Messages from Writers on Writing and Education

Learning Outcomes

Excerpt with Reflection

David Hagelberg

Throughout the first half of the semester, the primary focus of the class has been to discuss the controversy around the etymology of the word “terrorism.” By gaining a better understanding of how the concept of terrorism has changed over time, the class has been given the tools to more accurately explore the concepts of terror and its relevancy not only in history, but in the present day as well.

Beginning with Module 2 and continuing as a recurring theme throughout multiple other modules, the class discussed one facet of terrorism as a concept: its notoriously ambiguous definition. This ambiguity is a result of the lack of a single unified definition for what actually counts as terrorism. We learned that, much like many other deeply political concepts, the exact meaning has changed over time. Viewing terrorism as a fluid concept is not a uniquely personal belief, either. As said by one student in their post, “terrorism is constantly changing and has been changing throughout the years” (Student A, DB-2).[1] The idea that a definition can change drastically over time is also explored in the final question for this module: asking the students to create their own definition of terrorism. Rather than provide a broad definition that may function for a long period of time, I chose to focus my definition on what is considered terrorism in today’s political climate. To accomplish this, I defined terrorism as an “evolving political concept of using sudden, but deliberately planned, acts of violence to…draw attention and/or publicity to a cause. The cause being fought for always has the goal of radically altering society in such a way that the group for which the terrorist fights can obtain a more desirable social position.”

Progressing on to Module 3, I chose to expand on why terrorism is so hard to define while obtaining a deeper understanding as to how the definition has changed over time. As mentioned in the previous module, the definition of terrorism is fluid and has evolved over time. During the French Revolution, the term was one used against any who rebelled against the government. This is somewhat different than the vague understanding everyone has of terrorism in today’s world. This is noted by another student when they quoted Hoffman saying, “the meaning and usage of the word have changed over time to accommodate the political vernacular and discourse of each successive era” (Student B, DB-3).

Module 4 acted as a departure from the basic concept of terrorism by challenging us to write about key figures who shaped the world through their association with terrorism and, by extension, political violence as a whole. For this assignment, I chose to write about Mikhail Bakunin, colloquially known as the father of collectivist anarchism as a means to achieve political change. As a result of being a violent means to force change, anarchism is often looked upon as a subset of traditional terrorism, and it is easy to see why. Like terrorism, Bakuninist anarchism divided the organization into small groups and used violent acts to influence the current system of government. Frequently, the term “violent acts” referred to the assassination of political officials. One example of an assassination carried out under the banner of anarchism can be found in Christopher Ochoa’s post. In his final paragraph, he discusses the killing of President William McKinley at the hands of Leon Czolgosz, who was a practitioner of anarchism.

For Module 5, the class was instructed to examine the actions of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln and determine if he should be labelled a terrorist. Noted in my original post, it is important to distinguish how each of his plans fit the definition of terrorism established both by myself in the second module and those of legitimate government agencies with their own official definitions. Although ultimately shooting the president, Booth originally planned to kidnap Lincoln. To determine if this act could be classified as terrorism, I turned to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s definition of violent crime, a key part of terrorism’s definition. Although many crimes are listed under the umbrella of violent crime, kidnapping is notably not listed. Despite being planned to accomplish altruistic political goals, the objective lack of kidnapping as a violent crime omits it from being included in the FBI’s definition of terrorism. Booth’s plan that actually took place, Lincoln’s assassination, had the same motives but was inarguably violent. Booth’s altruism was also noted by a classmate who noted that “he was driven by what he saw as a patriotic and religious duty” (Student C, DB-5). For this reason, Booth’s assassination of Lincoln fits well within the FBI’s definition of terrorism. The act also fits every aspect of the definition I devised in Module 2.

Moving away from the United States, I chose to view the analysis of political violence in pursuit of national liberation through the lens of South Africa under apartheid. The concept of using political violence to enact change for the better was a somewhat foreign idea prior to this module. However, it was through studying Apartheid that I gained an understanding of how what is definitionally terrorism can be used against a government objectively in the wrong. For context, Apartheid was a period of South African history in which people were segregated by race, much like Jim Crow laws in the United States. As a result of the contention between those being oppressed and the government doing the oppressing, terrorism was seen on both sides. In my original post, I noted that the oppressed began with peaceful protest, but the resistance quickly shifted to armed conflict. In response, South Africa saw the creation of Askaris, or death squads sponsored by the government to dismantle anti-apartheid groups. The use of these death squads fits squarely within the definition of state terrorism, which too is politically motivated, but is carried out by domestic forces within a country’s borders rather than protesters. Similar themes can be seen in other countries such as Vietnam. In their post, one student briefly mentions the “pre-emptive strike against the forces [North Vietnam] aligning against him [Ngo Dinh Diem, leader of South Vietnam]” (Student D, DB-6). It is in this act that we can see the themes of state terrorism in another country. In this case, the events that occurred eventually led to a war between the North and South.

