Monday, July 30, 2012

See Something? Do Something.

I return to my post about the Aurora shooting because some new information has recently come forth. From the beginning, law enforcement said that they believed the attack was premeditated, and last week, Fox News published that law enforcement found a massive notebook that had been mailed to a university psychiatrist on July 12, days before the attack. In other words, had it been delivered and had someone taken it seriously, the attack might have been prevented.

This leads me back to some of the things I have been thinking about over the past two years:

  1. How do we judge if someone is simply being creative with a dark edge, or sincerely needs help? 
  2. How do we deal with traumatic/confessional writing?  
  3. Who gets heard in a world covered with writing?  
  4. Why do we make students write about the "purely academic" and separate themselves from the real world? 

These questions immediately lead me back to Chris Anson's short piece, "What's Writing Got to Do With Campus Terrorism?" Essentially, the piece is a dialogue between two characters, Nothing and Everything. Nothing believes that writing has nothing to do with campus terrorism. Writing isn't a marker for crime or suicidal intentions. It's simply an outlet for imagination, and we cannot tell from what someone writes whether he or she is mentally unstable. Everything, of course, takes the opposite side, believing that writing is responsible for and a marker of terrorist behavior. Most of us find ourselves caught in the crosshairs, not fully believing either side of the argument. The dialogue doesn't offer answers. It simply brings the conflict to light.

Richard E. Miller, perhaps, comes closest to unpacking these questions in his book, Writing at the End of the World. As I mention in an earlier post, Miller explains that writing is everywhere these days. Everyone can write and publish, but no one quite knows what to do with that writing. He rips into the idea that writing (and reading) is cathartic or transformative. He uses Ted Kaczynzki, the Unabomber, as evidence for this claim. Much like Holmes, Kaczynzki wrote and publicized his violent plot ahead of time. Neither piece of writing was able to stall the horrible events that would take place after the writing was done and sent.

We can also look at the recent media attention given to the teen suicides caused (in some way) by bullying incidents. Many of those teens-- Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi, for example-- were writing. But nobody was listening. And even if they happened to hear, Americans are trained to "mind our own business" and "not get involved." It doesn't seem like anyone really knew what to do, or knows what to do, with writing that reflects trauma. If it's literature, we enjoy it.

I've spoken about all of these things before, but I am still trying to come up with answers.

"See something; do something"

I've begun to draw  few conclusions. I'm sure they don't apply in every case, but I have noticed some patterns. People, typically, do not just leave written records in private corners when they're in distress. They push them out into public places-- letters to friends, statuses on Facebook, editorials, blogs, graffiti, tweets, etc. I don't want to become an advocate for the "see something, say something" policy that surrounds our culture's obsession with preventing terrorism, but I do suggest a similar remedy: "see something, do something." 

If you notice that someone is constantly left out, reach out to them. It takes a bit of effort, but being willing to listen to another human being can sometimes make all the difference. 

As to traumatic, confessional, and/or disturbing writing, if someone's writing seems to reflect mental disturbance, you can talk to them about their craft, rather than assuming something is wrong or nothing is wrong. Through those conversations, you can assess the situation. 

I'm not saying we should be nosy and pry into people's private lives, and I'm certainly not saying to continue pushing people to speak when they have clearly chosen to remain silent, but I do think that we need to be willing to have more conversations, even if they are uncomfortable at first. In our worst moments, many of us just need someone to acknowledge our struggles, to say that we are worth a few moments of their time, which is probably the most precious gift one can give. Those few moments can be the difference between healing and breaking.

Furthermore, I think mentorships are incredibly important. This is a role educators can play. We all need someone to look up to, someone who is genuinely interested in our well-being. Many of us who consider ourselves successful, or at least on the path that we want to be on, have mentors to thank-- coaches, family friends, teachers, neighbors, older siblings or cousins, etc. How many of us pay it forward, though? 

Specifically, for those of us in our 20s, I think we have a powerful position. We really can make changes in our world. We are about to be the generation of leaders, those taking over companies and political positions, but at the same time, we are close to our youth. We are not parental-looking figures yet, so teens look up to us as the cool adults. We have a responsibility to pause and take the time to interact with them. For instance, if a fellow 13-year-old was to scold another 13-year-old for a mean Facebook comment, the end result would probably be that the other scolder would end up bullied, as well. Few 13-year-olds would attempt to bully a 21-year-old, however. Likely, instead, they would instead see their actions as immature (which bullying is). Rarely, however, do 20-somethings step in. We think, "hey, they're just kids" or "they've got parents to deal with this" and move on with our busy lives.

