17 September 2006


The recent tragic shootings at Dawson College, a CEGEP in Montréal, underscores a number of unacknowledged facts about our lives as professors and teachers (as well as students): we can be targets for the rage and anger of others. Of course, this is not necessarily distinguished from the quotidian dangers most citizens face, however exaggerated they in fact may be. But there is something spectacular, both for the assassins in question as well as the general public, in the transformation of places of learning into charnel houses of gore. Perhaps it is the connection between youth and promise and its early demise, or maybe more to the point, the frustrations and anger and disappointments and rage that typify one's experiences in school. For of course the schoolhouse, whether that be K-12 or university (or in the Dawson case, a CEGEP, which is sorta kinda like a Community College) is a shared experience for most everyone: whether we finished or not, were successful or not, most of us have been through the doors of school. For instance, who didn’t, in that most secret and deepest place, recognise the violence of school in the Columbine shootings, as deeply disturbing as such a recognition may be? Violent, ugly, terroristic, frightening? Yes. Senseless? Perhaps not as much as we may want to believe.

When I lived in Montréal, my apartment was on Boulevard de Maisonneuve Ouest near Metro Guy, right between Dawson’s Westmount location and the downtown campus of Concordia University, the site of yet another infamous Canadian school shooting: the case of Valery Fabrikant, the frustrated engineering professor who rampaged through his department, shooting as he went. Dawson had a beautiful campus, filled with a multi-racial collection of anglophone students who would come and go, although I was mostly familiar with them on the platform of Metro Atwater or roaming the aisles of the Pharmaprix in the Place Alexis Nihon, the mall across the street from the College. Like the students at Concordia, they seemed a special Montréalais class: sexy hip-hugging flared pants on the women, club chic on the men, both sharing a fascination with elaborate hair preparation and coiffure. At the time, the look struck me as quintessential Montréal: sophisticated, a little pretentious, overdone, but not overly so. In short, a serviceable class identified through visual markers of style.

The initial indications imply that the Dawson incident is of the “random-frustrated” variety of bullet-fueled massacres, with at this point seemingly little actual tactile connection to Dawson itself. The Fabrikant case, on the other hand, is much more powerful as a symbol of the frustrations of the profession and how they can, in certain cases, lead to the material manifestation of the anger and rage most of us keep contained. Feeling professionally cheated by his colleagues, denied tenure, stonewalled in his efforts in seeking redress, facing termination and reaching the end of his proverbial rope, on August 24th, 1992 Fabrikant arrived at school on his deadly mission of revenge, killing four professors and wounding an administrative assistant.

This followed by three years the other infamous Montreal school shooting at the École Polytechnique de Montréal of the Université de Montréal, when failed engineering student and murderous misogynist Marc Lépine went on a rampage, shooting any woman he could find. He killed fourteen women and injured thirteen others (men and women), in a case that shook Canadian society to its core.

Aside from causing one to question why Montréal would be the site for the most infamous school shootings in Canadian history, and the strange connection to engineering, both the Fabrikant and École Polytechnique incidents point us in disquieting directions in understanding the effect of education and the murderous rage that can be associated with the endeavour of education as practice, no matter how rare the actual manifestations of violence may in fact be.

Fabrikant represents on some level the tragic consequences of institutional politics and the violence of those politics taken to the material extreme, while the Lépine case reveals the discomfort some feel at diversification of society and increased competition from formerly excluded student and faculty populations (Lépine considered part of his failure at the École Polytechnique to be at the hands of affirmative action for women, a sort of Allan Bakke gone wild, or perhaps literal). I would argue that Fabrikant is the psychopathological manifestation of a system that too often unfairly evaluates faculty and that can be, in its worst cases, rotten to the core. In fact, the Fabrikant case led to two investigatory commissions that found partial support for Fabrikant’s claims against his colleagues and department at Concordia. Lépine is even more horrific, because it was an expression of rage against the changes in society that by its very nature the contemporary university embodies, as well as a telling measurement of the relatively facile nature of the transformations in society around gender, race, and sexuality. The women Lépine targeted in 1989 were pure symbols, not as in Fabrikant’s case known rivals but unknown paragons of changes in society and delusions of “unfair” advantage. Rhetorical charges of reverse racism are not wholly innocent, of course. Such claims have paradigmatic and material manifestations that, when the smoke clears, no one wants to take responsibility for, because they are ugly, and inhumane, and violent.

