Give students the tools to judge difficult materials in context

After Osama bin Laden’s viral 'Letter to America', Nicholas Chan provides a pedagogical pathway to tackling difficult material

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3 Jan 2024
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In November Osama bin Laden’s "Letter to America" went viral on TikTok forcing the social media platform to eventually remove #lettertoamerica from its search function. This is a good moment to reflect on the pedagogy educators can use around difficult or controversial material. Ideally, if we have done our job well, there should be no knee-jerk responses to such content and reading it should not be a life-changing experience for students.

In a War on Terror class I taught as part of a co-convened crisis management course, mainly for first-year undergraduates, we encouraged students to consult primary materials for their assignments. Some students referenced the bin Laden letter that was, until recently, accessible on The Guardian’s website. To be clear, we did not plan our teaching around what goes viral on TikTok, however, we do take specific approaches in the course to enable healthy engagement with the letter and other controversial material.

Teach around difficult material

The first thing is that we try to teach around difficult” material. I dont mean treating it as taboo, nor should we sensationalise it. It doesn’t make sense to select the most provocative materials for their own sake, especially if they don’t serve the course’s distinct learning objectives. But we can provide context to these materials, so students understand how to place them within a historical moment.

For example, in my War on Terror class, I focused on the American perspective to show what happens when a great power faces no restraint during crisis management. I also made sure to introduce the background of the 9/11 attacks, covering not just American foreign policy but the wider context of how modern terrorism developed. The goal is for students to understand that al-Qaeda’s acts were part of a longer and recurring story of violence.

With many of my students born after 9/11, I also prescribed material produced in the period directly after the attack to help them understand the shock and trauma of the time. Giving them a sense of the crisis as it unfolded helps them learn about crisis management.

For example, Eli Zaretskys March 2002 piece, Trauma and dereification: September 11 and the problem of ontological security offers crucial insight into the sense of confusion experienced by the American public regarding the motive of the 9/11 attacks. Bin Ladens letter, ostensibly providing those answers, was published in November 2002, almost a year later, and therefore may have been responding to other events as well as 9/11. When students used the bin Laden letter in assignments as if it alone could explain the motive, I always made a point to remind them of this issue of timing.

The art of reading manifestos

Secondly, it’s important to be mindful that as educators in political science, teaching our students the skill of reading political manifestos critically and historically is crucial. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Remind them of the nature of political speeches. Our War on Terror class exposed the students to then-president George W. Bush’s speeches after 9/11. We encouraged them to read them in the context of the Bush Doctrine, the foreign policy thinking many attributed the 2003 Iraq invasion to. The key here is to understand that political speeches do not convey the objective truth per se but rather manufactures it for political purposes. If students can do that for the speeches of Bush, they should be able to do the same for a figure like bin Laden. There is no reason for taboos or glorification.
  2. Help them distinguish between the public side of politics and the more concealed aspects. When teaching the Cuban Missile Crisis, we used public speeches made by President John F. Kennedy and juxtaposed them with private letters and secret negotiations with the Kremlin. The point is to understand that political speeches are part of the political process but never the total embodiment of it.
  3. Familiarise students with traditions of critique. When teaching the War on Terror, this can range from positioning Islamic fundamentalism within a longer line of critique of modernity to reading bin Laden’s letter as one critique of American power among many. By making students aware that criticism of the status quo is ever-present and necessary, we can be less worried that they will suddenly discover it through the most controversial materials.

Take a personal interest

The third thing to do as educators is probably the hardest, given the severe strains of being an academic these days: maintain a personal interest in the learning progress of our students. Whenever our students engage with difficult material, we should take it as an opportunity to gauge their research and critical thinking skills. For example, if the bin Laden letter was cited in their assignments, I always checked to see if the student understood its timing and broader context.

We cannot be sure that whatever lofty ideals we have (including those covered here) will translate into the teaching. Still, by showing that we care in our comments and feedback, we can at least invite students to step on this path to greater intellectual maturity.

Nicholas Chan is an educator at the Australian National University.

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