Some thoughts on the Virginia Tech shootings

Like everyone else, the shootings at Virginia Tech has been on my mind off and on this week. I have enormous sympathies for everyone at VT impacted by this obviously, but up until now, it is something I’ve been thinking about more in the background than anything else. This is the “uber-crunch-time” of the term for me and just about every other academic, so I’ve just been too busy to think about it too much.

Others have thought of it for me and of me and my wife, who is also a professor at EMU. We have a very small connection to all of this in that my wife Annette went to Virginia Tech as an undergraduate, so when she looks at the news footage of students running from buildings and such, she recognizes the place. Her mother has been following the story on 24 hour cable news and has called a couple of times. I was in my son’s elementary school volunteering for something the other day, and one of Will’s past teachers told me she called her college-aged kids just to check up on them and she asked me if I was worried about safety on campus at EMU. I told her that it always strikes me as surprising that college campus are as safe as they are, generally. After all, we’re talking about a population of young adults– students who have easy access to alcohol, drugs, guns, etc., etc., certainly easier access than high school kids– many of whom are living largely unsupervised in close quarters far from home. They (and professors and administrators and everyone else on college campuses) are under a lot of pressure, especially as the term gets ready to draw to a close. In other words, we’re talking about a population that is already on kind of a short fuse.

In any event, I thought I’d move my thoughts on this to the foreground for a bit this morning before I plunge back into my grading.

One thought I have is largely theoretical. My dissertation, which was called “The Immediacy of Rhetoric,” was basically about the volatility of the rhetorical situation in the post-modern/media-saturated age. By “immediacy,” I meant at least two potentials of the term: the chaos that comes from information being processed without much interpretation, and also the intimacy that comes from a lack of boundaries (as in objects/information/whatever being “immediate” to each other). As part of all this theorizing, I draw upon (among others, obviously) Foucault and his work The Archaeology of Knowledge. Among many other interesting things, Foucault writes:

We must renounce all those themes whose function is to ensure the infinite continuity of discourse and its secret presence to itself in the interplay of a constantly recurring absence. We must be ready to receive every moment of discourse in its sudden irruption; in that punctuality in which it appears, and in the temporal dispersion that enables it to be repeated, known, forgotten, transformed, utterly erased . . . Discourse must not be referred to the distant presence of the origin, but treated as and when it occurs (25).

When we don’t do this (and typically, we don’t do this), we look at events and impose a “new order” on them so that they can make some sense. So, for example, there’s been some discussion on the WPA-L mailing list, on some blogs ((at least it is on this one) about how we should be able to do more to spot dangerous students through their writing, and this article in Inside Higher Ed about how writing can provide a clue.

Obviously, there are things that can come up in student writing that can send some signals that at least ought to be checked out– I’ll get to that in my more “practical” thoughts in a second. But I think more than anything, all of us– especially those of us who live and work in discursive and physical environments similar to Virginia Tech– are trying to resolve the rupture to the historical narrative (fiction, really) of the safety of college campuses and our abilities as writers and teachers to “spot” problems from our students’ writing, creative or not. How could this happen? How could we have not done more? seems to be the subtext here for me. And to me, when it comes to what Foucault is talking about here, I think this is an effort to erase the rupture in the narrative.

I think there are a number of problems with the idea of reading Cho’s writing now and being able to discern the violence that followed. I mean, we’re putting the pieces together backwards, trying to grasp at things from his life to explain this history in a way that retains unity– and again, this is Foucault’s basic point in his book, that to do this is always problematic.

But beyond all that, there are some more practical issues for me.

In terms of spotting violent and potentially crazy behavior as a result of student writing: first off, there seems to me to be a somewhat fine line between the bizarre, violent, and rather unskilled writing of Cho (which you can find online, btw) and the bizarre, violent, and (IMO) rather skilled writing of Quentin Tarantino or the pulp writer Jim Thompson or some of the work of Cormac McCarthy. In fact, I think the page itself isn’t enough to tell us much of anything, really.

Second, the Inside Higher Ed article I mention above makes it pretty clear that Cho’s teachers pretty much did everything they could do:

Nor did the creative writing faculty at Virginia Tech apparently fail to read between’s Cho’s typed lines. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Lucinda Roy, co-director of Virginia Tech’s creative writing program, had warned university police and officials about Cho. While Virginia Tech officials were sympathetic, the Post reported, they said there was little they could do in absence of a direct threat. “I don’t want to be accusatory, or blaming other people,� the Post reported Roy as saying. “I do just want to say, though, it’s such a shame if people don’t listen very carefully, and if the law constricts them so that they can’t do what is best for the student.�

The lines here are so fuzzy, so difficult to know without the benefit of hindsight. I think that it’s clear that the teachers and others at Virginia Tech did all they could do, and I also think it’s clear that police really weren’t in a position to arrest Cho. How could they? I’ve had a few “disturbed and troubled” students over the last (almost) 20 years of teaching; I even had a student a few years ago who was apparently “well known” in student judicial services and the counseling center and such. I’ve got plenty of students, disturbed and otherwise, who show up with sunglasses, baseball caps, and semi-military-like garb. The only differences between the way Cho looked in those pictures and videos that aired on the news last night and the way that some of these students have looked to me in the past is that Cho has a gun and we know what Cho has already done.

There is one line though that is a lot less fuzzy here and it speaks to the failure of Virginia law regarding guns. From what I’ve heard, Cho was involuntarily committed to a mental facility a few years ago (by his family, I think) because he represented a threat to himself or others. When Cho went to buy his gun(s), he checked the “no” box on the question asking if he had ever been in a mental facility. Because there is no background check and no waiting period for guns in Virginia, Cho walked out of the store with his purchase, no more questions asked.

In the end, I think that the faculty, staff, and students at Virginia Tech did all they could do to prevent this. Trying to smooth over the disruption in the narrative with hindsight isn’t going to prevent this from happening again. Instead, this seems to me like a reason to work for stronger gun control laws.

And now, I need to get back to that pesky grading….

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