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by Marlene Cohen, Coordinator, Communication Across the Curriculum 

We all are receiving a daily education on coping with a modern crisis in the United States. Can we help our students process their feelings and thoughts in productive ways? Certainly in many of our disciplines we help students to gather facts before judging, to check sources to determine the value of their information, and to analyze our perceptions to see in what ways we can increase our understanding. How is language used to frame a nationís perceptions? How can we address both our feelings of fear and patriotism and our desire for reason before actions? The daily news gives us useful examples.

I want to share with you a framework that may be helpful for such discussions, applicable as the situation unfolds week by week.  This framework, Stages of Dealing with Trauma, is provided by Professors John Windmueller and Sandra Cheldelin of George Mason Universityís Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. It incorporates work of Festinger, Keller and Kubler-Ross. People do not move in linear fashion through the stages; researchers are still determining what happened on September 11 even as government officials are working on whatís next, changing security procedures and military positions.

Step one is the event that triggers our reactions; the attacks of September 11 were a trigger event. Subsequent actions taken by either side would also be included in this category.

Step two is the dissonance we experienced, the state of disequilibrium we felt when we watched planes crash yet did not believe our eyes. Many of us are still sometimes in dissonance over the September 11 attacks. Some people long considered their loved ones "missing."

Step three is what happened, trying to understand the facts. We continue to seek more information, in doses we can handle, as on how the attackers got through security checks, who died in what circumstances, and how the Pentagonís renovated sections held up so well.

Step four involves our focus on fulfilling our basic human needs. If we were hurt, barred from our homes for days or even stuck in traffic for hours, we were reacting to our basic needs to get back to safety. Even if people were far away, they felt unsafe as they watched. For some Americans this has meant the decision to buy gas masks for the entire family.

Step five is denial; for some, denial helped people get to safety, some running for miles, before they really thought about what they had experienced.

Step six is anger and blame. Anger helps us express our frustrations, and can create serious trouble if it is directed at other innocents, like the killing of a Sikh, turbaned man in Arizona.

Step seven is creating meaning, or framing the experience we saw. In theory we ought to take a while on the earlier stages before we begin to establish meaning; yet we were getting this framing immediately from newscasters, then our political leaders. Consider the difference it would make for our president to label the September 11 event "an attack" versus "a war" versus "a serious incident." Our understandings and expectations grow out of the framework we use to understand. The "Crusade" framework, for example, was used by the Bush administration for the first two days, then dropped, as people thought more deeply about the Christian-versus-Muslim-and-Jew image of that reference.

The last step is what next. Clearly different choices would be made here based upon earlier stages. It is interesting to note that Americans wanted to know what happens next, very fast, even as facts were still being gathered on a very complex situation.

This framework helped my students to see the benefits of being reflective, understand the power of perception, and ponder how to go about making informed decisions.

ANNOUNCEMENT:  Faculty - Student Focus Groups

Sign up this month, October, to participate in a discussion group with ONE of your students. Ask your student to attend and to tell one experience he or she had that created a barrier to classroom learning.

The 1Ĺ hour guided discussions have proven to be very supportive for our students and highly educational for our faculty.

Contact Marlene Cohen on extension 0177 or e-mail at


The Instructional Newsletter, Volume 17, No. 1

Fall 2001