Adventures in Ethics and Science

Reeling from today’s news.

Today was fully scheduled for me. Prepping for class, participating in a phone interview, teaching, midday meeting with my department chair and a dean to discuss developing an ethics module for an intro class in another department, more teaching, power-photocopying for this week’s Socrates Cafe, then a dash to the car to get the sprogs in time for elder offspring’s soccer practice.

It wasn’t until about 20 minutes into my drive home that I heard the news about the shootings at Virginia Tech.

I’m still having trouble getting words to really wrap themselves around the immediate feeling of panic in my gut. College campuses have always felt like safe places to me, and relative to most other places you could be, I’ll bet statistically they really are pretty safe. But the Ivory Tower is still vulnerable to Very Bad Stuff.

Two of my friends from grad school teach at Virginia Tech. As philosophers, their classes would probably be in some other building than an engineering building … but I’d still like to hear that they’re safe.

It scares me that the initial shootings in a dormitory could have been judged a probable domestic dispute; it seems orders of magnitude beyond strongly worded notes (black magic marker, all caps, lots of underlining and exclamation marks) taped in common areas.

The part of me that knows what happened after the shootings in the dorm wishes like crazy that the Virginia Tech administration had called off classes for the day and stationed a staff member at every entrance to campus to send students, faculty, and staff back home. Realistically, I don’t know if I would have believed myself that there could be more. Would I want to cause an unnecessary panic?

What could have motivated someone to go on such a rampage?

Is there any answer to that question that could bring any peace to the Virginia Tech community?

Humans are terribly resilient. I know that the community will heal, eventually. But I don’t envy them the challenge of getting through the rest of the academic year.

Early in my career here, I had to deal with a student who had plagiarized in my class and was failing it as a result. Failing my class meant the student wasn’t going to graduate. The student requested a meeting with me in an email whose tone struck me as not quite right. The meeting was scheduled during a time when hardly any of my colleagues were coming into the building where my office is.

I felt stupid for being nervous about it, but the weird tone and the fact that not graduating might be a very big deal to a student set off my danger signal. I asked my department chair if he could be down the hall in his office during the time when I met with the student, just in case.

Nothing bad happened that day.

I don’t feel as stupid now for having been on my guard.

I do feel stupid for thinking that having my department chair down the hall took away all the danger.

My thoughts are with the community at Virginia Tech.

Comments

  1. #1 Hairy Doctor Professor
    April 17, 2007

    Janet — Don’t ever feel stupid for trusting your instincts in such cases, nor for getting someone to watch your back. It may not take away all the danger, if anything could (short of a teleconference), but having the backup may make the difference between a bad day and a Very Bad Day.

    As college professors, we are people who deal on a day-to-day basis with lots of other people. In most cases many more people know us than the other way around. Statistically, some of them will be a little “off”. After a while we all learn a few skills in identifying the ones who might bear closer scrutiny. (My wife works in a public library, and her radar for such things is honed to an truly impressive level.)

    In most such cases nothing happens. Once in a great while it does.

    The events today happened in Virginia, but affect all of us in the academic community, country-wide and world-wide. We know something similar could happen in our own classrooms tomorrow.

    We are all of us diminished by the loss today.

  2. #2 John Wilkins
    April 17, 2007

    Leiter is reporting that all philosophy staff and postgrads are safe. Undergrads, no reports of any injuries or deaths, but it’s still confusion. The massacre occurred in a building just across from the Philosophy building.