We clearly cannot read everything in a world covered with writing, but we can at least read more carefully.

Connected Living 

I think what I mean to say, more broadly, is that we need to stop "minding our own business." It's not really only our business anyway. We do not live in a vacuum. Our actions affect others, and their actions affect us, as we are all part of one larger ecosystem, whether that be a family, a local community, or humanity as a whole global system. We could all put forth a little more effort to remember that we are living in a networked community, even in this hyper-individualistic society.

It's true that most of us are not psychologists, psychiatrist, social workers, or trained counselors. We shouldn't try to fix problems that are beyond us, but we can still help people find help or simply want to find help. Sometimes, people need to feel like they deserve help before they will even bother to seek it. 

Honestly, I still haven't really answered my questions, and I'm sure they will continue to bother me and drive my studies. There seems to be something inherently wrong when we live in a world where people have access to more public writing than ever before, but crimes and other tragic incidents that result from feelings of isolation and desperation still take place. Clearly, the approach that we have been taking isn't working. Something needs to change. I think starting small and remembering that we are all connected is a step in the right direction.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Brains to Bullets: Graduate School Gunmen

This morning when I woke up, the first thing I heard about was the shooting in Colorado during the premier of The Dark Knight Rises. Since I had gone to the midnight showing, getting to the theater two hours before the movie started despite having advanced tickets, it clearly had freaked my mom out to think that it could have just as easily been at our local theater. I imagined myself there, with all the chaos of bullets flying, people scrambling, gas oozing. As my friend Eye said, "Talk about life imitating art." Sad, but true, in this case. It was like a real life Joker attack, senseless and without motive thus far, incited to create fear and chaos. It was homegrown terrorism (of course, unless he was Arab, the media wouldn't label it that way, but that's an argument for another day).

My first reaction after I heard about it, like any good academic, was to read about it from different news sources to find out what really happened. There was no shortage of sources. Right away I learned that a man just a bit younger than myself named James Holmes was responsible for the horrific event. He was a 24-year-old who walked into the theater where the movie was screening wearing a gas mask wielding guns and smoke bombs. He incited panic and then shot people as they tried to leave, children included.

What I read in the Los Angeles Times, however, really bothered me:
[Holmes] was described by law enforcement sources as a loner. He was a student at the University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus but the school said he was in the process of withdrawing from the graduate program in neuroscience. 
For those of you who follow my blog, you may remember a post just a few months back about a similar situation, "When Your Dad Knows the Guman... And Says He Was Really Smart."In that case, a young guy who had worked for my dad, one who had a B.A. in Chemistry from Carleton, a B.S. in Engineering from Columbia, and had recently started a graduate program in Biology, took to open-firing at a mental health clinic in Pittsburgh.

They say there is a thin line between genius and insanity, but I want to know what is making these men snap. Notice, there a few incidents of women going on shooting rampages. Many of these massacres are caused by men with higher education and guns.

So again, I have to wonder if our survival-of-the-fittest, pit-students-against-each-other mentality in higher education is partially to blame for what these men have done. As you can see, both snapped at about the same time that they withdrew from graduate studies, and it appears that neither flunked out, but mysteriously decided to stop going. Did he need someone to reach out and lose it when no one did? Was the pressure to be perfect too great? Though graduate students seem adult and self-sufficient and thus, are usually left to work on their own, I think graduate students need just as much, if not more, mentoring and encouragement than undergrads.

Our very own Peter Elbow talks about how disheartening graduate studies can be in his book Embracing Contraries. He talks about a time when he had enrolled and basically failed out. He thought he wasn't smart enough or organized enough to be a student and couldn't focus. It took teaching and find his way back to enjoying learning to get him back into school. Of course, Elbow seems better adjusted and more personable then the two shooters, who were both known for being loners and slightly odd, but seemingly harmless.

What I guess I'm really getting at here is that in the wake of the aftermath, there's hundreds of people talking about gun control issues, there are politicians "keeping the victims in their prayers," and there are people posting Batman ribbons on their Facebook walls, but no one is really doing much or assessing what can be done to prevent these incidents. Very few people are willing to say that mental health issues or American ideologies are partially at play here; they simply want "justice," whatever that means. They want blood for blood. What's even worse is those who are using this incident as a platform for their Political views or campaigns.

