Crankster

Thursday, May 03, 2007

This Thing of Darkness

Okay, as a (now former) teacher, I'm officially allowed to have a few favorite Shakespeare quotes. One of these is the line that Prospero says at the end of The Tempest. Speaking of Caliban, the twisted servant who recently tried to kill him, Prospero says, "This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine."

I really love that line, both for its mildly goth structure and for the honesty that it contains. While Prospero is proud to acknowledge his intelligent, beautiful daughter Miranda, he must also accept responsibility for his deformed, angry slave Caliban. This rings true: as any parent will attest, it's easy to take credit for a successful, brilliant child, but much harder to admit responsibility for a shambling disaster.


Case in point: I proudly admit a measure of responsibility for my former student Ian MacFarland. A couple of weeks ago, Ian published copies of Seung-Hui Cho's plays on AOL news. Ian told me that he has received a great deal of criticism for this, but I think that his reason for releasing the plays is sound:

[I] put myself in the shoes of the average person researching this situation. I'd want to know everything I could about the killer to figure out what could drive a person to do something like this and hopefully prevent it in the future. Also, I hope this might help people start caring about others more no matter how weird they might seem, because if this was some kind of cry for attention, then he should have gotten it a long time ago.

The publication of these plays also had a more immediate effect: they opened up a wide-ranging discussion of Seung-Hui Cho's conduct in the university and the myriad warning signs of his impending breakdown. In the weeks following Ian's release, numerous other students and teachers have come forth to talk about Seung-Hui. A consistent picture has emerged of a disturbed recluse who openly discussed his bizarre fantasies of murder and torture. According to various reports, Seung Hui repeatedly stalked his classmates, wrote revenge fantasies that seemed to target his teachers, and was a consistently disruptive influence in class. The question, of course, is why the University didn't do something a long time ago. As Virginia Tech has repeatedly pointed out, colleges have very few options in matters of student rights, but it's worth asking why the school didn't pursue this problem more agressively. Given Virginia Tech's claim that it "Invents the Future," one has to wonder why it wasn't invested in inventing a solution to this problem.

One major issue is the University's method, or lack thereof, for dealing with disturbed students. When issues crop up in the classroom, teachers generally follow the same protocol. We complain to a department administrator, who tells us that there's nothing we can do until the student commits a crime. We, of course, knew this already; we only complained so we could go on the record as having complained, which proves useful when the student acts out and the whole thing becomes a legal case.

That's it. There's no official procedure that we can follow, no university administrator to whom we can appeal. Nothing is written down, nothing is recorded, and nothing is done. I have been through this process a few times and have always found it to be a miserable, insulting experience. There's nothing quite like being told that your fears are meaningless and your safety isn't a priority to make you question your place in the universe.

As Ian points out, the situation is even worse for students who wish to report a problem:

While I "knew" Cho, I always wished there was something I could do for him, but I couldn't think of anything. As far as notifying authorities, there isn't (to my knowledge) any system set up that lets people say "Hey! This guy has some issues! Maybe you should look into this guy!" If there were, I definitely would have tried to get the kid some help. I think that could have had a good chance of averting yesterday's tragedy more than anything.

In Seung-Hui's case, the complainant was Nikki Giovanni. Because Nikki is Virginia Tech's only famous poet, her report holds a little more significance than the rest of ours. Still, she had to threaten to quit before Lucinda Roy, the head of the department, offered to tutor the student in her office. Even so, this was hardly a reasonable solution: Lucinda was terrified of Seung-Hui, but was repeatedly told by the University that there was nothing that could be done. Part of the problem here is that the University, and academia in general, is legally hamstrung in these situations. Because of privacy issues, the University cannot discuss student conduct with parents, and cannot compel students to undergo psychiatric evaluation.

Clearly, the University needs to develop safeguards to protect itself and its students. However, rather than use the April 16th shootings to pursue laws or internal procedures that will improve the situation, the University is in full lockdown mode. By April 17th, my department had sent out an e-mail stating that "Legal Counsel's office asks that you not make statements to the press or anyone while the investigation is pending." Fearing for their jobs, most teachers followed this directive. The notable exceptions were Nikki Giovanni, Lucinda Roy, and Lisa Norris. In the ensuing weeks, all three have become very silent, and I wonder if they were threatened.

A few days after the first e-mail, we recieved this message from the university: "Legal Counsel's office has asked me to remind you that it is inappropriate to speak to anyone, including the press, about a student's behavior in class. FERPA rights survive death. We must be especially careful not to talk about other students or similar cases of troubled students who have exhibited strange behavior in class." While I understand the need to protect a student's legal rights, I'm pretty sure that Seung-Hui Cho's family won't be suing. What I'm far less sure about is that other families won't sue. Of course, FERPA is less pressing in this case; the University's culpability is the real issue here.

