Thursday, April 19, 2007

On Students and Tragedy

Bardiac and Dr. Virago have posts up about how they've approached talking to students about what happened at Virginia Tech. I feel like I should write about how I've talked to students and why I've talked to students in the precise way that I have. And this is about more than this particular event: it is about how we as professors deal with the world beyond our classrooms and offices when it intrudes upon those spaces. So this is a generalizing post - a post with wide-ranging intent. This is not particularly a post about Virginia Tech. And while my heart goes out to all of those who have been directly affected by what happened there, I would never presume to say that I understand their grief and their loss or that it is my grief and my loss. And I'll go one step further than that: this grief and loss is also not my students' grief and loss except for in the most abstract way. Not really.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
But all of this is not to say that I haven't talked about what happened with my students. Today, I did have some students bring up what happened. Casually, to find out what I thought about it all and to find out how I felt in response. And I responded much as I am talking about this now, here. I was honest about the fact that I've turned off the television and have been getting most of my news from written media. I talked about the fact that I believe that it's important not to dwell too much on this sort of thing because ultimately if somebody is willing to die in order to execute such an attack, there is little that one can do to prepare or to fend off that attack. My students also asked me what I thought about the link between this and Columbine (for they are a generation that grew up with things like lockdown and public service programs about school shootings), and I explained the ways in which I felt that the links being made between the two are not in all cases productive ones. They also were interested in my response to all of the discussion of the shooter being an English major and of how his writing is being viewed as revelatory, and I talked about academic freedom and my own beliefs about the classroom needing to be a safe place for students to explore all kinds of ideas - even if that involves some risk. (Incidentally, my students wanted to talk a lot about this - they didn't at all like the idea that their professors would be trying to diagnose them as potential mass murderers when reading their assignments.) I talked about how stressed out everybody is at this time of the semester, and how sometimes the intensity of that collective stress scares me as a professor and how I try to diffuse that stress in my students. And finally, we talked about the safety of our university, and I gave them my honest assessment of what I think about that, which involved a discussion of the hideous architecture on our campus as in some ways a positive.

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.


Kate said...

I don't think you're missing a teaching moment. I think we all deal with this in our own way, and that doesn't always lead to making space for it in the classroom. I ended up bringing it up in my class as a potential topic for a final paper -- it intersects in interesting ways with some material we've been learning, and is allowing them to think a little bit more on their own and together about how and why it happened. I could have created space to discuss it a bit more, but something about the way they were acting in class told me they were figuring out their own way to process it.

Hilaire said...

It sounds to me as if you're dealing with this perfectly. I actually just loved this post; it is exceedingly wise. I like it because it reocgnized that there are limits to knowledge and to expression; that's too rare in this media-saturated world.

gwinne said...

Great post. I explicitly discussed 9/11 with my students (the day of the event), but it was in the context of a class on trauma and literature. Haven't talked at all about Virginia Tech, for the kinds of reasons you outline. If *they* brought it up, I certainly wouldn't have stifled conversation, but I didn't feel it would be appropriate (or helpful) for me to do so.

life_of_a_fool said...

I agree with the others. I did what you did after September 11 -- I asked if anyone wanted to talk about it, they didn't, we moved on. I did the same thing with the VA Tech shooting in one class, because it was relevant to the subject matter of the course, and not in the other, because it wasn't.