A Few Thoughts on the Virginia Tech Massacre

by Jonathan Sterne on April 18, 2007

Despite my taste for violence in fiction, I have a very limited appetite for mediatic violence when it corresponds to something that actually happened. Which is to say that I’m not particularly a news junkie when it comes to disaster and monstrosity and thus have not been following the Virginia Tech Massacre beyond reading enough to get some details. So my apologies if this point has already been made.

Carrie and I were talking with a friend last night about mental illness in academic culture. In some ways, we’ve come a long way. It used to be a completely taboo subject, despite the fact that I suspect academia is a haven for people with certain kinds of mental illness. Now, we can talk about it with our students and colleagues(1). There are even offices to deal with it. And yet the response is wholly inadequate, both for students and faculty who suffer from one or another kind of mental illness, and for those of us on the other end. I hear over and over from colleagues concerns that if they are worried about a student, there is really nothing that they can do, and there’s not much more than can do if they feel threatened by a student. More than once, upon finding out that I teach large lecture courses, someone has asked me whether I’m worried about crazy students becoming violent. (I believe one can’t go through life worrying about such possibilities, and anyway, it’s statistically much more likely I’ll die in a car crash during my weekly trip for groceries, not that I’m planning on that either.) I’ve also had mentally ill students whom I believe are entitled to the same level of service and education as everyone else, despite their sometimes debilitating conditions. Universities understand physical accessibility very well. We are years behind on mental illness. How one accommodates these diverging interests is beyond me, but if nothing else, the Virginia Tech shootings show once again how crucial this issue really is.

1. Interestingly, I’m not sure we’re even that far with illnesses like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome where the diagnosis itself is controversial. Sure, we can argue that CFS may or may not exist as an identifiable disease, but that doesn’t change the fact that the person with the diagnosis is suffering and requires accommodation.

Steven April 18, 2007 at 10:49 am

I would add that I feel incompetent whenever I end up in a position where a troubled student needs help. I’m trained in textual analysis, I’m trained in classroom techniques, but nowhere in my training did I learn anything about how to be of use to students with personal problems that overflow into our teacher-student relationship. I simply don’t know what to do, beyond treating students as I treat all people, the best I can. That’s usually good enough, but because of the at times unspoken mentor position of the teacher, I feel like I should do more, and I don’t know how.

Vila H. April 18, 2007 at 6:34 pm

I’m not at all certain that there are more people with mental illness in academia than in any other community. From a recent Surgeon General’s report:

[S]urveys estimate that during a 1-year period, 22 to 23 percent of the U.S. adult population—or 44 million people—have diagnosable mental disorders, according to reliable, established criteria.

If this is the case, then more than one in five of our students and colleagues are struggling to cope with mental illness at any given point in time–enough, certainly, to create the perception that they are disproportionately represented, when in fact it is no less common outside of academia.

I suspect that the nature of our social interactions in academia may make us more aware of mental illness, as does, among scholars at least, a relatively liberal approach to the issue. Having said this, the university does very little on an institutional level to accommodate the lived reality of mental illness, (or, really, of any non-normative life experience), and it seems to be doing less all the time.

But I suppose I should save that rant for my own blog, shouldn’t I?

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