Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Look(ing) Out

Word travels fast.

Facebook told me this morning about an active shooter at UCLA, before any other media did, since I'd already gotten the Times digest for the day.  As soon as I heard, I went to the LA Times for more in-depth coverage.  Once I had the backstory I turned to Twitter for immediate updates, and back to Facebook for updates from a friend who was there.  Tomorrow there will be coverage in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in Inside Higher Ed, in The Skimm, and in my Thursday digest of the Times.

It all felt, and continues to feel, a little surreal.

I attended UCLA as a graduate student.  I know exactly what building the suspect and victim were in. I saw students running down paths that were familiar, hands raised above their heads.  A friend from graduate school, now returned to UCLA as a colleague, was there on campus, as were professors I'd had years ago. One of our current students was headed there to take a class this summer; we didn't know if she'd arrived yet.  My heart is with the UCLA community tonight, and everyone connected to the victims.

This could just as easily have happened at the place where I work.

There is no security stopping people as they enter campus.  There are no checkpoints.  There are no metal detectors to make sure students don't have guns when they enter a building. Yes, you can lock down a building, but not until it's already too late.  We are lucky that we haven't had anyone threaten to hurt others, but it's not uncommon for students to think about--and even act on thoughts of--hurting themselves when they can't cope.

via flickr user Duncan Rawlinson
I worry about a culture in which students who see themselves as academic or social failures feel that they have no recourse but violence.  We can debate about the need for gun control (making it the fault of a system that will allow people to acquire guns, though people who want guns badly enough can find less legal ways to get them); we can debate about the availability of mental health resources (making it the fault of a system that lets people fall through the cracks); we can debate about parenting (making it the fault of parents who are raising less resilient children).  We can even debate whether we should recognize achievement at all (like the North Carolina school board who voted to stop recognizing valedictorians just did), or whether we should "cover" grades (like many universities are doing) to remove at least one of the sources of stress.

But at the end of the day all we do is debate whose fault it is, if all we do is watch it happen over and over again, what good have we done?

With all of our social media voyeurism and instantaneous sharing of news, why do we do so much "looking out," instead of looking out for each other, from the moment we understand what empathy means?
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  1. Your title made me shiver. Like you, I don't think any of the obvious solutions are really enough. But I'm also struggling to see exactly how to employ empathy in this (and similar) situation to change the outcome (though I generally agree that a little more empathy could change the world). In other words, I am eager to read more about your last paragraph, and how you are envisioning this.

  2. First off, I'm so sorry to hear about this. Thinking of you.

    This problem with school shootings is one I struggle with. Some argue gun control while others push mental health. I think both topics are important, but they are only part of the problem. To have an individual hit a point where pointing a gun and taking their life is the solution suggests our society needs to take a hard look at not only the pressures put on youth but also how we respond to moments of interna crisis. It's a skill so many lack and we often not only fail to recognize early symptoms of it but also how best to address it.

    My thoughts are with all members of the UCLA community today.

  3. Sorry to hear about the violence; I will read more about it. School/college violence is terrifying. I don't have easy answers, to repeat your "look out for each other." Closest thing I've read to a satisfactory "why" is Mark Steyn's article on how popular culture has become about nothing: for example movies show peopke being violent for ludicrous or meaningless premises, or no premise at all. Violence itself becomes it's own purpose.

  4. Ana, I guess part of what I'm thinking about is the literature that seems to indicate that most school shootings are in some way a manifestation of disengagement from the school community. When we put more "protection" in place, research suggests that students become further alienated, rather than feeling safer.

    Then, I think about the way children are raised in the U.S., where it seems that we place a lot of emphasis on individual achievement (even from the time children are toddlers). Social media (again, according to research) does little to counter this isolation; despite the immediacy of presence, social media is more likely to create the illusion of compassion and engagement, rather than any genuine, deep connection.

    It seems almost as if we're creating situations in which people who are already alienated will disengage further. As someone who has studied student success and persistence (which is--surprise!--linked to deep and meaningful engagement in the school community, either with peers or with a mentor or coach), I wonder what could be done earlier to get people in the habit of looking out for one another, rather than looking at one another, as they end up doing online by the time they're in middle school. I'm still working out my thoughts on this, but I feel like we need a cultural shift to change the trend we're seeing.

  5. I'm only a distant observer. I have always been surprised (and horrified) at the portrayal of schools and colleges on US TV and movies, with the concepts of cliques and different groups, always leaving someone who will feel completely left out - an "outsider." I always assumed it was exaggerated, that this didn't happen in the way I saw it portrayed on the media, that it couldn't be that way. But in a recent discussion with the father of teenage girls in California, he seemed to confirm that what I saw on the media was what his girls were experiencing. Was he right? Doesn't this culture just create people who feel left out and resentful? Isn't that a recipe for disaster?

    Or am I completely misinformed? (I'd be very happy if you say "yes.")


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