Last year Temple University Press published Toby Miller's Blow Up the Humanities, a book that starts straining for provocation with its title and never lets up. The author is a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside. His preferred rhetorical stance is that of the saucy lad -- pulling the nose of Matthew Arnold and not fooled for a minute by all that “culture as the best which has been thought and said” jazz, man.
What we must recognize, his argument goes, is that there are two forms of the humanities now. What the author calls "Humanities One" (with literature, history, and philosophy at their core) is just the privileged and exclusionary knowledge of old and dying elites, with little value, if any, to today’s heterogeneous, globalized, wired, and thrill-a-minute world. By contrast, we have studies of mass media and communications making up “Humanities Two,” which emerged and thrived in the 20th century outside “fancy schools with a privileged research status.”
In the future we must somehow establish a third mode: “a blend of political economy, textual analysis, ethnography, and environmental studies such that students learn the materiality of how meaning is made, conveyed, and discarded.” Enough with the monuments of unaging intellect! Let the dead bury the dead; henceforth, culture must be biodegradable.
What I chiefly remember about Blow Up the Humanities, a few months after reading it, is exclaiming “What a cheeky monkey you are!” every few pages -- or at least feeling like this was expected of me. Otherwise it mostly seemed like vintage cultural-studies boilerplate. But one passage in the book did strike me as genuinely provocative. It takes the form of a footnote responding to Google’s claim of a "commitment to the digital humanities." Here it is, in full:
“In the United States, ‘the digital humanities’ can mean anything from cliometric analysis to ludic observation. It refers to a method of obtaining funds for conventional forms of Humanities One, dressed up in rather straightforward electronic empiricism. So counting convicts in law reports or references to Australia in Dickens becomes worthy of grant support because it is archival and computable.”
A scrawl in the margin records my immediate response upon reading this: “Cute but misleading.” But now, on second thought… Well, actually “cute but misleading” pretty well covers it. The caricature of the digital humanities might have been recognizable a dozen years ago, though just barely even then. What makes Miller’s polemical blast interesting is the angle of the assault. For once, a complaint about the digital humanities isn’t coming from traditionalist, semi-luddite quarters -- “traditionalist” with regard to the objects of study (i.e., books, manuscripts, paintings) if not necessarily the theories and methods for analyzing them.
On the contrary, Miller regards video games as a rich cultural medium, both profitable and profound. To shore up his claims for Humanities Two (or, fingers crossed, Three) he finds it useful to pretend that the digital humanities will, in effect, take us back to the era of professors tabulating Chaucer’s use of the letter “e.” The scholarship will be more efficient, if no less dull.
Now, I have no interest in impeding the forward march of Angry Birds studies, but there is no way that Miller doesn’t know better. The days when humanities computing was used to count dead convicts are long gone. Much more likely now would be a project in which all of the surviving files of Victorian prisons are not simply rendered searchable but integrated with census data, regional maps, and available documentation of riots, strikes, and economic trends during any given year.
MLA is a major component of the Humanities One infrastructure, of course, but has enough Humanities Two people in it to suggest that the distinction is anything but airtight. And while Miller pillories the digital humanities as nothing but “a method of obtaining funds for conventional forms of Humanities One,” even old-school philological practice takes on new valences in a digital environment.
“In the humanities,” write Charles Cooney, Glenn Roe, and Mark Olsen in their contribution, “scholars are primarily concerned with the specifics of language and meaning in context, or what is in the works. [Textbases] tend to represent specific linguistic or national traditions, genres, or other characteristics reflecting disciplinary concerns and scholarly expertise.… [T]extbases in the digital humanities are generally retrospective collections built with an emphasis on canonical works in particular print traditions.”
So far, so Humanities One-ish -- with only the neologism “textbase” to show that much has changed since Isaac Casaubon’s heroic proof that the Corpus Hermeticum wasn’t as ancient as everybody thought. Textbase just means “collection,” of course. For that matter, the options available in textbase design (the ways of annotating a text, of making it searchable, of cross-referencing it with other items in the textbase or even in other textbases) are basically high-tech versions of what scholars did four hundred years ago.
