Thursday, April 19, 2007

Our School's "Emotional Climate"

Just after I posted my last entry, I checked my UNO email and discovered the following message:

"Dr. Barbara S. Mitchell, director of UNO Counseling Services, is providing the attached resources and discussion tips for helping students deal with the aftermath of the tragedy at Virginia Tech University this week, for your information and use. The documents are provided in both Word document and PDF formats."

The content:

Dealing with the Aftermath of Tragedy In the Classroom
By Joan G. Whitney, Ph.D.Director, University Counseling Center, Villanova University
Forwarded by Barbara Mitchell, director, UNO Counseling Services

The University is committed to caring for our students’ intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. When a tragedy occurs, faculty members often express the wish to help their students effectively deal with the aftermath. There is no single correct time for these discussions, but it is probably best to consider a discussion within a week of the tragedy.Even if you do not wish to lead an in-classroom discussion, it is probably best to acknowledge the event.
A national or local tragedy can result in students having difficulty concentrating. Failure to mention the event can result in students becoming angry at what they label as a “professor’s insensitivity to what happened.”

Ideas for encouraging discussion

Discussion can be brief. Consider providing an opportunity at the beginning of a class period. Often, a short period is more effective than a whole class period. This acknowledges that students may be reacting to a recent event without pressuring them to speak.Acknowledge the event. Introduce the opportunity by briefly acknowledging the tragic event, and suggesting that it might be helpful to share personal reactions. Allow brief discussion of the “facts,” and then shift to emotions.

The discussion often starts with students asking questions about what actually happened, and “debating” some details. People are more comfortable discussing “facts,” than feelings, so it’s best to allow this exchange for a brief period. After facts have been exchanged, you can try to shift the discussion toward sharing personal and emotional reactions.

Invite students to share emotional, personal responses

An instructor might lead off by saying something like: “Often it is helpful to share your own emotional responses, and hear how others are responding. It doesn’t change the reality, but it takes away the sense of loneliness that sometimes accompanies stressful events. I would be grateful for whatever you are willing to share.”

How should we react?

If students begin “debating” the “right way” to react to a tragedy, it is useful to comment that each person copes with stress in a unique way; there is no “right way” to react.

Be prepared for blaming

People often look for someone to blame when they are upset. Essentially, this is a displacement of anger, a way of coping. The idea is that if someone did something wrong, then future tragedies can be avoided by doing things “right.” If the discussion gets “stuck” with blaming, it might be useful to say “We have been focusing on our sense of anger and blame, and that’s not unusual. It might be useful to talk about our fears.”

Seeking an “explanation” for the tragedy
Understanding helps us to reassure ourselves that a similar event could be prevented in the future. You might comment that, as intellectual beings:
We always seek to understand. It is very challenging to understand “unthinkable” events. By their very natures, tragedies are especially difficult to explain. Uncertainty is particularly distressing, but sometimes is inevitable.

The faculty member is better off resisting the temptation to make meaning of the event. That is not one of your responsibilities, and would not be helpful.Thank students for sharing; remind them of resources on campus

In ending the discussion, it is useful to comment that people cope in a variety of ways. If a student would benefit from a one-on-one discussion, encourage them to make use of campus resources. These include the counseling center and campus ministries.


My response:

Dear Ms._____,

While I am encouraged to see the University making efforts to respond more concretely to the Va. Tech shootings, I have noticed that the resources sent to the faculty do not recognize the impact that trauma can have on faculty members, themselves.

But five of the victims of the Va. Tech shooting were faculty members.

And with no concrete guidelines outlining what, precisely, faculty members can do when they, themselves feel threatened by a student's erratic behavior or troubling writing (or what, even, to look for)--and with no concrete plan for what faculty members should do a shooting occur on the campus (or, God forbid, in their classrooms), I think you can understand how faculty members like myself might feel overlooked, and in fact, less than comforted by the University's response to the Va. Tech shootings.

With a dearth of mental health resources available in the city, and with rates of mild and severe depression doubled (according to a recently-published Harvard Medical Study), a recognition that students and faculty and staff are part of a larger grieving community struggling to respond to trauma would be helpful, at the very least.

Beyond that, the University needs to remind faculty members of what, exactly, are the signs of mental illness, and how faculty members can both ethically and empathetically respond to signs of illness that cross "reasonable" lines within the University community. What are those "lines"? How do we respond? While we all know to go to department heads should we recognize trouble, we are the ones on the proverbial "frontlines;" shouldn't more than just "helpful links" for us to pass along to our students be made available to us?

Furthermore, how will the University respond if a shooter is on our campus or in our classrooms? What sense of security can you offer? What are we to do in the case of a campus emergency? Does the administration plan to "text message" us the plan, as the Times-Picayune reported yesterday? If so, does the University plan to offer faculty and staff members cell phones?

In short, beyond providing "helpful links" and "discussion tips" for us to share with our students, does the University administration have plans to include its faculty and staff in its outreach, or are we to simply navigate this troubling territory on our own?

I urge the University to outline a clearer trauma/threat-response plan--one that specifically acknowledges what researchers at the US Department of Education call our school's unique "emotional climate." A good place to start would be Chapter VII, page 78, of their report on "Threat Assessment in Schools":

As a member of the English faculty researching teaching writing after a trauma (my own research targets teaching writing after Hurricane Katrina), I offer my "two cents"--and I ask that faculty members be included in the discussion. I would love to share with the administration what I've witnessed, what I've learned, and what I think the administration could do to more effectively support our teaching and learning community in an environment of increasing national and local trauma.

Please don't hesitate to contact me for my input.

Best Regards,



1 comment:

Sarah said...

Dearest Sar - I usually check your blog once a week, and today was the day. What a week it's been for you! Of course, I've been thinking a lot about you and Simon in the aftermath of the Va. Tech tragedy. My own response has been to listen to NPR, read the AJC, and then wonder why I've felt so exhausted and down this week! Such an incredible lot of pain for so many people. I've also thought about the Korean author's novel you lent me that I read during the winter. I'm blocking both the title and the author's name (those ethnocentric Americans!), but I remember many painful details about culture clash for Koreans, and about the violent death of one of the main characters.

I realize that one of the manifestations of my advancing late middle age is that it takes several days for me to begin to "get" the magnitude of a tragedy like the one at Va. Tech. Ryan, the resident advisor killed in the first round and Jamie Bishop, one of the professors, had GA connections, so I've read their stories and grieved for their families. With more death in Iraq as well, and given that I've been watching the PBS series "America at a Crossroads", I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I've decided not to go to the Nantahala with your dad this weekend when he goes for "geezer weekend". I'll try to get some things done here. The daily meditation/centering prayer that I've been doing has helped me in some ways that I can't really comprehend. I hope you and Simon have been able to give each other lots of hugs.

There's so much more to respond to - your experience with the family literacy program, the ongoing saga of the house and neighborhood, etc. - but I'll sign off for now, with mountains of love, Mom