This is Vassar: The newsletter for Vassar College Alumnae/i and Families

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Studying September 11

While the college quietly remembered the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in a handful of thoughtful campus events last month, seventeen students in English professor Michael Joyce’s freshman writing seminar, “Nine One One,” are looking back in a different way: by considering fictional responses to 9/11.

“The course intends more than a commemoration of the anniversary,” explains Joyce. “I am teaching the course now because there is, after a decade, an established literature of pre- and post-9/11 novels that examine more than our notions of national tragedy. They examine the wider contexts—personal, social, political, global—in which the attacks occurred.” Asking and answering questions about these works of literature will, Joyce hopes, enable students “to form a more articulated set of beliefs about an event that occurred when they were 8 years old.”

Students will build a portfolio of work as the course progresses through the fall, writing scholarly essays, a personal memoir from the time of September 2001, a journalistic review, a creative work, and other pieces.

Although it is a writing seminar, the reading list for the course is equally intensive—one chapter per week from Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, plus one novel per week. Those novels include Disturbed Earth by Vassar alum Reggie Nadelson ’66. Set during winter 2002, it follows Artie Cohen, an NYPD detective obsessed with and haunted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This is not the first time the events of 9/11 have taken center stage in an English department course. Professor Amitava Kumar also has focused on the literary response to 9/11. In 2006, he notes, Slate “asked novelists, artists, journalists, and other thoughtful people a question: What work of art or literature has helped you make sense of the attacks and the world after them?”

That question—and the answer to it—prompted Kumar to teach “Literature of 9/11,” which he offered on and off over the past five years; in 2008 it was the topic for Kumar’s 300-level “Transnational Literature” course. “A new genre of books is now in place in the American canon, the literature of September 11, although not each book in this category need invoke the undying image of the burning towers,” notes the course description.

Kumar and his students wrestled with a variety of questions. How do writers respond to historical events? How is the imagination used to deal with trauma? What is the relationship between fact and fiction?

Now 10 years out from the events of 9/11, Joyce’s students wrestle with questions of their own, asked about a genre of literature that didn’t even exist when they were born. —Peter Bronski

October 2011

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