Alas, what Casaubon could do alone in his study now requires an interdisciplinary team, plus technicians. But he did not have the distractions we do.
If digital humanists were limited to converting cultural artifacts of the print era into textbases, that would still be useful enough, in its way. The classics aren’t going to annotate themselves. But the warehouse is much larger than that. Besides the inherited mass of documents from the past 5,000 years, more and more texts are now “born digital.” Besides warehousing and glossing such material, the digital humanities incorporate the changes in how people receive and engage with cultural material, as Alan Liu discusses in “From Reading to Social Computing,” his essay for the MLA anthology.
What Liu calls “the core circuit of literary activity” – the set of institutions, routines, and people involved in transmitting a poem (or whatever) from the author’s notebook to the reader's eyeballs – has been reconfigured dramatically over the past two decades. Besides making it possible to publish or annotate a text in new ways, the developing communication system transforms the culture itself. The digital humanist has to map, and remap, the very ground beneath our feet.
Nor is that a new development. Other papers in the anthology will give you a sense of how the digital humanities have developed over the long term -- beginning when Roberto Busa started using a computer to prepare an exhaustive concordance of Thomas Aquinas in the 1940s. At some point, an important change in the digital humanities will be necessary, which is to drop the word "digital."
(Note: This essay has been updated from an earlier version to correct Toby Miller's name.)
Judith Shapiro has been named the next president of the Teagle Foundation, and will succeed Richard Morrill in July. Shapiro, an anthropologist, was president of Barnard College from 1994 to 2008, and was provost of Bryn Mawr College from 1986 to 1994. She joined the Teagle board in 2009 and had been leading the search for a new president when other search committee members asked her to leave that panel so she could be considered for the position.
Teagle, which finished 2012 with its endowment valued at $144 million, is small by comparison to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, but it has had influence in discussions of assessment, curriculum, academic rigor and teaching and learning. "I think Teagle has become quite famous for punching above its weight," Shapiro said in an interview. "I think that's because it has picked strategic things to do and has known how to use the bully pulpit in higher education." She noted that Teagle was working on assessment issues "before everyone else."
Looking ahead, she said Teagle will continue to focus grants and gather educators to discuss issues related to teaching and the curriculum. And at a time of rapid change in the use of technology and other tools, Shapiro said she wanted to keep a focus on the substance of what is taught along with teaching. "We'll be paying the right kind of attention to the content of the curriculum as well as the form," she said. "That's complicated because we can't agree on a canon, but that doesn't absolve us from making really good decisions about what's really important."
Shapiro is involved in efforts to use technology to change higher education, serving on the board of Ithaka (which promotes new models of scholarly publishing and communication) and the presidential advisory board of the University of the People (which offers free online education). She said she hoped Teagle and others would help evaluate the many innovations being introduced. "Not much attention has been given to the effectiveness of new ways or teaching, or the business plan," she said. "It's going to take a while to see how it is cost-effective and it could be good teaching."
The January suicide of James Aune, chair of communications at Texas A&M University and widely known scholar of rhetoric, stunned his colleagues nationwide. The suicide now appears to be related to blackmail, The Houston Chronicle reported. A Louisiana man has been charged with a scam in which he took nude photographs of a female relative, started a sexually explicit online relationship with Aune in which the man posed as the relative, and then pretended to be the father of an underage girl with whom Aune was allegedly corresponding. The man -- Daniel Duplaisir -- then demanded that Aune pay him, threatening to otherwise tell officials at Texas A&M that Aune had been engaged in an online sexual relationship with a girl. On the morning that Aune killed himself, Duplaisir sent a demand that the payments start within three hours or "the calls start." A minute before he jumped to his death, Aune sent Duplaisir a message: "Killing myself now. And u will be prosecuted for blackmail."
