Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Reflections on the Virginia Tech murders

Of course, everyone is posting about the shooting at Virginia Tech. Dean Dad wrote the earliest post about the security issues facing a campus and the limits to what is possible. Profgrrrrl just processed her raw emotions, the same ones I think we all share, and Aspazia joins her and bemoans the voices of the media and President Bush. Tenured Radical asked more poignant questions about how prepared we are as professors to protect our students in this kind of situation.

I can't imagine the sadness, fears, and concerns of the students and teachers at Tech, but three of my school experiences are shaping my feelings and reflections on the posts listed above.

The first was a shooting at my grad college (when I was off-campus). The shooter went right by a coffee shop where I had been 24 hours earlier. My partner called me as soon as she heard, and I remember her relief that I was at home. Several people died, and the shooter, a graduate student, was found to have longstanding mental health diagnoses. It was surreal, and I remember driving by the route he took while shooting people near and on campus. As someone whose office was not close to his path, and who studied in a different major, the shooting quickly became very removed to me. Eventually, it just became a trial in the paper. I am sure this is a defense mechanism, but it has worked quite well for me. So well, in fact, that it took me a while to remember it when the Virginia Tech shooting occurred.

The second event occurred when I was a new assistant professor. We had a student whose behavior scared us. This student had taken a real liking to me, and she stopped by to see me very often. She would tell me things that provoked great concern about her mental fitness, but she said nothing that could be conceived as a clear threat. When we met with the student to inform her that she was not allowed in the major, we had police ready in the next room.

That situation was the first in which I had seen professors use the campus police to insure protection. While we were all a little embarrassed to call them, they were very reassuring.

Provocatively, spiting our decision, she signed up to take an elective class I was offering in the summer. I was anxious all semester, as she sat and seethed in class, but I tried to act like everything was normal and she was just another student. She finally talked to me the last day of class, telling me that while I was okay with her, she was angry at the other faculty and planned to seek a job where she could embarrass them in the future. I tried to explain that the decision not to admit her was shared by all of us, and that she could do well in another major, but she wasn't buying. It was a relief when the class ended.

There was little we could do about the student, in terms of her mental health, and we knew it. It was frustrating.

The third incident occurred when I was in another professional position. I was teaching a class one evening when the tornado siren went off. We had just taken a break in class, the windows to the classroom were open, and we heard the siren clearly. We were the only class in the building at the time. After a second, wherein we all just looked at each other, I snapped into "teacher mode" and told everyone to move quickly downstairs and into the hallway, as all of the classrooms had windows. (As a newer faculty member, I had never learned that there was a tornado plan for the building, which actually had a basement.) We sat off to the side of the hallway of the building, which had doors on all four sides (one at the end of each side of the very long hallway and one in the front and back).

We all used our cell phones to find out about the threat, and we passed the information we learned back and forth. Once the "storm" passed, we checked again to see if there were other storms in our area. We found out that there was a second squall line about 15-20 minutes away. We discussed whether students should leave, and some who lived very close by decided to go. Others, who lived farther away, decided to stay. I stayed with those who wanted to wait the storm out.

When the next round of storms came through, we could tell it was different. The storm was louder, the winds were stronger, and the air pressure just felt different. At one point, all four doors to the outside flew open and slammed shut. The students and I all looked at each other, kind of stunned. We stayed connected to our cell phones and when everything got quiet again and our friends and family on the phone told us it was clear, we made a decision to go home.

The next day, we found out that a tornado had touched down nearby, destroying several commercial buildings, and a very large tree had landed right in front of the building in which we had been hunkered down. Once I relayed the story to the administration, we had an email and memo that laid out the tornado plan for the building.

It is scary, looking back on it, how little knowledge I had as the "responsible person" during the tornado alert. I am reassured, as TR should be, that I felt comfortable taking control, even with my limited knowledge. It also highlighted for me how important cell phones are in a moment of crisis, a message we see in all of these school shootings as well. Our school is one of many that offers an emergency alert system for all people associated with the school, using individuals' cell phones. I would bet that more schools will be adopting this technology.

When I look back on my own situations, I feel relief and gratititude. Mostly, I am left feeling lucky that each of these situations had not turned out much worse. Those of us who live and work on campuses are part of large communities, and we have all of the same problems and concerns of larger communities. Hopefully, disaster preparedness teams, positive connections to law enforcement, and good training in recognizing and assissting students with mental health issues can help lower our risk and better prepare us for these kinds of crises. But, we can only do so much to protect ourselves and one another. Blessings on all of us.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Gwen Ifill is my hero

If you have not read Gwen Ifill on Imus in the New York Times, you have missed a great piece. But nothing was better than watching her on Meet the Press. Poor Tim Russert kept trying to get her to say that Imus is not a bad guy, that all of those journalists who went on Imus' show were not thoughtless and complicit, and that Imus should be able to have his show. Ifill was not buying. She held her ground, spoke out clearly, and wouldn't be swayed.

I have always been impressed with her, but her performance on MTP was just extraordinary. I can't find a way to email her directly, so this is the best I can do.

