Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Am I more afraid after Virginia Tech?

[I wrote this in the days immediately after the Virginia Tech shooting, but chose to sit with it a while before posting. I have backdated it to when I originally wrote it.]

The first time I felt afraid of a student, I was a graduate student
assisting in a course taught by a professor in my department. The
professor called my lab and asked me to come to his office with the
gradebook. There, I found a surly-faced student standing with his
back to the door and the professor sitting solemnly facing the door.
The student insisted that he had taken our final exam the day before,
even though we had no record of it, and was demanding a grade for the
course. The gradebook showed no grades on any assignment for the
student. The student claimed we had lost them too, and that we were
doing so deliberately. The professor offered the student an empty
room and paper on which he could write descriptions of the exam
questions from the day before. The student remarked that he'd left
his car running and couldn't do that. The professor said he could
offer no more. The student left. I felt shaken, but said nothing.
Years later, the professor told me that that incident marked the only
time he'd been afraid of what a student might do.

The second time I felt afraid of a student, I didn't know his or her
identity. All I knew was that a student was angry enough to write a
strong and sexually-explicit paragraph on my teaching evaluation. I
received this months after the course was over, but still kept an eye
over my shoulder in the parking lot every day for the next two weeks.

The third time I felt afraid of a student, I was attempting to sort
out a dispute between students attempting to work together on an
assignment. One of them seemed disconnected, overwhelmed, and afraid
yet unwilling to face it. His academic advisor confirmed that the
student's behavior was worrisome in other settings as well, and they
were attempting to work on it. I breathed a sign of relief when he
scored enough points to pass the course.

What happened at Virginia Tech is horrifying. As the details came
out, I began envisioning my own usual classroom, with no desks and too
many doors for those inside to reasonably secure. I sensed full-body
memories of interactions with students that set off a little voice in
my head: is this student okay? Perhaps being a female professor in a
male-dominated field makes me particularly sensitive to this. To be
sure, most of my students are fine people who I respect and truly
enjoy teaching. But every once in a while I hear that little voice:
this one could just be mad enough to try to hurt me.

What happened at Virginia Tech doesn't raise a new fear for this
professor: it already exists, and tremours on par with what comes from
flying frequently. I thank the Virgina Tech faculty who took the time
to report their concerns about the gunman to the authorities. I
wonder whether we have the right balance between students' privacy and
community protection, as the current one leaves little room for
universities to legally respond to such warnings. I remind myself
that, periodic warnings from the voice notwithstanding, no student has
ever attempted to harm me physically. Statistics are on my side.

I don't know what the answer is, and frankly doubt there is one. I've
lived in states across the gun permissiveness scale, and working now
in gun-controlled Massachusetts hasn't quieted the little voice,
though it may dampen the tremours. Whether the real problem lies with
me, with increasing student pressures, with societal dysfunction, or
with availability of weapons is irrelevant. What does matter is
fostering communities that take time to notice and discuss potential
problems, continuing to debate how to balance security with the range
of non-dangerous human expression, and acknowledging that lack of
control and fear are, sadly, par for the course.

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