The faculty in postsecondary education has changed so much in the last 20 years that it has been labeled a "revolution" by researchers who study the professoriate. More than two-thirds of the faculty providing instruction in nonprofit higher education are currently employed off the tenure track, and their numbers continue to rise. This shift alone may be cause for concern, but the real dilemma is that institutions have not developed a new faculty model or employment practices that are based on a realistic conception of the faculty and its composition. The faculty model currently in use has not been achieved through intentional and thoughtful planning. It is the haphazardly derived product of casual, short-term planning and reactionary decision making amid constrained budgets; it reflects little thought or concern for its implications for student learning or enlightened employment practice.
Today, many faculty members have no job security or expectation of employment beyond the current term. Many do not receive benefits and their compensation is extremely low, averaging $2,700 per course, making it difficult to earn a living wage even when they can get consistent work. Sometimes, however, they cannot obtain a full course load. Institutional policies and practices often make them ineligible for unemployment when this occurs. Recent reporting has exposed that some faculty members are living on food stamps. Only 25 percent of non-tenure-track faculty have any form of health insurance, and even those covered often have less than adequate coverage.
Even basic forms of institutional support that could improve faculty performance -- and, by extension, enhance their capabilities to promote student learning -- are lacking. As a result of our failure to acknowledge and address the changing faculty, we have made it unnecessarily difficult for a majority of the faculty to do their jobs. Non-tenure-track faculty members – particularly part-time faculty members – often do not receive an orientation, professional development or mentoring, and they may even be excluded from faculty meetings. So they may not understand institutional goals, learn about pedagogies for effectively educating the students they teach, or have opportunities to strengthen their skills.
Only a very few are involved in curriculum design and governance, even though they may outnumber tenure-track faculty or teach a majority of the credit hours at their institutions. They typically lack office space and may not receive compensation for conducting office hours to support their students. Additionally, hiring decisions are routinely made at the last minute, often within days of a class beginning. Making matters worse, institutions do not always provide these faculty members with adequate materials or resources, including a sample syllabus, to help them to prepare on such short notice.
This model constrains faculty members’ ability to provide a quality learning environment and make their maximum contribution to educating students. There is now evidence that the poor working conditions we impose upon them have an adverse effect on student retention, transfer, and graduation rates, as well as other indicators of learning and student success. Much of the employment literature addresses the need for employees to be motivated and well-trained, but also to have access to basic resources, materials, supplies, and conditions that allow them to perform their duties. Adjuncts have been robbed of the opportunity to give their best effort for their students. With this evidence close at hand and the moral objections inherent in a model that would leave employees without a living wage or safety net becoming clearer, it seems there would be more significant outrage or at least concern within our academic community.
Adjuncts have been writing about their poor working conditions for years. They have done so with trepidation, as many commentators have demonized them as being the root of the problem, rather than recognizing the effects of this poor employment model or the conditions they endure. Yet they continue to lend their voices to the just cause of change.
Why have so few outside these ranks taken up this cause? While non-tenure-track faculty have been vocal in advocating for change, virtually no institutional, foundation, or policy leaders have acknowledged the hard realities of these conditions or expressed concern. In fact, in private, a few postsecondary leaders will note that they feel bad and think the model is morally bankrupt. In public, though, they often show no leadership, nor do they voice their objections to a model that surely cannot be sustained -- nor should it be.
As a result, institutions, foundations, and government pour billions of dollars into initiatives for completion and success, many of which cannot succeed because they fail to understand the faculty responsible for carrying out changes designed to improve the learning environment. Goals for improving access and outcomes are severely affected. We can blame decreasing funding and external pressures. However, many institutions have had a choice and still shifted money away from instruction to fund other priorities. Others, particularly community colleges, are sometimes so lacking in resources that they have been given no options.