Take some time and watch her in action. It is worth it!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

No date at the dinner

Okay, just need to vent about a little advice-seeking I read in the Chronicle. I love Ms. Mentor (Emily Toth) and her column, but I am thinking Ms. Mentor's bag of letters has gotten a little light if she needed to respond to this letter:

Junior selectees for next year's [undergraduate researcher] program are also invited to the banquet, along with their faculty mentors but neither the juniors nor their mentors are allowed to bring companions. That creates a very awkward situation in the case of a young professor advising a student of the opposite sex. The advisers sit with their students, and with the formal dress and the presence of so many couples, it's difficult to avoid the illusion that one is on a bizarre sort of date.

I mean, really, this is keeping someone up at night? I can understand concerns by new young faculty about whether you should have a drink with a student, whether you invite groups of students to your home, and how to handle the occasional student come-on. But whether to attend a formal event at your school and sit with your student, because it looks like a date? To whom? It looks like a professional event. No one is confused.

The writer goes on to say that she dressed in "dowdy attire" to avoid confusion, which I assume means no cleavage? She says that the situation is perhaps so dire, even now that she is "grayer and has tenure," that she might not go if she does not get to bring her spouse or partner.

Perhaps I am too old, fat, lesbian, and adult-feeling for this "concern," but I think that the writer needs to catch a clue. I attend all sorts of academic events without my partner. I have been confused for lots of people, including heterosexual spouses of male faculty members and administrators (and therefore, a straight girl), and it is no big deal. I even got asked by a new Dean at her welcome picnic whether I might want to meet her son, who was single and also interested in sports like me. ( I politely explained that while we might have sports in common, we also probably shared our desire for women.)

Ms. Mentor does well to tell her writer to stop borrowing trouble and worrying about what other people think about her. I would also suggest that perhaps the writer needs to start seeing herself as more of an adult, a mentor, and a professor. The boundaries are clear, if you keep them that way. If you don't, you have bigger problems than one formal dinner event.

Props to Ms. Mentor, who was so much nicer than me in her response. I do hope she can get back to more interesting and challenging questions.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Gender trouble...

Well, after more than 7 schools (UG, Grad in Other Major, 2nd Grad, and 3 jobs), I can honestly say that the program where I now work is the first where there is not a "gender divide" (not counting the one with only women faculty). Just like Tenured Radical mentioned in her recent post on hiring committee woes, so many places wind up with a split between the "boys" and the "girls."** Sometimes this has played out in terms of a rejection of research topics (queers, anyone?) or methods (qualitative is for girls) by the boys, and other times it becomes an in-group/out-group division of resources issues. I am sure there could be a place where the girls hold court, but I have not seen it yet.

A few examples from my past...

When I was in Other Major in 1st Grad program, we actually had male faculty who told us lesbian students that at least it was worth their time to teach us, because unlike the heterosexual women students, we weren't going to waste their effort by getting married and having babies. (It was the first and only time being a lesbian was a plus... and this logic didn't carry over to the gay guys, who would be seen as not butch enough for the major.)

In 2nd Grad program, typically pursued by more women than men, the boys on faculty grew weary of the many women enrolled in the program and made a concerted effort to recruit men, so "they would have someone to mentor." This need for men carried over into hiring, as well.

I remember watching a hiring process similar to the one TR wrote about during my 2nd grad program. The faculty guys had fallen for Trent, a hale, young, white, good-looking, personable, male candidate. The candidate was actually not that impressive, at least not to us grad students, and he had not completed his dissertation. His competition was all female, several of whom were women of color, and most had defended successfully and presented well. Yet, the male faculty and male dean were just enamored of Trent. The women faculty couldn't quite get it, until they realized that the dean and some male faculty had played golf with him--during the interview weekend. Really.

The women faculty were incensed. They had no similar opportunity to get to know Trent, nor had the male faculty provided that opportunity for any of the female candidates. Their complaints seemed to fall on deaf ears... "I mean, really," the men argued, "What is the problem?" Eventually, I got the impression that the women coordinated with one another, made a stink that put the Dean on notice, and basically nixed the candidate. I found out later that the candidate didn't finish his doctorate for several years.

In one of my jobs, I watched as men received more goodies, like grad assistants, research opportunities with colleagues, dinner invitations, etc., while the women had to make due and work on their own. Men seemed to be more protected from service, while women were approached to do everything. And this doesn't even add the layers of problems linked to race, class, and sexuality.

Why do we have such an obvious male/female split in our academic settings? What is the cause of the persistence of this link between "serious academics" and masculinity? Are we really a glorified club sport, and the girls are seen as not real players? And what is it about my current setting that keeps this from happening?

There are some factors that may influence the outcome here: we have several heterosexual couples on faculty, leadership by a woman, scholars of different genders who use varied methods of research, mentoring by interest and not by gender... I rejoice in my current setting and its equitable treatment of men and women, and the relative absence of tension between us (at least as pertains to gender). I hope it remains this way.

** I use the terms boys, guys, and men interchangeably to some extent, but I choose boys when the men in question are behaving in a way I find objectionable and petty. Hope you don't find it offensive. But, since this is my blog, I get to do what I want.