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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Professors Tackle Teaching War

For some students and teachers here at UMass Boston, war has become an increasingly important topic of interest in the classroom. In the wake of an election that made war an intense issue of debate for the mass media, many students and teachers are beginning to view the classroom as a viable source of information concerning war and political turmoil. Paul Atwood, an American Studies professor, is especially interested in the influence war has on students here at UMass. He teaches four classes that deal directly with the subject of war. At a recent panel held by the Center for Improvement of Teaching, Atwood expressed his concern over the awareness of students in regard to war and its consequences.

“As a nation, we teach about war badly,” said Atwood. Atwood believes that students have very few sources of useful information about war.

“Television is a hopelessly compromised source [of information on war],” he said. He added that the deficiencies of mainstream media impose a greater responsibility on teachers.

Atwood feels that one of the most important problems facing students who are not well informed about war is indifference. “Most students are not paying enough attention,” Atwood said. He also stated that in his experiences teaching students about the history of war in American culture he noticed that most students have little awareness of the history of past wars involving America. The media culture in America also adds to this indifference, according to Atwood, because it desensitizes people to the reality of violence.

Atwood also made the point that many students don’t feel comfortable expressing what might be received as an unpopular opinion. “Some students think that criticism is tantamount to treason,” Atwood said.

Linda Dittmar, a professor of the English department, teaches a class called “Literature and Political Imagination,” which examines the consequences of war and political belief through literature. She said she feels that war and real-world violence are relevant to the teaching of literature.

“Teaching about this broad, painful subject through literature is helpful,” Dittmar said.

Dittmar makes an effort to help students recognize the diverse perspectives that are involved in all social conflicts. She said that she has gotten an overwhelmingly positive response from students who have taken her class. She noted that some students wanted to continue discussing the issues even after the class period was up. At the end of the semester, students have asked Dittmar how they could become involved and make a difference in some of the world’s conflicts.

“At the end of class they ask me, ‘So what do we do?’ This is hard to answer,” Dittmar said. She is involved in some activism, but she is hesitant to tell students how they should approach their own action. “I can only tell them, ‘This is my way, but I don’t know if this is your way.'” English professor Donna Kaye has challenged her students to reflect upon the current state of society. Kaye feels that it is important for her students to work through the issues of war and political unrest to gain some thoughtful perspectives of their own.

“A continuing and important part of the mission of a liberal arts education is to help students become questioning and thinking members of society and the world we live in,” Kaye said.

Many students agree that war is an important topic for discussion in the class room. John Purcell, a College of Public and Community Service student, believes that teachers are a dependable source of information for issues surrounding current events. Purcell said he believes that television offers a biased view of the world, and that there is a lack of depth to its coverage of the issues.

“Teachers are a better source of information than TV. They usually give you an unbiased, educated perspective,” Purcell said. “Teachers explain things and give you more background, where as TV just tells you what happened.”

As many students would like to experience more classroom discussions of war and current events, it remains a subject that professors may be hesitant to address. Sandra Howland of the English Department, who teaches a class on the Arab-Israeli conflict, admits that she feels vulnerable teaching the type of material she teaches. Although she says she remains unbiased and requires her students to write unbiased papers, she is aware of the delicacy of the subject matter.

“Sometimes you have to [understand] problems of allegiances with the students,” Howland said. However, Howland says she continues to make an effort to guide her students in recognizing the complexity of the conflict they are studying.

These professors along with many of their students agree that, given the current climate of instability throughout the Middle East, it is important for people to understand the history of war and the complexity of current wars. For college students, they say, this begins on campus and in the classroom.