This cannot continue. Ours should be an ethical employment model with integrity – one that allows us to draw upon the strengths of all our faculty to create and sustain a high-quality learning environment to best serve students. Today, we raise these concerns; in a short time, so too will a public dissatisfied with the inaction and inattention of our leaders to these problems. So we invite leaders from across the country to join the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success not only in calling for changes, but in helping to create new solutions to this problem now – to challenge the status quo and advance a new employment model for higher education that has integrity.
We applaud the leaders that have joined us so far, including the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, Association of American Colleges &Universities, the New Faculty Majority, American Association of Community Colleges, American Federation of Teachers, League of Innovation, Council for Higher Education Accreditation, Association for Governing Boards, National Association for College and University Business Officers, State Higher Education Executive Officers, various disciplinary societies, and others (listed on our website). We hope you will visit our website and utilize the resources we have prepared to begin to address and move away from this unethical employment model.
Adrianna Kezar, David Longanecker and Daniel Maxey
Adrianna Kezar is a professor at the University of Southern California and director for the Delphi Project for the Changing Faculty and Student Success.
David Longanecker is president of the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education.
Daniel Maxey is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California.
Faculty members in arts and sciences at Rollins College have voted no confidence in President Lewis Duncan, The Orlando Sentinel reported. Faculty leaders said that Duncan has not worked well with them, or communicated well to the college. In a statement, he said that he disagreed with the criticism, and that he has "honored" the principles of shared governance.
How is it possible for instructors in the liberal arts to teach most of the undergraduate classes in the typical institution and still feel like second-class citizens? Maybe that’s the source of the problem — teaching general education to all those majors in other colleges of a comprehensive university.
Liberal arts are important, particularly because they instill critical thinking across the disciplines. General education — cornerstone courses in English composition, economics, history, modern languages, philosophy, psychology and sociology — is an essential part of the college and university experience.
However, the aim here is not to tout the humanities and social sciences but to approach the issue of second-class citizenry from a curricular standpoint so that institutions realize the cost of general education and the toll it takes on low-paid colleagues, with little demand after graduation for their majors, including ones with advanced degrees.
In a 2007 piece about low salaries for history professors, Stanley Katz, president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies questioned whether (a) universities were "systematically discriminating against the humanities in setting compensation" and (b) the humanities were "a throwaway part of the faculty and curriculum, to be less valued than income-producing ideas and behaviors?"
We keep telling young Americans that a bachelor's degree in history is as valuable as, say, a chemical engineering degree — but it's just not true anymore. All degrees are not created equal. And if we — parents, educators, entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders — maintain this narrow-minded approach, then we are not just failing young indebted Americans and their families. We are harming the long-term vitality of our economy.
Last year the financial news outlet 24/7 Wall St. reported the best and worst college degrees, defining both best and worst by average salaries upon graduation. Predictably, the "best" majors in ascending order were "Physical and Related Sciences," "Computers, Mathematics and Statistics" and "Engineering," with annual salaries ranging from $80-91K. On the bottom in descending order were "Literature and Languages," "Liberal Arts and History," "Psychology" and "Visual and Performing Arts," with salaries from $50-58K.
The duties of liberal arts deans are more complex than those of any other university officer, including the president. They are tasked not only with overseeing a complex unit often the size of a regional university at flagship institutions; they also must rely on a budget model that rewards the number of classes and non-majors that they teach — rather than the popularity of their own majors — so that basic education can be vended to the masses.
At public research universities, this also requires huge graduate programs and ever larger classes. Thus, there is little incentive for liberal arts departments to focus on enrollment, recruitment and retention of their own majors.
Of course decreases in enrollment bring repercussions, as we shall see later.
To fulfill their mission, liberal arts deans have to ensure that their professors do not feel like second-class citizens, especially when it comes to curriculums. After all, faculty members own the curriculums and those in the liberal arts should be free to innovate and experiment with new courses just as their counterparts do in more specialized professional and technical colleges.
Sooner or later, however, the astute dean realizes that you can generally educate other majors only if you restrict curricular growth in the humanities and social sciences because the typical budget model will not allow you to teach non-majors and expand your degree programs.
