Friday, April 20, 2007

School Shootings, R.E.M., and Reflections

This morning I received an email from one of my "A" students. She explained to me in her email that her mother called her this morning at 7:30 to ask her not to attend her classes today. My student asked for my understanding in this matter, and I have no problem granting her (or her mother) my understanding.

This week has, to put it bluntly, sucked. Graduate school is typically challenging, tiring, etc..., but I think that being in academia has especially attuned me (us) to the tragedy at Virginia Tech on Monday.

On Wednesday, I decided to devote some time to discussing the incident with my students, and making sure they knew where to go if somebody were threatening themselves or somebody else. And I got mixed reactions. Some of my students welcomed the information, wanting to know what to do to potentially stop these incidents from happening in the future. Other students had a completely opposite reaction. "It's a big world," they said, "We can't possibly report every threatening incident, and we personally can't do much to stop a crazy person."

I agree with this second group of students, up to a point. But then the sociologist steps in. As I told my students, the "Bystander Effect" is quite strong. I also told them that I hoped they would take the time to report strange behavior from those they knew.

In addition to this, I found myself agreeing with yet another group of students in my class who said that blaming the victim cannot be the entire answer, that we as a society have a responsibility to our fellows.

Sociology gives us the tools to know that estrangement causes alienation and anomie, conditions which are much more likely to lead to destructive behavior (either towards self or others). Although it's easier to shrug it off, I firmly believe that we do have a responsibility towards each other. Yes, the shooter was mentally unstable, but his words reveal that he felt completely disonnected from other people.

I was lucky to go to college mostly pre-Columbine (the Columbine shootings took place at the end of my junior year of college). My students aren't so lucky. At least one is missing my class because of the fear that the violence on Monday has caused. That makes me angry (much as my colleague's comment the other day that we should now be "extra nice" to our students so they don't get angry and shoot us, including giving good grades to all!!!), but it also makes me very, very sad.

It's not enough to say that the problem is "too big." However, to get beyond that, we have to accept responsibility for helping to sustain a safe society for all of us (even, or perhaps especially, the mentally unstable among us).

I'm listening to R.E.M.'s "Automatic for the People" this morning. Not only does this album remind me of college, but quite a few songs remind me that there are more connections between us than divisions. In particular, "Everybody Hurts" does this. We're all alone there in our own particular cars, trying to get where we're going (for very real sociological reasons - think organic solidarity), but we don't have to be.

Let's use our knowledge for power.

No comments: