many first-year students.

But when, early in the lecture, he posed a rhetorical question to the students, something nearly unprecedented happened--hands went up.

"That never happens for a lecturer," says Ferguson, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota's American studies department. "It's the first class, there's a room full of people they don't know...it's not generally the forum students want to talk in."

The class, The United States Since September 11, puts the U at the forefront in an area of study few universities are tackling at the undergraduate level. The breadth of the course is compelling--tackling changes to U.S. society and culture, our views of history and past wars, official remembrances, and unofficial accounts in literary and visual art. And, according to Ferguson, it's the first class of its kind to serve as a gateway course through which first- and second-year students are introduced to American studies.

Memorial at U of M, Morris

At the University of Minnesota, Morris, 2,977 U.S. flags were set on the campus mall in memory of each person who died Sept. 11, 2001. A campuswide moment of silence was observed on Monday morning and a candlelight vigil at 9 p.m. The memorial was part of the Never Forget Project.

But it wasn't only first- and second-year students attending Ferguson's first lecture. The course seemed to strike a nerve, and juniors and seniors were scrambling to take it, too.

"We started out thinking we'd cap it at 75 students, but we filled up in two days. So we raised the cap to see what would happen--finally we had to cap it at 145 or so," he says. "One of my teaching assistants pointed out that these students were 13 or 14 years old, entering puberty and starting high school. This happened at an important time in their lives, and there haven't been a lot of opportunities for them to discuss it."

The months--even years--following the attacks were a strange time for educators and researchers, as well. The attacks seemed to unify the nation, but also seemed to squelch questions and dissent.

"I really felt that was a low point intellectually--people simply refused to think," Ferguson says.

As a result, Ferguson asked his students in the first lecture to try to set aside what they know about Sept. 11 and examine it as a newfound object, at arm's length. The distance he seeks to establish is the reason why the class has no special assignment to mark the anniversary of the attacks.

"The classroom needs to be a laboratory, not another Ground Zero," he says. "We need to make this into a pedagogical exercise that supports the University's mission of promoting critical thinking and reflection."

So, while today students file past 3,000 U.S. flags memorializing the victims of the attacks five years ago, tomorrow Ferguson hopes to help some of those students look beyond the immediate aftermath of those events.