At that point, most liberal arts deans fathom what they have gotten themselves into as they try to manage departments as diverse as African-American studies, anthropology, communication studies, creative writing, economics, English, French, German, journalism, Latino/a studies, music, Native American studies, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, sociology, Southeast Asian studies, Spanish, speech, technical writing, theater, and women’s studies. Add to that the advising office, the language lab, the multicultural center, the multimedia center, the writing center, the student newspaper and television station, and the multiple emphases, sequences, options, tracks and degrees associated with each of the above disciplines.
Unluckier deans also oversee colleges of liberal arts and sciences. So now add basic courses for all students in astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics, each requiring adjuncts, support staff and assistants in addition to lab space for the entire institution.
The most unlucky liberal arts deans also are asked to house and advise all undecided majors, taking responsibility for what should be a university college. Now add assessment, recruitment and retention to the position responsibility statement.
Just as salaries in the humanities and social sciences lag behind others, liberal arts deans also typically earn less than their counterparts in other colleges. According to the 2012 survey of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, the average salary of liberal arts deans at doctoral institutions is $180,000, thousands below that of counterparts in agriculture; business; computer and information sciences; engineering; and veterinary medicine.
Small wonder, then, that liberal arts managers last only about 4-5 years in their positions while university presidents enjoy an average 8.7 years’ tenure, according to a study by the American Council on Education.
An article by Susan Resneck Pierce cites that study, emphasizing the exhaustive list of duties assigned to the dean of liberal arts and sciences at Lewis & Clark College, where she once served as academic vice president. The list required 216 words, condensed here to 52:
Inspiring leadership, progressive management, promotion of excellent teaching and research, development of external partnerships, articulation of institutional goals for growth, side-by-side fund-raising with the president, compelling visions to attract a wide array of donors, astute financial management skills, and leveraging of budgetary systems to enable long-term strategic planning.
Finally, the dean was expected to develop "the financial resources necessary" for the college to support the above aspirations.
Pierce concluded that these and "a myriad of additional reasons" explain why liberal arts managers usually are short-timers.
To teach all those majors in other colleges, armies of graduate teaching assistants are needed. That would be fine, except there are few jobs for many of those students once they earn advanced degrees. If you consider supply and demand, you quickly come to the conclusion that teaching assistants in the humanities and social sciences are needed from a job market perspective only while earning degrees, not afterward.
It gets worse. As professors in the liberal arts create new and narrower courses, programs and degrees, they must rely on adjuncts, those low-paid master teachers who take over classes that graduate students can’t and/or professors won’t do. Adjuncts, the real second-class citizens, have large teaching loads because so many are needed to cover curricular expansion.
All this worked out in the past before business-driven budget models were introduced, based on demand for a major, and before legislatures tightened appropriations. Add a recession to the mix and a mandate or two, as in this report by the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices, recommending lawmakers persuade colleges “to move beyond their traditional emphasis on a broad liberal-arts education to thinking more about skills for specific jobs.”
The result? When economic benchmarks are used, the humanities and social sciences are viewed as dispensable.
Often they become targets during reorganization when institutions eliminate departments and degrees because insufficient attention has been given to such considerations as curricular glut and declining levels of enrollment, recruitment, retention and placement rates. Other less controversial strategies can lighten the load of liberal arts management and create an even playing field for the professoriate.
Work with the dean. Faculty can streamline curriculums, ending sequences and eliminating most prerequisites so students advance more quickly in degree programs. Units can require lower and upper core courses on vital topics with all other classes as electives, rotating them every other year rather than offering them every semester. Professors should help with recruitment of students, increasing undergraduate enrollment to ensure that programs are viable. Faculty advising is essential in retention and placement efforts. Departments can require undergraduate plans of study so their students can finish degrees in four or fewer years and then promote graduation rates to build enrollment.
