College of LAS « Illinois

Student Life

Collective Trauma

Class turns to real-life trauma to understand how nations form collective memories

Photo of Sociology 396 students

Last year's terrorist attacks on America—and the aftershocks—changed the course of countless lives. At the UI, the Sept. 11 attacks changed the course of study for 21 students enrolled in Sociology 396, a seminar on "Remembering the Nation: Trauma, Collective Memory and National Identity."

"What's interesting is what the course was supposed to be, and what it turned out to be," says instructor Judith Pintar, a visiting assistant professor of sociology and LAS alumna. "We were supposed to be looking at how national historic traumas are remembered," with half the course focusing on how Abraham Lincoln has been viewed over the last 100 years.

"I was planning on concentrating on the civil rights movement and how different versions of Lincoln's life are remembered for very different purposes. We were going to look at issues of memorialization, in terms of Lincoln as well as in relation to the Holocaust, the Indian Wars, the Civil War, and to some extent, the Revolutionary War. Then Sept. 11 happened," Pintar says.

Campuswide, class attendance was generally low that day, but more than half of Pintar's students showed up as scheduled. "No way could we do what was on the agenda. We were all stunned," she says. "We shared stories of where we'd been when we heard the news. And I put out the idea that...here we are in the midst of a national trauma...we'd be remiss if we didn't turn our gaze to this."

Students voted unanimously in favor of Pintar's proposal to shift the course's focus. For the remainder of the semester, they analyzed the content of news media reporting on the attacks and their aftermath, and on other sources of collective memory-making. Pintar says students were charged specifically with examining "the ways in which this tragedy will be spun to shift/construct national identity."

Each student selected a media outlet or outlets to monitor on a regular basis. They ranged from such mainstream media as The New York Times and CNN to ones with specific agendas on the right or left side of the political spectrum, such as The Progressive and The National Review. One student tuned in to see how MTV was covering the story while another followed the reporting on a Palestinian website.

"We looked at the widest possible variety of organizations and considered all players engaged in collective memory-making," Pintar says. "Every week, we reported what we heard and saw." Meanwhile, she says, "we continued to read along the syllabus, but the homework and final paper was on this." The media-monitoring exercise was introduced to demonstrate how one of the primary means of shaping collective memory works.

"In the realm of collective memory, there are two venues which contribute to it," says Susannah Wilson, a political science major who graduated in December. "Official memory is usually regulated by government and business—those who have something to gain by representing the past and the present in a specific light. "Vernacular memory," Wilson says, is "personal memories—what you or I specifically remember about the event. While vernacular memory is often more interesting than official memory, it rarely makes it into history textbooks. The connection between the news media and official memory, in regard to how memory is made, is thus how collective memory evolves into historical 'fact.'"

Throughout the semester, the students' enthusiasm for their work remained constant. "I had no trouble keeping discussions lively," Pintar says, adding that the graduating seniors even agreed to complete a special project after the semester ended. Rhetoric major Daymon Kiliman compiled the data collected by all the students into a single paper. "It is incredibly rewarding to feel that we are having some part in the effort to understand this momentous event through publishing our findings," Kiliman says. "This class showed me how experiences in the classroom can produce insights that impact the way we understand our social world."

By Melissa Mitchell, A.B. '80 English
Summer 2002