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The Learning Conference 2003

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Presentation Details


From Y2K to 9/11: Building a Learning Community in the English/Composition Classroom and Helping Students to Cope with Traumatic Historical Events

Paul Haspel.

By building a Learning Community in the English or composition classroom, an instructor can help students learn to use writing process to deal with traumatic historical events. Different pre-writing, drafting, and revising strategies helped students in two of my classes deal with two major historical events that have helped to shape their lives and their world-view: 1) 1999s ultimately unrealized Y2K fears of a massive worldwide computer shutdown on January 1, 2000, and 2) the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Because the two events were so different in nature -- the first was a widely publicized, pervasive social fear of something that turned out not to be a serious problem, while the second was an unanticipated event that caused significant loss of life as well as widespread fear and confusion -- different prewriting and organizational strategies, centered around the idea of the classroom as Learning Community, helped students in each case to deal with their anxieties proactively and productively.

In the case of Y2K, students cast their fears in context by engaging in relatively formal prewriting and drafting activities specifically, doing research into millennialist philosophies and viewing the film 2001: A Space Odyssey before writing a focused research paper. In this process, the students gained a sense that they were not the first to feel anxiety at the level of change symbolized by the turn of a millennium. Consequently, the students successfully discharged their fears of living through historical trauma and witnessing a breakdown of social order.

In the case of the 9/11 attacks, by contrast, a traumatic event had already occurred, and the students faced the question of how to cope with that trauma. In this instance, less structured prewriting and drafting activities, such as brainstorming, clustering, and freewriting, helped students to understand the source of their fears and deal constructively with those emotions.


Paul Haspel  (United States)
Instructor of English
Department of English
Heartland Community College

Paul Haspel was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Maryland. He received his B.A. from the College of William and Mary, and his M.F.A. and Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland College Park. He is currently an Instructor of English at Heartland Community College. He has published articles dealing with film, composition, and Southern literature. He is currently working on a book about the civil-rights activity of George Washington Cable.

  • English
  • Composition
  • Learning Communities

(30 min Conference Paper, English)