Consolidate departments. If faculty members fail to work with the dean, or if the budgetary situation warrants, it is preferable to consolidate departments and degrees instead of eliminating them. Rather than underwrite numerous academic units, administrations can combine them into schools of humanities and social sciences, thereby honoring tenure of professors. For instance, related academic units — ones that deal with society, say, such as cultural anthropology, political science and sociology — would combine within a collective structure requiring fewer chairs and support staff. Curricular streamlining is essential now, with cornerstone courses across disciplines and specializations in each major. Similar consolidation can be done with all or some of such humanities as history, English, modern languages, philosophy and religion.
Recreate university college. If your institution lacks a university college, create one for undeclared majors and locate support centers and laboratories there, along with reassigning to the new dean all responsibility for general education. If your institution has a university college, recreate it to handle general education and remove those responsibilities from colleges of liberal arts and sciences. Pay adjuncts well to teach those courses in the excellent tradition of letters. This will go a long way toward eliminating or reducing need for large graduate programs for which there is little demand after graduation. Over time, without graduate assistants, curricular offerings will decrease because someone has to teach all those courses. Faculty numbers and support staff can be adjusted to meet actual interest in the major, with increased research and grant expectations for continuing professors.
Reassign responsibility. Faculty senates can identify general education themes in the arts, communication, ethics, language, natural sciences, and society and then require deans of other colleges to provide them within their own existing curriculums. For instance, a philosophy requirement can be tailored for each college, from "Ethics and Engineering" to "Veterinary Medical Ethics.” Composition classes can focus on topics associated with each college, too, such as issues in agronomy, education, business and so forth. Granted, faculty senates would have to guard against program duplication, restricting these thematic areas only to general education, but deans of other colleges would relieve some of the burden from the liberal arts, again providing that even playing field so that graduate programs meet demand and all professors have similar teaching loads and research expectations.
The root of second-class citizenry is easy to discern. Liberal arts colleges are expected to provide two things while other colleges are not: their own pedagogies plus general education. There may be other venues to resolve this dilemma, but denigrating the liberal arts and their essential basic courses is not one of them. Rather, we should seek curricular and organizational alternatives to revitalize higher education, reducing budgets and with it, student debt, instilling new respect for the rigors, cost and value of general education and recruiting a new class of scholars with research and grant expectations as well as instructional ones.
Michael Bugeja is chair of the Contemporary Leadership Committee of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication.
A student at Florida Atlantic University says that he was suspended from a course for refusing to engage in an activity he said was insulting to his faith. While the university has announced that the activity won't be repeated, it is contesting many details of the student's story.
The student says that as part of a class in intercultural communications, students were told to write the word Jesus on a piece of paper, fold it, and then to stamp on it, CBS4 News reported. The student, who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said that when he refused, saying the exercise was insulting to his faith, he was suspended. The story was quickly picked up by conservative news and websites, with headlines such as "Professor Makes Students 'Stomp on Jesus.'"
The university released a statement in which it said that it could not comment on experiences of any one student, citing privacy laws. The university said that "no students were forced to take part in the exercise; the instructor told all of the students in the class that they could choose whether or not to participate." Further the university said that "no student has been expelled, suspended or disciplined by the university as a result of any activity that took place during this class."
Nonetheless, the university statement added: "This exercise will not be used again. The university holds dear its core values. We sincerely apologize for any offense this caused. Florida Atlantic University respects all religions and welcomes people of all faiths, backgrounds and beliefs."
I dreaded meeting with Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho in fall 2005. Though he had not made overt threats, his manner and affect seemed to be at odds with his whispered claim that he was being satirical when he wrote an accusatory poem about his classmates. But I was serving as chair of the English department at the time so it was my responsibility to deal with troubled students.
Eighteen months later, when Cho stormed the campus, killing 32 students and faculty, I realized how great the risk had been. And now, after Sandy Hook, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association and others are suggesting that our response to threats like these should be to arm teachers. Some teachers agree and are arming themselves for school. Legislators in some states are trying to make it possible for faculty members at public colleges and universities to arm themselves on campus.
