Teaching about Terrorism: A Discussion with Ryan Irwin, University at Albany--SUNY

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Teaching about Terrorism: A Discussion with Ryan Irwin, University at Albany--SUNY

Ryan Irwin, University at Albany--SUNY

I taught "War on Terror as History" as a methods course last autumn. It was a good experience. In designing the class, I wrestled with two questions: First, what should the narrative look like? The topic, of course, is still with us, and I wanted the class to recognized certain continuities while capturing the distinctiveness of the post-2001 period. Second, how might I connect students with appropriate primary sources, so they could complete history-minded projects that didn’t rely on inaccessible document collections? This was, after all, a methods course.

In tackling the first question, I decided to focus on American power after the 1970s. The class began with a pair of lectures about the computer revolution and George H.W. Bush’s grand strategy, which introduced a conversation about structure and agency, and planted the seeds for themes we developed throughout the semester. As we turned to September 11 and its aftermaths, I ended up embedding some Frontline videos into the lectures, which worked well. "Bush's Wars," for instance, breaks down the administration's internal divisions expertly, and the students recognized how earlier disagreements about the Cold War affected George W. Bush’s inner circle. This approach helped us sidestep overtly political conversations about Bush’s legacy while illuminating the origins of that administration's hubris. When we turned to counterinsurgency, I explained the genealogy of that idea within the U.S. policy establishment, and then had the students watch clips from "Restrepo" and "Behind Taliban Lines." They responded well, partly because the videos humanized both sides of the Afghan War. The students were diverse—some had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and others had never left New York State—and I kept my opinions about the Bush administration closeted, returning constantly to refrains about methodology and the historian toolkit.

This approach helped us tackle my second question: Where’d we get primary sources? As the students turned toward their individual research projects, I explained that they could tackle any topic they wanted, so long as they understood that not every subject (or opinion) could be supported by well-digested evidence. Getting the students to ask answerable questions turned into one of course's running themes, and while not every student ultimately "got it," I think most could recognize genuine excellence when they listened to each other’s presentations during the semester’s final weeks. Several students pinpointed bias in news coverage, and used their toolkit to interrogate unfair depictions of Muslims and immigrants. Others used documents from the Foreign Relations of the United States series and Cold War International History Project to explore the War on Terror’s antecedents, while others still compared newspaper coverage to materials they found in the National Security Archive. Some of the presentations were superb and surprisingly few were bad.

One of the things I didn't appreciate until after the semester ended was that many of my students didn't actually know what the War on Terror was. The phrase is ubiquitous, of course. But I had to be reminded that this generation was in kindergarten in 2001. "This was the first class," a student wrote on an evaluation, "where I learned the facts and got to develop my own conclusions." In retrospect, the format, which emphasized historical methods, helped a lot. If I'd taken a lecture-heavy approach I think I probably would've over steered things. Instead, we reaffirmed that classic lesson that history isn’t a bunch of memorized facts and dates—it’s about a style of analysis and reflection.