Historicizing 9/11 A Community-Based Research Documentary

On May 8 at 7pm in Silfen Auditorium, students from History Professor Jim Downs’ “Historicizing 9/11” class will be presenting their capstone project, Historicizing 9/11: New London. One of the benefits of Connecticut College’s liberal arts education is that permits professors to form creative courses.  Professor Downs received a grant from the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy to offer “Historicizing 9/11,” a seminar in the History department dedicated to understanding the terrorist attacks in a historical context.

The 30 students enrolled in the course worked with members of the New London community to compile oral histories of the events of September 11, 2001.  What began as a simple oral history project has developed into a feature-length documentary. “To document local reactions to 9/11 gives a whole new context and meaning to the attacks.  It shows just how much the terrorist attacks of 9/11 impacted the whole of American society, not just those in New York or those families who were personally affected by the loss of family or friends,” said Melanie Thibeault, ’14.

Students split themselves into three groups: interviewers, editors, and producers.  Interviewers were responsible for selecting interview prospects, developing questions, and conducting interviews, while the editors and producers polished the footage into its final form. The interviewees portrayed in the documentary include Connecticut College professors, deans, librarians, coaches, a firefighter, a police officer, as well as other citizens of New London.  Each person brings a new perspective to the table, creating a dynamic story.

“The prospect of doing oral histories provided a way for students to engage members of the broader New London community on a historical level, which will create a stronger bond between the College and the community,” said Professor Downs.

Jackson Murphy, an interviewer, found the process to be eye-opening. “I thought the most interesting aspect was the degree to which the New London community’s reaction to the attacks was personal, and the initiatives taken by the community to commemorate victims along with building relationships and understanding between people of different faiths.” New London, an old whaling city in southern Connecticut and home to the large pharmaceutical company Pfizer, has been overshadowed on the global scale by more metropolitan areas on the east coast.  Historical research on 9/11 has focused on the economic hubs of New York City, Boston, and Washington DC, while industrial cities like New London fell below the radar. Nicholas Sizer ’12 said “It’s important to understand how, though 9/11 occurred in NYC, that it has a dramatic physical and emotional effect on people all across the USA. Looking deeper at New London and its people allowed me to realize more intimately that the effects of 9/11 have no borders.”

The final product will be stored in the Connecticut College archives and at the New London historical society.  This compilation of oral histories has given the people of New London and the surrounding area a voice that would have been lost otherwise. Professor Downs has thoroughly enjoyed watching his students flourish under the challenge to complete the film. “The classes’ dedication and commitment to make this an important documentary has been indeed very rewarding. I also loved watching them to see the students work in various teams and how the team leaders got the ball rolling. This has been an entirely student-centered, student-driven project and that is enormously gratifying as a professor.”

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