Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Professors and Troubled Students

At least five of the people who lost their lives in yesterday's tragic shooting at Virginia Tech were faculty. G.V. Loganathan came to the U.S. from India in 1977; Abhi has a post on him at Sepia Mutiny. Liviu Librescu was, as has been widely reported, a survivor of the Holocaust, and is also reported to have placed himself in the way of the gunman -- saving student lives. Three other faculty members who were killed include Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, Kevin Granata, and Christopher James Bishop.

It's been widely mentioned that the shooter responsible for yesterday's deaths was an English major. In fact, members of the English department at Virginia Tech are being mentioned in some recent media reports. Cho Seung-Hui took creative writings classes at the university, and what he wrote apparently was found to be quite disturbing to his professors. Here's the New York Times:

Caroyln Rude, the chair of the English Department, said that she had spoken to a professor who taught Mr. Cho and was told that the general impression of him was that he was “troubled.”

“There were signs that he was troubled,” she said. “And the English Department at one point did intervene.”

She said that it related to something he wrote in a creative writing class but did not give details about what was written or what kind of intervention was taken, only that it was some time ago, before she was made chair of the department.

“Sometimes some creative writing class students will say something that unnerves us,” she said. “I know that there was some intervention and I don’t know the particulars.”

She said she had not seen what he wrote and said that she could not make public such personal information about a student.

Without going into the specifics of this case, she said that often when there is an intervention the incident is reported to either the counseling center or the dean of students.

“We are not psychologists,” she said. (link)

There are also articles to this effect at The Chronicle of Higher Education (via Gwynn Dujardin), and Inside Higher Ed.

Professor Rude makes a good point: it's not really a professor's job to take responsibility if and when it appears that a student may be disturbed. Since academia has been thoroughly professionalized, there is the presumption of a strict line between a professor and the lives of his or her students outside the classroom. And in this case, it appears that the English department did make an attempt to contact the administration, encouraging counseling for Cho Seung-Hui.

But the nature of creative writing classes in particular -- where the personal lives and psychic dispositions of students are often in the foreground -- makes that line a little blurrier, does it not? Shouldn't the rules be different for teachers whose students are engaged in creative activity?

More generally, I wonder if this recent shooting might suggest a rethinking of the current "hands off" academic culture, especially if a tendency to commit acts of violence is suggested. I'm not suggesting that professors be asked to play the role of substitute parents, but rather that greater emphasis could be placed on building community belonging and a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others. What that means in practice is difficult to say. There's a fair potential for abuse; young men in particular tend to experiment with representations of violence when they first start out as writers, and we certainly don't need "interventions" every time that happens. But it's also hard to simply conclude that nothing can be done, even with students who show signs of extreme, anti-social behaviour like Mr. Cho.

Any suggestions from readers?

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WCB said...

Ed Darrell’s comments regarding the tragic death of Liviu Librescu:

"Survived the Nazis, survived the communists. Died to the excesses of the Second Amendment and a culture that seems to create enough disturbed people to make mass murder a serious problem, not a rare event. Librescu was already a hero. It’s embarrassing he had to rise to heroic actions to protect his students. It’s embarrassing to us that he died the victim of an act of senseless violence."
From: http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/

What is going to happen regarding gun control in the USA, responsibility for acting on obviously disturbed students, and requirements for safety on college campuses? Regarding your question of how to intervene an obviously disturbed student strikes the heart of the matter. As new reports come out (BBC’s headline: “Virginia gunman ‘had mental care’”), it seems clearer that intervention had occurred. Discussions (if we can call them that) within the media will surely start to blame the University for ‘not taking enough action.’ However, this is a flawed approach to coping and rebuilding. In the articles I have read so far it seems the University did a fine job dealing with the situation, intervening in multiple attempts. Intervention requires two parties: one to intervene and one to let intervention occur. (Intervention here is more than simply telling a student something is wrong, but rather a decisive action to solve the problem as a result of the intervention.) A University cannot force a student to change or take the decisive action. As you have said correctly it shouldn’t be the case for “professors [to] be asked to play the role of substitute parents.” Looking at the VT case specifically, Cho Seung-hui himself points to some of the potential reasons metal disruption can occur within students. Cho Seung-hui is claimed to have “left behind a note that they described as a lengthy, rambling and bitter list of complaints focusing on moral laxity and double-dealing he found among what he viewed as *wealthier and more privileged* students on campus.” (NYTs)

Cho points to a fundamental question I think most Universities must focus on rather than any ridiculous safety measures such as increased security on campus. (As Duncan Bowen Black –or Atrios – said, “College campuses are not daycare centers, they are places where large numbers of adults live and study and work. While some, especially those in dense urban areas, are more closed to the outside world, many are quite open. You know, like shopping malls are, another set of places where large numbers of people congregate with minimal security present and where someone who didn't care if he got killed or caught could successfully kill a lot of people.”) The real question remains: How can we make students from all backgrounds feel safe on college campuses, how can we make different socio-economic backgrounds interact in a safe productive manner? These are the real questions to form a community. In my opinion it will take a well-guided administration within a University, a mature and willing student body, and professors willing to go beyond their own research to reach ‘community.’ I hope we can learn from the horrible tragedy at VT, not point fingers at who is to blame. As a University student I feel very connected to this incident and will try my hardest to change the way many college campuses overlook important questions.

4:35 PM  
Suvendra Nath said...

When you ask if "nothing can be done"? Do you mean for Cho Seung-Hui? Or preventing an incident like what happened at Virginia Tech. Surely we should do nothing about the latter, right? Isn't the average daily fatalities in the US from gunshot wounds around 30? Obviously something like Virginia Tech has a probability near zero. We should treat it like a terrible accident and let the affected families grieve. Instead we should focus on real problems, like the very high gunshot fatality in the country, the surging rate of violence in Iraq, etc.

7:23 PM  
The Constructivist said...

Here's what not to do: report a "dark-skinned" professor for recycling.

10:54 AM  

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