I had nightmares about the VT massacre last night. It was on a two day delay. I knew that eventually the horror of what had happened would start to eat away at me. In part, I think my dreams haunted me precisely because I didn't talk, or rather listen, to what students thought about this. I didn't check in to see if they were suffering, in shock, afraid . . . I had to think a lot about why I didn't, especially after the Provost sent us a thoughtful email encouraging us to do so. What it comes down to is that I didn't want to think about it. I didn't want to actually confront the horror of this event. I wasn't prepared for hearing any vitriol, anger or racist statements either (not that students would've made such statements, but I worried). I am scared and frightened by what happened, and in my selfishness, I didn't want to hear anything about it, or how it affected my students.
I started to realize how frightened I was by the events yesterday while talking to my colleagues in the Philosophy lounge. I had been studying the faces of the dead at the NYTimes website. But, more importantly, I had been studying the faces of the dead professors. One of them, Jamie Bishop, looked like the sort of colleague I have here. He was young, married, and well-loved by his students. Don't get me wrong, I paused on pictures of young women and men, who could've been my own students, and found myself speechless over the loss. But, seeing the pictures of dead professors haunted me the most. And, it is precisely that which I dreamt: being hunted by a former student, being called to protect my class from an armed assailant. These are not tasks that one signs on for when he/she becomes a college professor.
Kerry reminded me of a student we both had a few years ago, who I am convinced was schizophrenic. He was the right age and gender for the onset of schizophrenia. His papers were long, stream of consciousness writings full of references to disturbing sexuality. The more I was around him, the more frightened I became of him. I would shudder if he came to my office and I never had any idea of what to do with his papers. During his senior thesis presentation, I think we all just sat, aghast at what nonsense had been uttered and scrambled to figure out what to do.
I think that one of the hard realities that we, as college professors, have to face in the wake of the VT massacre is our responsibility to get troubled students serious help (even if they frighten us). Many of us like to just avoid this responsibility (me included). After all, we're not therapists! And, I am not claiming we should start acting like therapists either. But, I do think we have a serious obligation to pay attention to our students who seem deeply troubled, and figure out ways to get them help. If we just try to get them out of our class, or ignore them, or rationalize to ourselves that they are just lazy, mean or insubordinate, then we may find ourselves deeply regretting that we didn't do something to stop them from hurting others or themselves.
The story of Cho Seung-Hui is not an anomaly. We know that there are lots of disaffected, troubled young people in our schools. And while the news reports are starting to show that his professors, at least, tried to take action, what stands out to me is how most people just ignored his behavior. Everyone knows the loners on their campus. And, most of the time these loners are the butt of jokes. Allowing such a disconnected community to exist is no longer safe, forget the moral concerns.
So, the lesson I draw from the VT massacre is that I can no longer afford to ignore the students who are manifesting very troubling behavior; I am responsible to them as well as my community.
Open thread: supporting victims of sexual harassment
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