By Courtney Tennill
Let’s face it. The means professors use to assess knowledge of a given material are pretty predictable. You either end up writing until your fingers bleed or filling in hundreds of tiny bubbles. That can get old pretty fast.
But, in one political science course, Dr. Gregg Gunderson switches things and evaluates his students a little differently. For POL 415, Terrorism and Political Violence, students design a terrorist attack on the United States, and then develop ways to counter the plans of their classmates.
“I think you can only defeat terrorism if you understand the mind of the terrorist,” Gunderson said. “So by having students plan attacks and understand the goals and objectives of one, it helps them understand the terrorist’s mind.”
The course is generally offered every two or three semesters, but two sections were added this semester due to its popularity. This is Gunderson’s third time teaching the course, and he’s used the same setup every time-one that wasn’t too popular at first.
“I had to get it approved by the dean’s office because people thought I was trying to create little terrorists,” he said.
After getting approval, Gunderson set out to teach students about the terrorist’s mind in what he sees as the best way possible-putting them in the shoes of the terrorists.
Students spent the first few weeks of the course in general lecture, just like most other courses at Eastern. But three weeks in the middle of the semester are devoted to student presentations over the terrorist attacks they’ve planned against the United States.
For the purposes of the presentation, students have to establish a terrorist organization. They explain what the organization stands for, what its philosophy is, and why they would want to attack the United States. Then they give a detailed, step-by-step account of how they’d execute their attack.
For the final, students are given one of their classmate’s attack plans. Using information they learn in the second half of the course about counterterrorism, they have to explain how they’d counter the given attack.
During the lecture part of the course, students also learn the various causes of terrorism and the psychological traits of a terrorist.
“We have this view of terrorists being crazy, but terrorism can be a very rational strategy for a group that has no other way of getting their point across,” Gunderson said.
Shane Stewart, a senior political science major from Hazard, is in one of the two sections offered this semester. He said the course has been “incredibly enlightening” and that it’s interesting to learn how terrorism has evolved.
“It’s become clear that terrorism has been a slow evolution,” Stewart said. “Every terrorist learns from every terrorist before him or herself. You can trace quite a bit of modern terrorism back to Ireland and even Russia in the early 20th century.”
By having them design an attack, Gunderson also wants students to understand exactly what it takes to pull a terrorism attack off.
“This helps them form their own ideas about whether we as a nation are really threatened by terrorists,” he said.
Gunderson also said that the approach he uses to teach students about terrorism is the same approach the government uses to find its own weaknesses. “This is what the government and think tanks do,” he said. “They pay people to sit around all day making up attacks-and then find out where they are vulnerable.” The last time Gunderson taught the course, a student who was in the Army and worked for the arms depot actually designed an attack that stole weapons from where he worked and then used them in a terrorist attack.
He then took the plan to his commanders, who were able to make changes to their system to strengthen their security.
“The class has done good,” Gunderson said. “It’s nice to see students learn these things and then really apply them.”
While the course is currently an elective for political science majors and recommended for homeland security majors, it will become a choice for Section VIII of the general education requirements.
Stewart recommends the course to anyone, but especially to international affairs students or those interested in worldwide conflict.
“It really helps me to appreciate some of the things that go on around the world that I had just tuned out before,” he said.
For more information about POL 415, contact the political science department or Greg Gunderson at Gregory.Gunderson@eku.edu.