This disquisition is not meant to exculpate either Fabrikant or Lépine from their horrific crimes. But it is trying to read both cases as indicative of more than just psychopathology, more than just "senseless violence," as symbols of something deeper and more rotten at the core of what we do, as well as more powerful than we may understand it: the process of education and self-transformation which can bring both professors and students to the brink of sanity.

This is a process that we often seek as educators, pushing our students to become changelings, challenging their worldviews and self-perceptions. But as agents of these transformations, educators can also become, along with our students, the targets of the rage of those unable or unequipped to travel such a route. The cases outlined above reveal, in some ways, the material violence of the educational process and institutional structures, which for most of us is traumatic, revelatory, and powerful, even if it doesn’t result in a murderous manifestation.

The other day in a phone conversation with Professor Fussylicious, late of Sadistic College and now at Deep South U, we reminisced over the anger and rage we had (and have) over our treatment at Sadistic College, being targeted as gay men, dismissed, not respected, wounded. We also compared notes on our fantasies of revenge, which ran the gamut from embarrassment of the college to various personal purgatories for the individual players, some of whom were (and are) clearly nuts. Now, neither Fussylicious nor myself are apt to become school shooters of the classic sort, partially because like most people we internalise our anger and rage, or attempt to channel that energy into something more productive than plotting murder online; like, say, professional revenge. This is most of us, who partake of violence the old-fashioned way: skullduggery, gossip, put-downs in our written work and conference presentations, and malicious storytelling. And indeed these are violent, although they are not accorded the shock, the disbelief that physical manifestations of gun violence are, because they are different in degree as well as kind. Ruining someone’s reputation is miles away from wiping them off the face of the earth at the end of a sawed-off shotgun. Or is it, if all you have is your reputation? In any event, clearly not everyone has the ability to contain their expressions of rage within the realm of the metaphysical.

This perceived rising threat of violence, through the highly publicised school shootings at universities and high schools of the last twenty years, has increasingly led institutions to become hyperconscious of the minimal yet present risk of violence. It is hard to tell whether such concerns are metaphorical and panic-inspired or more literal. Apocryphal and not-so-apocryphal stories of in-class violence, of yelling, screaming, threats, punches, and physical assaults, circulate among the professoriate and administrators, causing increased attention to classroom behavior, litigious risk, and physical danger to students and faculty. Security desks, panic buttons, CCTV security surveillance, and emergency contact points on campus are symbols of containing the disorder. Psychological reading strategies have also become more present, turning professors into psychics, trying to divine whether student X or colleague Y will turn out to be murderous, mildly disturbing, or just annoying.

At the first faculty meeting at Cold City U, we were given a draft of a new counseling guide for faculty and administrators on dealing with, in essence, lunatic students. Titled something like “Dealing with Disturbed Students,” it has several helpful nuggets of wisdom for our new practice of education in a violent society, some of the most interesting sliding across the spectrum from the sublime to the ridiculous: from stating behaviour guidelines in the syllabus, to having an active cell phone on and programmed with the number for Security at hand, to finally knowing an evacuation route out of the classroom and/or building en cas d’urgence.

