— Katy kat (@katykatOfficiel) November 23, 2015
One of the more awkward things that political scientists have to deal with is the way in which the things that are more likely to stimulate student interest are often the things that are most sensitive/tricky to discuss. And since 9/11 and 7/7, terrorism has occupied the top spot in that list. My department was certainly not alone in finding that enrollments on our IR programmes and terrorism modules has been particularly strong.
The issues around discussing such subjects are (hopefully) pretty obvious: most glaringly, the almost boundless capacity to offend someone, given the subjective nature of the phenomenon (indeed, I’ve had at least one discussion about whether it is subjective and why would I say that…).
At the same time, as well as being of interest to students, terrorism also produces materials. Lots of material, in short time frames. And for a classroom discussion, that is a great opportunity, both for the subject itself and for the development of precising and analytical skills. And potentially it offers a way to handle the sensitivity issue.
To take the topical example, we might look at the Brussels lock-down that is currently running after the Paris attacks. Possibly because so many people haven’t got work to go to, there has been a wave of social media activity, which in turn led police to request that reports of their (the police’s) movements not be mentioned, so as to reduce the warning to potential targeted individuals (although the APC rumbling down your road might also be a clue).
In any case, Bruxellois responded with a meme of cats and kittens. As well as intrinsic interest (I’m going to guess you managed to get the end of that last link), this response provides an excellent stepping stone for a class discussion about popular responses to terrorism, both narrowly in the use of humour and more generally. The meme prompts a number of interesting questions, including what is the typical emotional response to terrorism, how can people frame and re-frame terrorism, and whether Belgians are alone in doing this (they’re not BTW – spend a minute or two reading Charlie Hebdo).
By asking students to map what happens around a terrorist event, we enable them to gain an understanding of the reach and depth of its effects and reconnect it to broader questions of political science. In so doing, we might find that we can channel the interest with fewer of the issues.