Module 7, the most recent covered prior to the midterm, covers the topic of revolutionary terrorism, another subcategory of terrorism. When discussing revolutionary terrorism, it is important to define its place as a form of domestic terrorism, or acts performed against the state in which one lives. In my initial post, I discuss how others have defined it, often mentioning the idea of insurgency. In this context, insurgency can be simply defined as a revolt against the government without organization. The lack of organization was noted by numerous classmates as well. A student, in their second paragraph, notes that revolutionary terrorism comes from “the impatient tendencies of civilians and organizations” (Student E, DB-7). Associating revolutionary terrorism with insurgency, the primary difference that becomes apparent is the scale in which the acts take place. Insurgency, and revolutionary terrorism by extension, occur on a much larger scale than traditional terrorism. To further illustrate this concept, I chose to discuss John Brown, an American revolutionary terrorist fighting to abolish slavery. His case accurately fits the definition of revolutionary terrorism as a consequence of his intention to spread his message in addition to providing the means to enact change. Returning to the student’s definition, one could accurately assume that John Brown’s “impatient tendency” was his desire to abolish slavery.


Although the basic expectation of my degree is to pursue a career focusing on science or technology, I have always made it a point to take a history class whenever possible. My most recent venture into this realm was a history elective named “Terrorism and the Modern World.” Although following the general structure of any other college course, the professor for this class assigned a unique assignment, asking students to examine their work leading up to a certain point throughout the semester. The essay examined in this reflection is one of those assignments, written during midterms week, assessing our comprehension of the various topics covered thus far, particularly the intricacies and difficulty surrounding the definition of terrorism.

As this course, and the assignment by extension, was exclusively online, my process for composing my thoughts was somewhat unique compared to previous experiences. In some ways, it made writing the paper much easier. For example, one of the expectations was to reference my classmates’ work. With everything accessible without having to reach out, I was able to compile not only my work from all of the previous modules but my classmates’ work as well. This made organizing my thoughts, something I frequently have trouble doing, significantly easier. In addition, incorporating the varying opinions of others allowed me to both support my arguments and use their countering perspective to expand my understanding.

Although I said that the paper was made easier by being online, the assignment was not without its challenges. Perhaps the biggest challenge lay in what also made it easier. To elaborate, the large volume of work submitted over the course of the first half of the semester made it difficult at times to find relevant work to cite. This difficulty was only exacerbated by the tendency for each student to be assigned a unique subtopic. An example of this can be seen in the paragraph covering Module 6. For this particular topic, we were tasked with examining the effectiveness of political violence in a variety of countries. As a result of being assigned different countries, I needed to think creatively to relate another student’s work into my own.

In terms of successes achieved with this paper, the greatest came at its completion. By finishing the assignment and following the guidelines, I acquired the exact thing the assignment was meant to test—a deeper understanding of the material covered thus far. Not only was I able to develop a deeper understanding, but by being required to incorporate classmates’ work, I also gained a much wider perspective on terrorism as a whole. Often when writing papers for school, you are tasked with citing research that supports your position. Not often are you required to use sources that do not agree with you. In my experience, this can lead to one’s head becoming an echo chamber of sorts, making it much more difficult to examine different perspectives. By incorporating others’ work, regardless of whether their positions were the same as mine, I was forced to consider different aspects of what makes any given topic so complex.

Critical thinking, in essence, can be defined as the process of evaluating information gathered through reasoning or observation and communication. It is only through such observations and subsequent analysis that conclusions that inspire confidence can be drawn. More often than not, the lens through which these observations are made lead to particular views on a specific topic. This inherently human process can unintentionally lead to bias on the part of the observer. As a researcher, it is up to one’s self to do everything in their power to look past these biases. As mentioned earlier, the way I moved past this was to incorporate the work of classmates that did not necessarily support my conclusions. In my experience, integrating opposing viewpoints into an assignment focusing on my own observations was exceedingly difficult. By challenging myself to use these differing views and not simply find another classmate that agreed with me, I was forced to reevaluate why I thought the way I did. In more instances than not, this resulted in obtaining a new perspective on the topic in question. To elaborate, my first thought and emotion when reading an assignment that disagreed with mine was predominantly confusion. Although many topics had multiple facets, such as the actions of John Wilkes Booth discussed in Module 5, I was surprised with how often my views conflicted with a classmate on a topic that seemed objective. Once the initial confusion passed, I took a moment to reassess why I thought the way I did and to reexamine the information I had gathered previously—the very essence of critical thinking.

In my experience the basic components of critical thinking are also present in the writing process, particularly how conclusions are drawn from the analysis of observations and communication. Nearly every time I have needed to write for an assignment, I inevitably arrived at a block where I could not decide how to continue the piece. Although frustrating, the same block also aided me in deciding what to write next. Whenever a block presented itself, I knew that there was more to pull out of the topic, both in terms of information I may have been missing as well as reevaluating my preconceived ideas regarding the topic. The concept I mentioned earlier, the unintentional development of biases, served as the basis of my reevaluation. Rather than think, “What more is there to say?” I forced myself to think, “What could I have missed?” It is at this moment that I often read through what I had already written, questioning nearly every line, including those that seemed to be inarguable. More often than not, this brought to my attention gaps in my understanding, or provided insight into how previous experiences could be limiting my willingness to delve deeper into why I think the way I do. As a result, the writing process, in conjunction with critical thinking, has improved my ability to look further than the surface when examining both multifaceted and single faceted topics.

This course not only made me focus on how ambiguous words can be in common usage, but also made me realize how important the specific definition of a word is. The best example of this can be found in the first module: how terrorism should be defined. Without getting into the details, terrorism, at least in America, is defined different by nearly every department in the government. As a result, certain elements are consistently present across the board, but subtleties in wording change what is considered terrorism, even within the same department.

This course, and this assignment in particular, has expanded my ability to think critically.

  1. Student names have been redacted for their privacy.


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