Some of the listed “warning signs” for a potentially disturbed student are so quotidian as to be laughable, including falling asleep in class, appearing distracted, appearing disinterested, absences, and “bizarre” behaviour. How to separate the lunatics from regular, normally disturbed students here is like trying to divine the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, with the overall effect of such a banal list being that any student, at any time, can be the next shooter, which I suppose in some ways is true, although such a list gives the hyperconscious and careful instructor little comfort, much less techne, for telling the loony bins from everyone else. In dealing with clearly disturbed students, the guide helpfully tells us it is probably not a good idea to identify or confirm the student’s disturbance. The example they use is to avoid saying that you ‘also hear the voices,’ or to engage in intellectualisation, such as asking questions about the problem or debating the merits of suicide in history. No duh! Some faculty wanted these guidelines on a small business card for easier reference, to which I turned to the colleague sitting next to me and said, “They should keep it simple. ‘What to do in a classroom emergency: RUN!’”

Aside from the gallows humour, we have all had encounters with students who are, ahem, in need of help. How I have dealt with them is to be very, very careful. The scrim of professsionalisation, maintaining distance between the student and myself has been a pretty effective tool, not to downplay my advocacy role for students, but to reinforce my position not as their friend, therapist, or probation officer, but as their professor. Even in the best of scenarios, however, we have moments of vulnerability. Last semester, I had a student who was a little edgy, smart but unstable in certain ways. One day, he arrived unannounced at my office to discuss his poor score on a question on the midterm, just as I was opening boxes. We sat down at my appointment table and he began to rant and get very emotional, while the pair of scissors that I had been using to open boxes were inches away from his hand. I maintained calm, but desperately wished there was an elegant way to reach across the table and snatch up the scissors and put them away. For a split second, I wondered if my colleagues down the hall would hear my screams when he plunged the scissors into me, he was so upset. The moment passed, and I have made it a rule to keep my scissors out of sight at all times subsequently, which is a pain when you actually have to open something.

But a very fine line of control was mildly crossed in that moment, and it made me think long and hard about the dangers we face, not only in the paranoid sense of crisis guides distributed by administrators concerned about lawsuits and scandals, but by the basic risks of the educational mind-meld we work every semester. I see no easy solution to these risks, for I believe in the mind-meld, the challenge of self-transformation, the trauma of education. The chilling fact that these processes may very rarely result in violence is not enough, in and of itself, to dissuade me from that mission. It is, however, enough to convince me to hide sharp implements in my office and always leave my office door open, and in some senses be wary of the very students I wish to reach through education. It may be depressing, it may be a symbol of our failing culture, it may be many things, but for me it is above all pragmatic. Shit happens, and I mean to survive. The big queen you see next on the telly crawling out a window with her hair askew and knickers on display for a national audience as her skirt rides up on the way down, will be me: ragged, shocked, a mess, but alive. When all else fails, when the mind meld goes awry, when your crisis guide was left at home, break off those heels and run for your life.


Littlemilk said...

I have taught college and high school students. I had to deal with one drug meltdown and some over achievers with bullying tendencies. Your essay made me relive the experience like I was riding a rollercoaster straped in through my office chair. Thanks.

Hell, I thought I was the only one (shade is I really was, I was an adjunct). Nice to see the dots connected up there in Montreal.


Professor Zero said...

This is too good an essay to remain just as a blog post. Not that that isn't a fine end in itself. But many good posts se ubican firmly within the post genre. Quite a few of yours would go well in other media as well.

UD said...

I agree - wonderful essay. I'd only take issue with your take on Fabrikant. Clearly his department recognized he was a lunatic and didn't want him on staff. That he then confirmed their impression of him by committing mass murder tells us nothing about the stresses and injustices of academic life for non-lunatics.

Oso Raro said...

UD makes an intriguing point, for if someone arrives nuts how does one go about getting rid of him or her elegantly (and without violence)? We by our very nature assume sanity (and in the university, rationality) but what if that assumption is in fact misplaced? There were several cases in my time at the Maya Deren Memorial Theory Graduate Program when new admits (and even some enrolled students) exhibited signs of mental disorder, including strange and aggressive behaviour on site visits, stalking, and other assorted sundry unpleasantries. I remember at the time that the department was told by the university legal department that there was nothing it could do once a student was offered a formal letter of admission (the process was a little different for students already enrolled). When these students decided in the end not to come to the program, it (we) dodged a bullet, so to speak.