Teachers in Harrold, Texas, for example, have been permitted to carry weapons since 2008; and the March 2012 State Supreme Court ruling in Colorado means that those with a concealed carry license have the right to bear arms on the University of Colorado campus, though the university instituted new rules banning guns in dorms. Other states have similar provisions. Given the latest tragedy in Connecticut, this issue will be an even more contentious one in the future.
Although I support an increase in the number of resource officers on our campuses (i.e., trained members of law enforcement), particularly as we already have uniformed officers in about a third of our schools, and campus police and threat assessment teams working effectively with educators in many of our colleges, arming teachers in schools or colleges is a bad idea.
This conclusion is not based on a naïve romanticization of American education or an underestimation of the threat. I knew Cho could carry whatever he wanted in the backpack he planted emphatically at his feet when he sat down in my office. I knew his silence could be the silence of excruciating shyness or the kind designed to be menacing. There were times when his anger seemed palpable; his agony vengeful; his misogyny apparent.
At what point, however, does a professor draw a weapon? In her office? In a packed classroom? When the student-suspect reaches down to get something from his backpack? At what point does a perceived threat become an actual one? How many mistakes are we liable to make, and at what cost? How often will we be tempted to demonize difference because it scares us?
Were Cho to have stormed into my office, guns blazing, wearing his customary blank expression, his sunglasses and baseball cap obscuring his face, what good would a gun have done unless I already had it at the ready? If he had been armed with a 9mm Glock — one of the weapons he used 18 months later in his attack on a dorm room and classrooms at Virginia Tech — would I have needed a semiautomatic as powerful as his to have had a chance of defending myself and my staff? If he’d had about 300 bullets, as he’d had when he launched his attack on the campus, would I have needed a similar cache in my office drawer?
Should teachers’ guns remain loaded in their desks at all times, or should they be carried in handbags or holsters? Many of these weapons are heavy and difficult to conceal. How would teachers disguise the fact that they are packing heat from their students? How often would a nervous teacher misinterpret someone’s gesture and discover, too late, that it isn’t a gun he’s pulling out from his backpack after all? It’s the novel he’s written and wants her to read.
Many things are not made manifest to us before guns are drawn, even though we may suspect something is deeply amiss. In 2005, two years before his rampage, Seung-Hui Cho was still a student, not a student-shooter. He was still willing to seek help, still hoping to become a novelist. He was angered when I repeatedly urged him to go to counseling, but he also realized he needed to go. He sought out help, as he’d told me he would. Tragically, he was not able to get the counseling and medication he needed, even though he was later ordered by a judge to receive outpatient treatment.
Shootings like the ones at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook Elementary — reside at the intersection of many thorny, often competing issues including gun violence, accessibility to long-term mental health treatment, privacy laws, and an individual’s civil rights. And though common sense tells us we need more security in our schools, we can’t blast our way to a solution.
College professors and K-12 teachers are not law enforcement officers. It’s our responsibility to notice students who are seriously troubled and bring them to the attention of professionals trained to respond in crisis situations, which is why I reported Seung Hui-Cho to various units on campus. In cases where there is no record of violence, however, even the most experienced teachers, counselors, and law enforcement personnel cannot easily predict whether or not a threat is imminent. But we can detect extreme anguish, consuming loneliness, and unbridled anger in young people and try to intervene before these become toxic.
The opportunity for meaningful intervention on the part of educators is in the years, months, and days before the gun is drawn. And though some of us will try and fail, the period leading up to a tragedy like this is still the time when peaceful intervention is most likely to succeed.
A lone teacher should never be asked by the NRA or anyone else to use a lethal weapon to save her students. The chance of failure is far too high, the cost far too great. Teachers and students must be empowered by society to learn together in peace. We have a right to expect this, and a duty, as educators, to demand it,