When Tech realized that threatening the livelihoods of its professors had produced a truly disturbing level of silence, they relented. We were officially encouraged to talk about the tragedy, as long as we didn't discuss Seung-Hui. In fact, we were given specific points to push in interviews. Here's part of the e-mail that we received:

Next, I want to share with you the messages we think are important to convey. These messages are part of Virginia Tech's continuing efforts to support one another as our community regroups to grieve, heal and move forward:

1. We will not be defined by this event [...] as an academic family we will endeavor to analyze, learn and, ultimately, come to some understanding of the event. Our Principles of Community remain our values [...] Virginia Tech--our traditions, community, history, and promising future--will prevail. Our motto Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) underscores our spirit [...]Finally, everything we do as we move forward will commemorate, honor, and respect the numerous individuals affected by this tragic event.

2. Invent the Future [...] "Invent the Future" captures our role and spirit as a world-renowned research institution. Nothing in the events of last week will alter who we are and what we represent. When classes resume, our academic excellence, the commitment and talent of our students, and our clear role in shaping a positive future for the world will again be apparent. Hokies are, and always will, embody learning, discovery and engagement.

3. Embrace the Virginia Tech Family [...] We are a unique, special family--more enduring and closer to one another than a typical university community [...] Assisting the families and friends of those injured and bereaved is our focus. We are also committed to the assistance and support of one another [...] We will nurture the legacy of the 32 Virginia Tech family members we lost. The Virginia Tech family will celebrate their lives and accomplishments. Our memorials to them, both public and private, will reflect those sentiments.

It is also our intention to do whatever we can to promote the healing process within our community. We consider our communications to be a critical element of that process. We are regaining control of the Virginia Tech reputation and legacy, and believe these messages are crucial to accomplishing that goal.


My students have talked to me about the interviews they have given, and I have encouraged them to talk to the press. If Virginia Tech is to become stronger from this atrocity, I think it will have to do so in spite of its administrators, not because of them. Clearly, the University is neither prepared to nor invested in changing its institutional structure to ensure that this sort of tragedy doesn't happen again. Until Virginia Tech acknowledges "this thing of darkness," it will be incapable of protecting itself and its students against further atrocities.

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17 Comments:

  • Firstly, let me welcome you to the ex-educators club. I hope you find it as much fun as I have.

    Secondly, this explains the anger you spoke of previously. What an extraordinary situation. A question; do you think that the generally litigious culture of the US is in part responsible for the fear behind the institution's course of action?

    Puss

    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At May 3, 2007 at 2:28 PM  

  • Too bad to hear you had a falling out with your University.

    I think it's BS how they tried to hush everyone up, what a bunch of A'Holes. Universities are supposed to be beacons of democracy and free speech.

    But truthfully, they probably hired a consulting company that told them what to do.

    By Blogger Webs, At May 3, 2007 at 3:06 PM  

  • Im speechless, Really. I dont know how you served out your notice without loosing your voice in frustration.

    By Blogger Judith, At May 3, 2007 at 3:47 PM  

  • Puss-
    I think that fear of litigation has played a huge part in the University's response. In the administration's narrative, there was no reason to worry, this came out of the blue, and nothing could have been done. If this narrative is proven untrue, then it opens up serious questions about the school's responsibility toward its students and employees.

    Another aspect, though, is the fact that the University has a very hierarchical institutional structure. Seriously, imagine that Richard Nixon had designed an educational institution and you wouldn't be far from the reality of Tech. Information is compartmentalized at all levels, and the administration seems to show a great deal of contempt for its educators and students.


    Webs-
    I imagine that you're right about the consulting company. But, as you pointed out, Universities are supposed to be beacons of free speech. It's unfortunate that a supposed instrument of open education and learning should be so closed in its internal dealings!


    Jude-
    I've found that low expectations help. Unfortunately, though, I've just gotten to the point where I can't lower my expectations any further!

    By Blogger Crankster, At May 3, 2007 at 6:17 PM  

  • I am...flabbergasted at this and I am pretty much disgusted by their trying to dictate what people should say in the interviews. It reeks of PR in the worst sense. I also wonder what can be done...at what point does one individual's rights to privacy surpass the well-being of others? I can understand that it shouldn't be breached for most cases, but when the situation is threatening, there must be something to be done. It seems very similar to domestic abuse cases, in which the cops can't do anything until the abused ends up hurt or dead. There has to be a middle way...