I guess what I find challenging about UD's observation is the very fact of lunacy in Fabrikant's case. How do we defend ourselves against such people? The profession has been so focused on crazy undergrads that we rarely think of the danger more closely at hand, in the office next door. Fabrikant, of course, is not the only absolutely crazy professor (or administrator) in our profession, but the line between idiosyncratic dodditry and mass murder seems very fine here. How many ticking time bombs have been defused by simply moving them up into the structure, where they are effectively neutralised by the processes of dead wood formation? A chilling commentary on both Fabrikant and the potential lunatics we work with everyday, and perhaps on the wiseness of certain deans, provosts, and department chairs, however much a gamble.

This seems especially compelling in Fabrikant's case especially, where he indeed may have arrived nuts but subsequent commissions did find evidence of professional malfeasance among his colleagues, leading to the forced retirement after the violence of 3 professors implicated by Fabrikant's professional claims made *before* the violence. So, does this become a question of the chicken and the egg? Which came first, Fabrikant's lunacy or the trigger of departmental mistreatment? All of which, in the end, pushes all of us to ponder our own personal responses to those pressures. I would say generally that non-lunatics direct inward, lunatics direct outward, but the pressures and injustices are relatively the same, broadly speaking. I think in the most basic sense what Fabrikant's case can offer us is an example of what we (non-lunatics) would not do, which is fairly obvious in and of itself. Most of us don't take up the gun when faced with the challenges of life and profession. It is those that do take up the gun that we rightly fear, and that on some sense challenge our own ideas of sanity, if we were to get philosophical about it. After all, rage directed inwards is hardly a more healthy response on the individual level, if in the end it spares others our own pain and anger.

Again, what is compelling about Fabrikant is the question of process, procedure, and institutional justice. Had Fabrikant been able to get fair procedural treatment before the fact, would that have prevented the violence. In UD's observation, and I am actually apt to agree with her here, probably not, because in the end there is absolutely no justification for the type of violence Fabrikant unleashed on his department. What I think I want get under here, however, is the disconnect between institutional and rhetorical violence and accountability. How we measure or even talk about that is too deep a pool for this commentary, or even the entry, but that is what I am thinking of here, with no dedicated or satisfactory answer forthcoming...

Paris said...

In the white heat of gender transition, I was that unstable student. It's just as tough from the other end - as a student one must walk the line between seeking what assistance is available(i.e., from my own mouth: I've started a new medication which makes it hard for me to sit still for 3 hours. I may have to step out of class briefly this week while I get used to it.) and dealing with the mess alone (odd figgiting behavior).

Yet I was never ever likely to physically harm anyone. The person most in danger of getting killed was me. Advocates for people with mental illness routinely emphasize this fact: most people who are mentally ill hurt themselves not others. The high media profile of those who do harm others has created a popular equation between mental illness and violence.

JoannaO said...

As usual, dear Oso, you give me so much to think about. And yes, I agree with Paris. It took me years to recognize that some of my distress was a normal reaction to my senior colleagues hostility and irrationality AND that I also had been dealing with untreated depression and needed help. Which came first? Who knows? I don't, but the anger that got turned inward sure exacerbated the condition.

Somewhat related: I have never been faced with an frighteninly agitated student, although I know others who have, but I have had more than one occasion where a student let me know he/she was considering suicide, or had been sexually abused or raped, or was just in very deep distress over some family situation. Helping a student connect with professional support but keeping appropriate boundaries is a challenge, but has to be done. In my early years I had no clue where to send students for help, or where to go for help myself, but that information is much easier to get these days.

Anonymous said...

And Lepine was a Muslim, which was why he targeted the women, "the son of an Algerian Muslim wife-beater, says this opinion piece.