Leading in the midst of tragedy

On Saturday, the Saturday at the end of 8th week of winter term, our computer science seniors gathered to present their Comps (group capstone projects, for those readers outside of Carleton). The day typically has a celebratory feel: this is the culmination of 2 terms of hard work on their part, and this is their chance to present their work to their friends, family, and classmates. The morning started, as it usually does, with a welcome from the CS faculty, which this year I gave.

Except instead of welcoming the students, friends, and family like I normally would, I stood in front of all those gathered, with the rest of the CS faculty at my side, and tried to speak words that would make some sense at all of the tragic events of the day before: the loss of three students, including one of our junior majors, and the serious injuries to two other students.

Someone asked me later what I said. To be honest, I have no idea. The shock and grief were too much. I remember going to the front of the room and picking up a microphone (and then handing it off to one of our seniors when I couldn’t figure out how to turn it on). I remember talking, but not the actual words. I remember asking for a moment of silence. I remember thanking everyone. And the next thing I remember, I was sobbing in the ladies’ room.

Our students carried on admirably, given the circumstances. I think it helped that we were all together that day, as a department, and that we had something else to concentrate on for a while. It helped that we rearranged the schedule so that we could attend the memorial service in the middle of the day. But I’ll admit I was splitting my time between listening to the presentations and figuring out what we, as a department, should do: for our grieving students, for the family of Paxton, for each other.

There is nothing in the chair’s handbook that walks you through what to do as a department when a student passes away. There is nothing in the faculty handbook that indicates what you should do the first class meeting after a tragic event plunges a campus into grief, or how to counsel students who are struggling to make sense of something that makes no sense at all, who are grief-stricken and in shock and maybe feeling even more alone than before. There is nothing in my years of on-the-job experience that remotely prepares me for what I, as a faculty member and as a department chair, am dealing with now.

So I’m figuring things out as I go along. I didn’t plan any special remarks for class—I went with what I was thinking at the moment, and I honestly told my students that I wasn’t sure how to proceed, either, but that I would just try. That we’d be flexible and figure things out together and see where that left us. That it was important to reach out and to keep talking and to use the available campus resources. That I am also a resource that they can lean on, even if I don’t exactly know what I’m doing. That the next days and weeks and months would be sad and hard, but that we are a strong community and that ultimately that will get us through.

This afternoon and this evening, we will gather as a department to remember Paxton especially, but also James and Michael, and send healing thoughts to Will and Connor. It won’t be enough. It won’t be nearly enough. But it’s something, and we’ll figure out the rest as we go along.

Friday random bullets

  • I’ve struggled a bit this term with finding time every day for research. I find it relatively easy to do early in the week, but the end of the week (W-F) tends to run away from me. This morning I squeezed in about an hour of good, quality research. Since then, I’ve been about twice as productive as I usually am when I skip research. Note to self: make time for research every day!
  • I’ve been using a standing desk for a few weeks now. I have a temporary one rigged up using this Ikea hack. I need to saw a bit off of the bottom of the shelf brackets to get the keyboard tray to a better height, but so far, I’m loving it! It does, however, influence my choice of shoes—I am less likely to pick the shoes that are mostly-but-not-completely comfortable and more likely to pick, say, flats everyday. I sense a visit to a tailor in my near future to get some pants re-hemmed….
  • The new prep is going well so far. I’m glad I had the trial run of the material during our summer program. I was most worried about (a) the writing component of the course and (b) running a mostly-discussion class. (I’m used to incorporating all sorts of active learning activities in my courses, but pure discussion plays a small role in those.) I still need to grade their first essays, but I’m trying to be very transparent with my expectations (publishing my rubric with the assignment, specifically spelling out criteria, etc). We’ll see if that helped on the first paper. As for discussion, I’ve done a couple of pure-discussion classes, but for now am mainly sticking to small group discussions/activities, and that’s working well so far. As a bonus, the participation rate in the whole-class discussions seems to be increasing, maybe because students are gaining confidence in the small group discussions?
  • On a related note, we had our “clients” (the Librarians) visit our class on Wednesday, or rather we visited them, to discuss our term-long project: reenvisioning the Library’s home page. I am always appreciative when staff take time out of their very busy schedules to visit my classes, and the discussion was fabulous. The students came prepared and eager, with great insights, and of course our librarians rock, so it was a great, great class session.
  • Today is the last day of drop-add. I’ve signed a bunch of drop-add forms today for my advisees. I’m guessing there are other deadlines today or soon too, because I’ve also signed a bunch of forms as chair (adding the major, graduating early, etc). I think I am the most popular person in the department today. 🙂
  • I’ve had a number of exhausting discussions lately around diversity and privilege. Necessary, for sure, but exhausting. Exhausting because of the slow pace of change and the level of awareness. It’s caused me to reflect a lot more on my responsibilities in my role as chair, as a woman in computer science, and as a professor in leading these discussions. This may be a longer post at a later point, when I have better-formed ideas.
  • The exhausting part may also be due to the return of my insomnia, the bane of my existence last winter. It’s not nearly as bad as it was then, but dude, I’m tired and just want to sleep—is that so wrong?

And on that sleepy note, I’m off to class. Have a great weekend everyone!