    By Blogger Claudia, At May 3, 2007 at 7:07 PM  

  • It's very Peyton Place in it's heal, but quietly and amongst yourselves and while your at it keep telling yourselves these points and it'll all go away. Wow. It's a bit disappointing. Don't students need to sign something with an emergency contact on it and shouldn't it include mental emergency?

    By Blogger My Reflecting Pool, At May 3, 2007 at 9:47 PM  

  • Pat Buchanan had an interesting column yesterday regarding Cho's status as an unassimilated immigrant. The Balkinization of America can't be a good thing....

    By Blogger Matt, At May 4, 2007 at 9:53 AM  

  • In these types of situations, there are no givens...because they don't know what they're dealing with and the "authorities" think that the only way is to avert law suits by putting a lid of what others can or cannot say about the event. Well what about those who went thru it, like all of you did, and need a way of venting and ranting....those are ones that need protection.....
    I don't even know if that made any sense...but there it is./
    Peace

    By Blogger Odat, At May 4, 2007 at 10:18 AM  

  • You know how much I valued your classes, but I'm glad you're moving on in your life from VT. As bitchy as it sounds, the school don't deserve you.

    By Blogger tokenscot, At May 4, 2007 at 11:10 AM  

  • Truly disgusted that those put in place to Educate and inform the minds of the future are in the same breath, silencing. A gag order, if you will.
    This isn't the official secrets of the David Shaylor kind, double dealings with shady types behind locked doors. It was a very public and painful event.
    Have they stopped teaching the best way to learn is to ask Questions?!?
    Is it me or is anything (pretty much everything) that even hints of the educated should know... Is drowning in Spin?
    I'm glad that you are making the most of what life has to offer.
    The Very Best of luck to you and yours, now and for the future.

    By Anonymous R, At May 4, 2007 at 3:13 PM  

  • Just a few months back I reread The Tempest and it is a well placed analogy. Thank you so much for sharing with us your student's words which hold so much truth. I couldn't agree more.

    Be well and enjoy the day

    By Blogger Danielle, At May 5, 2007 at 3:11 AM  

  • It's pretty astounding to read this stuff, and I think you did a phenomenal job of presenting it.

    And it really really pisses me off.

    By Blogger misanthropster, At May 5, 2007 at 9:24 AM  

  • Claudia-
    I've been working my way around that problem for about two weeks now. On the one hand, I'm not comfortable finding myself in the law and order crowd; on the other hand, I don't think our assumption that our students can take care of themselves does anyone any favors.


    Reflecting Pool-
    You're right--they do have emergency contacts. However, we aren't allowed to discuss anything personal with parents. It's a really odd situation.


    Matt-
    I've been reading a lot about bullying and its psychological effects. It seems like there were several factors that made Cho feel isolated. The ethnic balkanization of the country is upsetting, but the fact is that it is only one of many forms of cultural fracturing that we need to address!


    Odat-
    That made perfect sense. Thank you! Reading over this again, I was afraid that it seemed like I was being oversensitive.


    Tokenscot-
    It didn't deserve either of us. I'm really proud of you.


    r-
    I think you nailed it--the wall between spin and measure, reasonable response is getting thicker and thicker, and we're stuck on the spin side.

    Thank you for dropping by!


    Danielle-
    Thanks--I was worried that I was stretching the analogy! And thank you for the kind comment regarding my student. I'm very proud of him.


    Misanthropster-
    Right there with you. Besides, you knew some of these people.

    By Blogger Crankster, At May 6, 2007 at 12:19 AM  

  • Lying, even just by remaining silent, doesn't work for long. While Tech administration continues with a vain attempt to cover their respective asses, we lose whatever lesson of value that might be gained from this horror. I wish I could pretend surprise at the reaction, but it has been the same with other atrocities and it will continue to be so until the laws of the state and the nation are revised to deal with mental illness.

    By Blogger Spellbound, At May 6, 2007 at 5:18 PM  

  • BTW, check out this site http://www.peteearley.com/home/ which is written by a Virginia man with a mentally ill son trying to get help and frustrated with the legal system.

    By Blogger Spellbound, At May 6, 2007 at 6:08 PM  

  • We live in a litigious society and the University's reaction clearly reflects that. There's no excuse for the gag order, but imagine if you will, if 30 sets of grieving parents decided to sue VA Tech for their slow reaction time.

    Pain could easily transfer to mob anger. I just dunno.

    By Blogger Lee, At May 7, 2007 at 9:30 AM  

  • The University's reaction is typical of a corporate reaction, which should should you how much the lawyers have taken over the Universitys. I am so sorry for you.

    On the other hand, my great escape was in May of 1980! Let's go get Puss and the others and party!

    By Blogger The CEO, At May 8, 2007 at 7:07 AM  

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