Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Meetings and Challenges

It’s the end of the summer, and you know what that means, right?

It means that all across this great land of ours, in colleges and universities in every sleepy hamlet and humming metropolis, faculty members are edging warily out of their research holes and sniffing cautiously at the campus doors that they fled through in the late spring.  Administrative staff are peering around their office doors at the sounds, wondering what happened to the quiet of the last few months.  Maintenance people are wrapping up their projects from the summer, the only really peaceful time on campus to get stuff that needs to be done, done.

No, the students aren’t back.  Don’t be silly.  They’ve got, what, days before that has to happen.  They’ll come flying in on the first day of class, screech to a halt in an acrid cloud of burnt shoe rubber and slide into their seats approximately five nanoseconds before roll is called.  There’s still some time before then.

So it’s just the faculty and staff right now.  And to celebrate this fact, there are meetings.

All day, “welcome to the new year,” Power-Point and cheese Danish meetings.

This year, for the first time in over a decade, I was in attendance.  The girls are now old enough to spend the day with their friends, depriving me of my built-in “I’m on child-care duty!” excuse to avoid the annual get together, and my teaching load is – at least this semester – high enough to warrant my presence.

So I went.

It was nice to see everybody, and about as productive as you would expect from such things.  There were several long presentations in the morning, mostly having to do with the weirdities that one can expect on a college campus these days, plus a fair bit about budgeting.  Lunch was served, after which there were breakout meetings – meetings of like-disciplined faculty, followed by meetings of the various committees that handle some of the day-to-day functions of the place.  We all agreed that we had well and truly met – we had met like the wind, met like the gods had intended, met in ways our ancestors could not foresee and our progeny will never duplicate – and that this would serve as a fine foundation for future meetings.

All in all, a fitting start to the new academic year.

There was one thing about the day’s proceedings that struck me as odd, though in hindsight I suppose it ought not to have done, really.  This morning we spent a good twenty minutes discussing how to respond if and when we get a misfit with a gun on our campus.  Seriously – an entire section of Power-Point slides devoted to strategies for not being shot while teaching.

You didn’t know that teaching was now a high-risk profession, along with police work and being President, did you now?  You learn something new every day, if you’re not careful.

There was even a question regarding the future design of classroom space, since most big lecture halls have exits on only one side – could there be other emergency exits in the case of such things?  Tunnels, perhaps?  Refuges?  And everyone nodded – yes, that’s a real concern, isn’t it.  If we’re going to build new classroom space in the next few years, as indeed we're trying to do, we should consider that, yes we should.

Has it truly come to this?

I guess it has. 

We live in a country where we care far more about guns than people, where we’d rather live with the daily slaughter than take any meaningful steps to prevent it, where the innocent dead are lionized as martyrs to the cause of those in need of compensating and their gun fetishes – excuse me, to the right to bear arms and conquer tyrants, though mostly those tyrants seem to be children, spouses and bystanders.  We live in a country where the bodies are piled up high and the nonsense gets piled up higher.

Because all that happens, every time it happens, is that people insist that we need more guns.  Give everyone guns and the criminals will think twice about shooting, people say.  Well, no.  If I’m a criminal and I know that everyone is armed, I’m going to shoot first and shoot often and then rob the dead, and what was once a property crime is now a crime of violence and horror.  Guns don’t prevent violence.  Guns breed violence.

And Power-Point slides.

We have to think about these things, in our nation’s colleges and universities these days.  So we have meetings, make Power-Point slides, and try to be ready for the next time, because there will be a next time, make no mistake about it.

It’s the American way.


Random Michelle K said...

Whaaat? We're in our second week of school--and the third week for the med school.


David said...

Yeah, well. In Wisconsin several years back the legislature mandated that all UW campuses have a post-Labor-Day start to classes, because otherwise all the tchotchke shops in the Dells would run out of minimum wage labor before the tourists went away.

Of course, we have 15-week semesters, plus finals, so our last day of exams this year is the 23rd of December. Merry Christmas!

timb111 said...

I'm reminded of security expert Bruce Schneier's recent post, Overreaction and Overly Specific Reactions to Rare Risks.

David said...

On the one hand, I agree with Schneier's point - we're not good at basic math as a species (and we're especially not good at it in the US), so we tend to worry about things that aren't going to happen and accept those that will.

On the other hand, two things:

1. Risk analysis is not simply the probability that something will happen - you have to factor in consequences. The odds that I will cut myself shaving in the morning are fairly high - perhaps 1 in 7, given that I am not a morning person and at that hour of the day I often am not sure what end of the razor is the sharp one until too late - but the consequences are fairly minimal. The odds of nuclear warfare are quite low, but the consequences are drastic. There are formulas about how to multiply those things to get a sense of how much to worry about what, but rarity is not in itself a cause for dismissal.

2. The ready availability of firearms without any serious restraints on their purchase, combined with the sorry state of mental healthcare in the US, the glorification of vigilante violence and the unwillingness of Americans to confront any of those problems means that such events are only getting more common - they don't even make headlines anymore, according to our campus officer responsible for such things (which is not really his main job, so it's not like he's exaggerating in order to stay employed). Gun violence is an accepted fact of life in the US in a way that it generally isn't in the civilized parts of the world, and I find that disturbing.