Now, this is not to say that killings are justified or that the shooter should be let go, but this is to say that we are a society that produces crime through our apathetic "mind your own business" ideologies, our constant drive to compete against our neighbors, our dependency on pharmaceuticals to "cure" all kinds of mental health issues, and the way that we set up a separation of spheres between academia and the "real world." We've hyped up the idea of "making a name for yourself" to the point where it must be done, no matter how it is done.

When it comes down to moments like this, I don't care what Stanley Fish says about simply being an "academic." Educators have a responsibility to encourage collaboration, to reach out to students even when they make us uncomfortable, and not to make students feel lesser for seeking out help. Actually not just educators, but all human beings have that responsibility. It may not solve every issue, but it will help people from feeling isolated and unwanted and ultimately feeling the need to harm themselves or others.

With that said, my heart goes out to those people that are suffering as the ripple effect of this tragedy sends it waves out over the community and the country. It was a senseless, intolerable, selfish act, and I hope that some good will come of it so that those who were killed will not have died in vain.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Distance Learning: My First Week Teaching Online

Last week, my online course began. As I posted earlier, I have never taught online before, and the idea of smooshing my 15-week course into a 5-week warp-speed summer course was making me very, very anxious. I was also upset that the powers that be forced me to use Blackboard rather than Wordpress, as initially planned. 
The Blackboard Homepage for My Online Course
I changed my syllabus 4 times, but in the end, I went with a blend between an activist writing and an iSearch project approach. There are very few assigned readings in my course, but the ones that I do make them read are mostly related to writing studies (Sommers, Flower and Hayes, Lamott). I also have them doing some writing about writing, disconnected from the major project. The end result will be a portfolio that includes their big project, some smaller pieces, a reflection, and a self-evaluation.

So now, I'm a week and a half in, and I think my fears have been assuaged. I'm sure it speaks to the students more to my own teaching style, but they are engaged, socializing without much prompting, and just really great people. I admit that I was shocked at the diversity of the group. The university where I work is known for being diverse, but in my face to face courses, I have typically had students who were fluent in English, mostly American-born. I think more than half of my students in this course are international students who began learning English just within the past few years. All of them, regardless of country of origin, have been willing to share their fascinating lives and feedback, and I just find that truly amazing. It's a wonderful group!

I also must admit that I hate Blackboard a little less than I thought I would. Our version allows students to create blogs, so I chose that option rather than discussion boards, and it seems to be working very well. It's easy for me to see who is writing, when they are writing, and when they get feedback. The students are commenting, mostly unprompted. When using discussion boards, I notice that certain people usually end up running the show while others stay quiet. The blog option seems to promote more agency, giving everyone a space to develop their ideas. I do dislike that it is nearly uncustomizable and that they look similar to discussion board posts. I think Blackboard could really step it up and allow students to take more ownership, but I do think that students who have never taken an online course find it simple to learn. I also don't like that the Blackboard blogs keep the class cloistered, as I am an advocate of public writing and sharing with an audience beyond the classroom. I like the idea of being able to get feedback from outside if you want it, especially when you're writing about a topic with which your classmates are unfamiliar. 

To cope with the super-short time span, I've been trying to do the assignments alongside my students. I give them a few days to do it on their own, and then late in the week, I post. I think that modeling for them what I expect is just one extra way that I can help them. I do worry that if I post before everyone they will feel that there is only one correct way to approach the task, however, which is why I wait. I also try to comment on everyone's writing, but wait until after the students have taken some time to speak among themselves.  

I'm looking forward to seeing how the class develops as the next three and a half weeks go by. I'm a little nervous that I didn't implement enough structured learning and that, in just 5 weeks, students won't be able to make the progress that I'd like them to, but I guess I'l just have to wait and see.


Flowers, Linda and John Hayes. "The Cognition of Discovery: Defining the Rhetorical Problem." College Composition and Communication 31.1 (1980): 21-32. Jstor. Web. 16 July 2012.

Sommers, Nancy. "Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experiences Adult Writers." College Composition and Communication 31.4 (1980): 378-88. Jstor. Web. 16 July 2012.

"Writing an iSearch Paper." Writing Workshop. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, n.d. Web. <>