As I mentioned earlier, my colleagues have been dealing with the tragedy at Virginia Tech in different ways, but they all seem to be deeply shaken by it. I think if you're a teacher, an instructor, or a Professor, the first thing that you think when you hear something like this is 'would I be able to protect my students?' We have certain responsibilities to them and I think the responsibility to keep them safe is the most basic of these.
Violence is as strange on a campus as in any adult public place. Everyone remembers the fist fights that took place in their high school, no doubt. But when we had a fist fight at our university a few semesters ago, many of us were completely taken aback by it. There seems to be an unwritten rule that violence is not acceptable on a university campus. In many other ways, a campus is unrecognizable from a high school.
And yet, the suggestion that what happened at Virginia Tech should prompt those of us who instruct to arm ourselves is somehow chilling. I'm quite fine with people owning guns in their homes, but absolutely not on campus. Many of my colleagues in the department are gun owners and members of the NRA, but none of them believe that we should be carrying guns either. The idea of a classroom in which some students and some teachers are carrying firearms is just somehow irreconcilable with a civilized society. And those people who would suggest that we are somehow abdicating our responsibility by not carrying firearms seem, frankly, a little bizarre to me.
Are there other precautions to take? Would metal doors have made a difference? Would doors that lock from the inside have made a difference? It seems likely, but who can say? Everyone knows how to save a ship after it sinks- hindsight bias is 20/20. And yet, when you're in a 20 foot by 40 foot concrete room with one door and someone bursts through the door firing a semi-automatic weapon at lightning speed how do you react? Hopefully none of us will ever know.
And what to do with a troubled student? We sometimes forget that our relationship with students is both professional and personal. And yet, for all of the things I've read about how difficult it is to contact the police about a troubled student, there would seem to be a responsibility as well to actually reach out to the student. Would it make a difference? Maybe not, but again, how can we say? It sounds like many people reached out to this particular young man and to no avail. In the end, we have to remember that only one person is to blame here.
I have been lucky in this regard so far. But this makes me think that I've also been too distant as an instructor. I think I will teach differently after this. I've wondered about students who seemed to suddenly became sullen in my recitations after the first few weeks, wanted to know if they were alright, but I've not asked anything for fear of embarrassing them. Even worse, I don't always know their names, even after several weeks. It's only an hour a week, and yet, in some way, they're our charges.
Recently, another TA received a disturbing writing assignment from a student that all but said the boy was going to kill himself. Some of us discussed the writing and tried to figure out how to handle it. Honestly, our first thought was not what professionals to contact, but how he should contact the boy. Obviously, we all knew the TA would have to contact the councillors in health services as soon as possible, and he did, but there also seemed to be a responsibility to try to just talk to the young man. Universities like ours are huge and labyrinthine and it's easy for students to get lost in them, in some cases to just get more lost than they were already. Would it prevent the suicides to just let the students know that we care about their well being? Maybe. Did it help this student? Clearly, it did not. But, if we give up, and put no hope in anything but guards and police, then we've lost hope in civilization in some very real way.