Controversial University of Wisconsin lecturer Kevin Barrett held his first class Tuesday in front of an auditorium packed with students and media. Barrett has been under considerable scrutiny from the media for his remarks this summer suggesting the Sept. 11 attacks were part of a conspiracy hatched by the Bush administration.
"Welcome to Conspiracy Theories 370, not," Barrett joked at the start of his lecture.
His class, Islam: Religion and Culture 370, focuses on Sept. 11 for two weeks in the middle of the semester.
The students in the class said they were excited, and there was a palpable buzz in the air before the lecture started.
"I'm not going to lie, I enrolled because it is such a controversial class," UW senior Megan Gill said. "I'm interested [in] the topics and I'd like to get a useful class out of UW-Madison … something that relates more to today's events."
Barrett said that he did not want the class to entirely focus on Sept. 11 because he does not want "his thoughts of 9/11 to be a distraction."
Reporters from major Madison news outlets filled the back of the lecture hall during the lecture, and Barrett held an impromptu press conference when he was done with class.
"This is a class about the religion and culture of Islam. It's not a class on Sept. 11," Barrett said during the press conference.
He said he would not mind teaching a class about Sept. 11, but that it was not what he was hired to teach.
"I approach my job here in a pretty traditional perspective," Barrett said. "I'm trying to teach students how to think critically, and I'm trying to broaden their worlds by exposing them to different interpretations to bodies of texts."
As many lecturers do on the first day of instruction, Barrett explained his plans for the semester-long class and presented his students with introductory material.
He kept the mood light throughout the 75 minute power-lecture with self-deprecating humor and Monty Python references.
During the press conference a reporter asked Barrett to summarize the content of a speech he is going to give in New York on Sunday, Sept. 10, to which he responded, "[A]m I allowed to do that on university property, you think?"
Barrett's blithe reply prompted laughs from the media.
While Barrett's in-class mood was kept relatively light, recent remarks from UW administration have kept Barrett in hot water. Most recently, UW provost Patrick Farrell told Barrett in a letter dated July 20 that he could be fired if he did not keep his enthusiasm under control when presenting his controversial viewpoints publicly. Barrett noted he was being attacked by the media and felt as though he needed to respond through the media in order to be properly represented.
"[Farrell] asked me not to seek publicity, and my question is: Who is seeking whom here?" Barrett said about the content of Farrell's letter. "I'm not going to be chasing after you guys."
Barrett ended his press conference saying, "I think deconstructing that myth is absolutely essential for the future of humanity because the sacred story of 9/11 is driving people to violence."