The Professor as a Primary Source
9/11 History and Memory
As a history instructor, I struggle with bringing my own experiences into the classroom, even when those experiences are entangled in a major historical event. Bringing anecdotal, personal history into an academic classroom can feel problematic. Historians typically present evidence empirically, choosing to remain a detached custodian of the content we are discussing. After all, replacing the personal with an evidenced-based argument is a lesson we model for our students.
However, in 2009, as a new high school teacher, I was confronted with the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. I am a native New Yorker and I lived in New York City on that terrifying, historic day. Usually an eager educator, I was uneasy about teaching this particular moment in our nation’s history. My new colleagues suggested I simply show a video to commemorate the day. But my mentor teacher astutely suggested, “Why don’t you simply tell them about what you saw that day?” I did just that, describing my experiences running through lower Manhattan that morning, while encountering terrified survivors covered in soot. Students, one after another, came up to thank me for sharing my story. One girl, in tears, said she would always remember my honesty and the images I relayed.
In elementary schools, teachers routinely invite community members into their classrooms to discuss the history of the Vietnam War, Iraq War, or, less frequently of late, the Holocaust. While personal journals and images tell one story, formal and informal oral histories can play a transformative role in history classrooms. Traditional oral histories, collected by historians and archived for posterity, have standards and practices with tremendous impact. Yet, that first year I shared my own story of 9/11, there was nothing organized about my process. Even with my impromptu approach, it became evident to me that my students wanted to hear from someone they trusted and knew, who was there for the moment in history we were studying. For them, I was evidence of humanity in this history. Rather than detaching ourselves from the late 20th- and early 21st-century content we teach, history educators can sometimes use our own authentic experiences. Our memories from more recent history, such as Watergate, the culture wars, the Clinton impeachment, or the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina can be a powerful addition to textbook narratives. My journey teaching the history of 9/11 has helped me realize that I can responsibly be the primary source my students complicate, cite, and engage.
For students, I was evidence of humanity in this history.
Being a primary source can be exhausting and awkward. To this day, I feel incredibly embarrassed during my 9/11 lecture. I was not a hero that day. I did not lose a loved one. I did not run into a building; on the contrary, I ran out of one. To compensate for my own discomfort with this lesson, I turn to outside sources to contextualize, verify, and authenticate my lived experience. In the development of my very first lesson on 9/11, I collected NYC subway maps from the Metropolitan Transit Authority. I knew my California students would be unable to relate to the locations I referenced in my talk. With these maps, I model what historians do when placing a primary source in context with other sources. I ask my students to verify my story as I outline my day.
Still, hoping to turn attention away from myself as a single source, I print out individual profiles from the New York Times series “Portraits in Grief.” These short paragraphs, written in the months immediately following the attacks, are perfect for the classroom or an online discussion board. There are also many 9/11 oral history projects available, including the 9/11 Memorial Webinar series. By using individual profiles, I model how historians put sources in conversation with one another. I assign each student a different identity to read and reflect on. Every year, my students gasp, “He was just like me,” or “These poor families! Reading this makes it so real.” This historical empathy, a core concept in history education, stays with them. I repeatedly hear from former students who say they spend a moment every 9/11 to remember their “person” from my lecture.
Though my experience as a New Yorker is unique, each of us can bring our relevant memories to the classroom. Relaying these experiences may, at times, be distressing, but it can also be a powerful educational opportunity. After that first year as a new teacher, I continued to lecture about my 9/11 experiences, first to high school students, then as professional development for colleagues, and eventually, giving an all-campus lecture for college students. As the years progressed, I found these lectures became harder, not easier. I was more embarrassed, more emotional, and more cautious. And alarmingly, year after year, my memory was evolving.
Though my experience as a New Yorker is unique, each of us can bring our memories to the classroom.
Historians should remain aware of the friction between history and memory. Inspired by others grappling with similar experiences and hoping to keep my lecture authentic, I turned to my own tiny archive of emails from that morning. I discovered that, the further away I got from the events, the more my memories had changed in the retelling of my own history. I remember a radio announcer saying, “The Pentagon’s been hit! The Pentagon’s been hit!” But based on the archival evidence from my own emails, that moment could not have happened as I remember it. I now share screenshots of my 9/11 emails as digital evidence with my classes, demonstrating how complex eyewitness sources can be and how complicated history and memory can be.
I still refrain from incorporating too much personal history in my classes. There is a balance. Yet, history develops such rich critical thinking skills in 21st-century learners because we challenge our students to expand their arguments based on the events and the people in these moments. We, too, are people from that past. By telling students what we remember, historians can incorporate humanity and historical empathy into a critical engagement with the past. History means research and interpretation. As a source in the classroom, I invite my students into my own archive, my own memory. Rather than journeying together as historians, I hope they take the reins and interpret . . . me.
Julianne Johnson is an associate professor of history and faculty co-coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at College of the Canyons. She tweets @professorjuliej.
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