Monday, October 11, 2010

Reflecting on the Tragedy at Rutgers: A Tragedy for All

It is not as if we need any reminders that our campuses are not the sanctuaries we would like them to be. I hope all of my readers are thinking about how this tragic suicide of the Rutgers first-year student after a fellow roommate outed him by grossly violating the privacy and dignity of another human being, applies to your campus situation, and your ability to influence anything for students. Sadly, this is an extraordinary teachable moment.

There are so many issues raised by this chain of events. In retrospect, they remind me of a teachable moment I had in a first-year seminar once that fortunately, did not end in tragedy. But it did raise the issue of homophobia on the college campus.

One class day in my teaching of University 101 at the University of South Carolina, I took my class of 20 some students to an annual event: the Student Activities Fair. This was an opportunity for new students to meander around a large exhibit area in the student center ballroom, where over 400 clubs and organizations had set up booths to explain their purposes and activities to interested prospective student members. I took my students there as a way of helping them make a decision about how to fulfill a course requirement I had long imposed.

The requirement was that each student join at least one co-curricular organization; show me some form of proof of membership; and write me at the end of term a short paper documenting the value of this membership, what had been learned so far, etc. I had instituted this requirement after learning about research outcomes documenting the correlation between joining such organizations, as long as the activities were legal and sanctioned by the institution, and retention.

So, one beautiful fall day I took the class to the Activities Fair. They were allowed to mill around for an hour or so and then I led them back to our classroom (the class met once a week for three hours). Upon returning to that space, I asked them my favorite question after any experiential learning activity (a question they already had learned to predict I would ask): “What did you learn?”

Without any hesitancy, an eighteen year old white male shot up his hand and I called on him. His response: “I learned that I didn’t respect you any more!”

Naturally, I wanted to draw him out, instantly sensing this could be an extraordinary teachable moment but having no idea where this comment came from or could go.

He explained to me and the class: “Until I went to this event I thought you liked girls”

And I then asked what I had done that made him think I did not “like girls”

And he elaborated that this perception changing event had been the following: “Well, you see I saw you standing for the longest time talking to the students at the Gay Lesbian group table and I could tell you knew them and were enjoying talking with them.”

Well, what I had intended for the class topic to be, the merits of joining a co-curricular organization, and which ones to consider, suddenly became a very new topic for the day: the status and nature of homophobia on that particular campus.

What ensued was one of the most powerful class discussions of my career. I followed the discussion by making the students write a reflection paper on what they had observed and learned from the discussion. A common theme was an increased understanding of the correlation between homophobia and race, ethnicity and gender---with the most homophobic being the white males. This is, of course, only one of many observations and insights to be derived from the Rutgers tragedy.

Blog postings are not meant to be forums for exhaustive examinations of any topic. So I will leave this now, but again with the exhortation, that you do something in your higher education setting to mark this dark event for all of us in the academy and somehow turn it into a learning experience that could be converted into action towards a more humane campus environment and society.

-John Gardner

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