Comments on the Huntsville Tragedy

At this point most of us in academia* know about the tragic events at University of Alabama last week when Amy Bishop, professor of Biology, opened fire during a Friday afternoon faculty meeting killing three professors and injuring three others. The Chronicle of Higher Education has covered the matter extensively with readers posting a range of comments in which they have speculated and responded to the violence that seems to be becoming so prevalent in the world of higher education. (Note: School shootings in secondary ed have been going on for some time, long before Columbine, which was more highly publicized because it was not an inner city school.) Since speculation has attributed to Bishop’s tenure denial this year, the shooting has raised questions about academic culture. Some have argued that the stress of tenure is partly to blame while others have wondered about how we care for mentally ill faculty and still others have firmly resisted making connections between the circumstances of Bishop’s work life and the shooting.

Let me begin my own commentary by saying that the tenure process is not to blame for this shooting. While few things in this world easily fall into black and white (the gray areas are far more prevalent), there are times when homicide can be understood. [I’m feeling chills of discomfort even here. I seem to be at a loss for words as to how to describe my feelings here.] A child whose parents have abused him or her mercilessly can suffer from PTSD (or a range of other mental disorders) causing him or her to dissociate and murder the abuser. I know that I am treading on shaky ground here. As I write this, I am still torn by my belief that murder is never right, never the answer. My next position is also shaky, given that I have just claimed that homicide can be understood. Still, I must say that many people do not receive tenure, and they don’t all go into faculty meetings and start shooting. By that same token, not all children who are abused kill the abuser. So, I don’t want to say that just because other people who don’t attain tenure don’t become shooters that Bishop’s failure to attain tenure could not factor into what she did. To be clear, this does not justify her actions. Ultimately, we will continue to have more questions than answers about her motivation and psychological state. Hopefully, her psychological evaluation will provide insight into why this obviously disturbed individual killed and injured her colleagues. All factors considered failing to attain tenure does not justify homicide.

In spite of some of the arguments that academic culture and tenure requirements can be blamed for Bishop’s actions on Friday, perhaps we can gain something by discussing the culture of academia– not as a justification for homicide, but as a part of our lives that might benefit from careful consideration, perhaps even a bit of excavation.

I have long been of the opinion that the culture of graduate school does not encourage self-care but in fact rewards behaviors that are unhealthy and even dangerous. How many of us have complained about the little sleep that we get while being secretly proud of our dedication? We work through the weekend, late into the night, at the expense of sleep. We fail to eat regular meals and crowd our schedules with additional projects and committees. Being busy demonstrates our ambition and dedication to our work, even when it comes at the expense of our health and relationships. I am completely guilty of buying into this culture and even having pride in my capacity to deny myself. In fact, it comes naturally to me. I’ve always been dedicated and obsessed with my work. It has been my life for so long that I almost forget that there are other things in the world. I inherited my mother’s workaholic gene. Yet this dedication that is so prized when demonstrated through our busy lives, sleep deprivation, and singular obsession with our work has often been to my detriment. Those who know me are aware of my health problems, which are extensive and at times have been disabling. There have been countless times where my obsession with work (and demonstrating the dedication that I have) has been extremely detrimental to my health, often resulting in set backs that I could ill-afford. As an epileptic, I must have a certain amount of sleep and avoid stress as much as possible. Two of the biggest factors in triggering seizures are stress and sleep deprivation. I know this and have tried to get enough sleep and avoid stress. (The latter of which is kind of a joke when you’re on the job market.) Yet even knowing all of this, last March I was working feverishly on a project, not getting enough sleep, and feeling the mounting stress of dissertation work and the upcoming job market. As a result, I ended up in the hospital emergency room, having my clothes cut off of me, and getting fourteen stitches above my left eye. I had a seizure and fell on my face, the cause of which, my doctor adamantly insisted, was my stress and sleep deprivation. This seizure could have caused me to lose an eye; the head trauma could have killed me; I was lucky. Every time I look into a mirror and see the arching scar above my left eye I am reminded of this. Yet even with this powerful reminder, I don’t always get enough sleep and the stress of dissertation and job market is such that I am losing my hair. My point in revealing all of this is simple: I can’t do this alone. I still live in a culture that praises lack of care and views care of self as indulgent.

Certainly this is not exclusive to academia. Being driven and ambitious is highly valued among many, particularly in the United States. The corporate culture is most assuredly a proponent of this mentality. It makes me wonder if corporate culture values have seeped into academia. Corporate practices most certainly have; universities are most often run like corporations rather than educational institutions. So, have the teachers and scholars taken on these characteristics or have we always been this way? And if we have taken on these characteristics in response to a corporate culture, is it because the university is run like a corporation and behaving like aspiring executives is our best way to ensure job security or is it because of a more pervasive ideology? Or am I asking the wrong questions? Would these answers be too simplistic to truly explore why we drive ourselves into the ground? Okay. I’m digressing somewhat and pontificating a lot, so back to Huntsville…

Let me continue to say that I am confused by my response to the shooting in Huntsville and the information that continues to filter into the news. Reports of Bishop’s previous violent acts and alleged violent acts are of great concern, while at the same time they raise concerns regarding inclusion of prior bad acts. Certainly in a legal setting this is frequently not allowed when trying a defendant in court, but in the court of public opinion everything is fair game. It certainly raises questions about vilification that goes beyond the shooting. How many of us would stand up to the rigorous scrutiny that Bishop is undergoing? At the same time, her past and the extreme nature of the events being uncovered are certainly piling up, foreshadowing what could be a terrible avalanche. From the shooting of her brother (with two versions of the story varying widely) to her alleged involvement in the attempted bombing of a fellow professor to punching a woman in the head at an IHoP in Huntsville because she got the last booster seat (Bishop plead guilty to the charge of assault and battery in this case) this story just continues to get more and more bizarre and convoluted. In truth, the more I read the less I understand and the more confused I become. All I can say at this point is that all of this violence saddens me and like the stories I’ve read on trauma blogs, it makes me question humanity. To paraphrase from a favorite character: the one thing that humans have been consistently good at is inventing and learning new ways to hurt and kill one another.

*Note: I know that the more mainstream media outlets have also been following the story, as evidenced by this NY Times article, but I have been primarily following it through the coverage on The Chronicle website.