26 July 2008

Stuck in the Middle

I haven't written much here, because for once I've been writing elsewhere. (You know, that dissertation-thingy I'm supposed to be about done with.) I've also been dealing with a lot--a whole lot--of cr@p dealing with the whole knife incident.

The last few days have made me realize just how ridiculous the position of a graduate student is. On one hand, we're supposed to be instructors and give our students the same as we would if we were faculty. On the other hand, we're not faculty, so we don't really count--either as employees or as students.

Because so many of you told me I should report the knife incident, I did. To the police, and I told them I wanted to remain anonymous when they talked to the student. I also emailed our associate department head to let her know that the incident had occurred and that I was contacting the police about it.

I didn't want the student to know it was me who reported the incident for a number of reasons. Class has been going well, and I wanted him to remain comfortable seeing me as an ally rather than an enemy. I didn't want him to think that my reporting the incident was a judgment upon him as a person. But I had other reasons: I didn't want to create an opportunity for him to say that my grading was prejudiced because of the event and, to be honest, the event scared me enough that I just didn't feel 100% safe having him know who reported him.

He wasn't happy about the police visiting, and I did not confirm that it was, indeed, I who had caused his discomfort. But his reaction also bothered me. He didn't seem to understand that it was wrong to have such a dangerous weapon on campus. He didn't agree with the police's visit and didn't feel that he "deserved it." And he didn't seem to understand that other people had a right to feel uncomfortable in the presence of such a large knife. We corresponded via email, briefly, over the course of the week, and he presented to me his belief that everyone should be armed. That September 11th couldn't have happened if everyone on that plane had weapons training and carried knives. I held back and didn't respond by saying that no one would have gotten killed on May 4th had guns not been present--even in the hands of highly trained people. Instead I remained neutral.

Then, on Wednesday (this is now almost an entire week after the original incident), I find out that the associate department head is no longer even at our University and that my email has been forward to the person who is standing in for the summer. That professor must have skimmed my original email, because he responded (again, 5 days after the fact) that I could go to the police if I wanted (too late), but then emailed a few hours later saying that the Dean said maybe I should wait (once again...too late). They wanted the student's name and information, and I complied, with the request that if anyone else were to contact the student that they let me know first so I could be prepared to deal with his response.

So yesterday, I received an email from the student saying that the campus disciplinary committee had contacted him. Great. This is exactly what I did not want to happen. I contacted the acting department chair--he didn't know what was going on. I contacted the dean directly--she was a complete idiot.

Somehow in the course of our conversation, she made it very clear to me that this problem and my fear of the student was all of my own doing. Had I been forthright about telling him that I contacted the police, he would not be upset now. Apparently, I am also naive (her actual words). At one point, she said that what needed to happen was for me, some dean of students, and the student to sit down in a room and mediate this. For me to work out my problem with him and for him to work out his anger at being reported.

Here's the thing--I know that there is only this itty-bitty nonexistent chance that said student is emotionally unstable or psychotic. I know that he may be the sweetest, gentlest man on earth. But he brought, into my classroom, the kind of knife that (as another of my students said) you use to cut someone into fish bait. I don't care how lovely he may be, I am not willing to risk my family's safety if said student might want revenge for what he perceives to be an attack.

The dean didn't quite see it that way. She implied that any anger or anxiety the student feels now was my doing for keeping the report anonymous. As a teacher, I had a responsibility to step forward and tell him that I was obligated to report him.

By the end of the conversation I was sobbing into the phone. Her gut may have been telling her that this was all a big misunderstanding, but from the very beginning of this whole situation, my gut told me that he shouldn't know who reported him. And I trust that instinct, no matter how much I may be scared for no reason. She saw things very, very differently. This will not be the last time, she told me, that a student would make me feel uncomfortable.

No shit. I've had students make me uncomfortable. I've dealt with crap from guys who didn't think a woman should tell them what to do, from women who thought they could get away with anything because they were cute and bubbly, from racists and homophobic students who had no interest in reading something critically and were only interested in spouting more hate into the world. I have not, however, experienced a weapon in my classroom before, and to be frank, I hope to hell I never do again. This is not the same thing.

Luckily, the disciplinary officer was more understanding. He agreed to leave my name out of the conversation. But in the course of his discussion with me, he mirrored the dean's feelings that I had more responsibility to make myself known than another student.

I understand that, I do. As the instructor, I am responsible for the class and I should be able to use that responsibility to say that I am obligated to do certain things. But I'm not really in charge. I can't even bring a student up on plagiarism charges unless my supervisor says that I can. I do want to be a professor and I will accept that responsibility when I have it, but as I told the disciplinary committee officer, I am not a professor yet. I don't have the benefits or compensation that professor's have. I have only the most meager of health insurance, no retirement or insurance benefits, and am pain less than 1/3 of what professors are paid to teach more classes, in some cases, than they teach at my institution.

More importantly, I am not willing to put myself or my family at any greater risk than I have to if those who are my supervisors and who are in charge can't even keep me in the loop about what is going on. I shouldn't have had to make those calls. Someone should have kept me abreast of the situation. But no, instead of contacting me, they contact my supervisor--fine, then let him be the bad guy from the student's perspective, because this was never my intention from the beginning.

The whole situation really underlined just how precarious a situation graduate students are in. On one hand they want me to step up and take the same responsibility and risk that a professor is required to take. On the other hand they keep referring to me as the student's TA (it's my class) and treat my like I am not a colleague--or at least, a partner in this whole issue.

It's a problem, one that ruined my entire day yesterday. Not only do I have to worry if the student will be disruptive in class (he was Thursday), not only do I have to worry about more weapons showing up...now I have this huge wad of self-doubt about what I did wrong. Is the dean right? I don't think so, but that question eats at me. Not completely a student and not completely a member of the faculty, I'm stuck in the middle. And it sucks, majorly.

I have 4 more days left in class, and it's been a great class, but I just want it to be over. I'm just tired.


Karo said...

I've felt something akin to this as well. You've done all you could, and I don't think you're done anything wrong. It sucks that the dean and others are trying to make a faulty and lacking system work by trying to push the responsibility onto you!

Anonymous said...

I can almost see the deans point about mediating the situation with a student, when you are dealing with something not quit so dangerous, especialy with the number of recent incidents that have happened on campuses involving unstable students. But when you are confrunted with a sittuation like this it is uncalled for. I am not sure what all you polices are but i can tell you At the cia the kid would not longer be in school, granted we hade large knives everyday, if you used them or jestered like you were using them for anything other than cooking it was an otomatic expoltion. Shoot you got a 3 week suspension from school if ou got a DUI in hyde park bucuse you are a member of the school and there for represent or something like that, i think that is a little extream but it just gose to show that i think you dean is not quit understanding the sittuation, and never will until shee is in a confrence with a student and she gets a big ass knife pulled on her even with the best of intentions. " wow i just rtelaized i never actaul maid one concies point with all of the blabing i did oh well just my 2 cents, i hope the last 4 days of class or good

AcadeMama said...

I'm so sorry this is how everything panned out, and as one of the people who shouted out for you to report the dude, I feel a bit complicit...ugh, I should shut my big fat mouth more often.

Everything you explained as reasons for maintaining your anonymity are 100% understandable and justifiable, and it's simply wrong for your administrators to not even try to understand your position as a not-yet-professor but the only one in charge of your class. This just doesn't sound like a functional, healthy admistrative body, and I hope, for your sake, everything blows over soon.