My initial response, when I learned of what had happened, was the following: 1) I was (and am) relieved that my mother is in Europe and not here to freak out to me about my safety. 2) I knew that I had to stop watching the television because I had a feeling I've only had twice before - during Hurricane Katrina and on September 11 - where I couldn't pull myself away from the screen even as it was sickening me and even as I wasn't learning factual or new information. I was feeding on others' terror and grief, and at least for me, that isn't part of coming to terms with something horrific but rather something that is deeply unhealthy and something that I find, for myself, disgusting. 3) I consciously decided that I would not take class time to "deal with" the events as they unfolded.
Why 3)? Isn't it my responsibility to address these horrors in my classroom? Maybe it is, or maybe it isn't, but here is why I made that choice.
- There is no way to deal with such a horrifying and inexplicable act of violence as it happens. There is no way to make sense of it, and there is no way to put it in its place. And while it is true that as professors we have a huge impact on our students, that does not mean that they necessarily want to hear us spin theories in an attempt to make sense of things that just don't make sense period. And I think it's valuable for me as a professor to acknowledge when I just don't understand something, so that's part of it, too.
- I remember after 9/11 that I thought I "had to" find some way to deal with what had happened in my classroom. But then I felt conflicted, like students might be so saturated with it that they might just want to do regular work. So I asked them, in our first class back (which was a week after it all happened - not the day of, not in the days immediately following). They all said, let's just stick with the syllabus. This isn't to say that it didn't come up throughout the semester, or that I never spoke to my students about it, but I didn't make it part of the class that they were taking in an overt and coercive way.
- Following out of #2, it's important to remember that while we see our students as "ours" that they've got 4 or 5 other professors as well. If they live on campus they've got RAs. They've got an academic adviser. And your university, if it's anything like mine, had a memorial service. They're getting the chance to open up and to talk in a lot of places. At a certain point, maybe it's better just to finish up with the semester? Maybe talk doesn't do anything but extend pain and fear at a certain point? (I'm not talking about those directly affected by this. I am talking specifically about students who are not directly affected.)
So yes, I do feel like it has been important for me to be honest and open with my students, to allow them to talk if they want to talk and to respond as honestly as I know how. At the same time, I also feel like it's important not to participate in the exploitation of this event, to appropriate it for some kind of consciousness raising, to pretend that I have any idea what those who are actually experiencing this are going through. I'm not saying that this is the only correct response to this, but it is my response. I think we all have to do what we believe is right for our students, and I don't think that there is a one-size-fits-all answer to that. For me, though, my primary job is to get them through to the end. That may mean talking about events outside the classroom - like the massacre at Virginia Tech - but it also means making sure students are prepared for their finals, giving them help with their papers, and making sure they understand the last texts that we are examining in this final two weeks of the semester. And for me, those last things I mention are the things that are most within my control, and those are the things that are most important to the majority of my students, so those are the things on which I focus most of my attention.
So maybe I'm missing a "teaching moment." Maybe my response to tragedy - innately - is just to get on with it, and that involves some element of denial. Maybe I'm not doing the right thing. I honestly don't know. But there's no rulebook for this stuff. And so I'm just doing the best that I know how to do with the tools that I have.