Sorting Through the Posts – Making Sense Out of Violence, Information, and Discussion in the Wake of the “Batman Premiere Shooting”
We’ve been here before.
This afternoon I walked into the living room, feeling the need to take a break from the report I was working on for the past forty five minutes. I walked into the living room to take a quick break. My wife, who was sitting on the couch working on things for the upcoming school year, asked me if I had seen this, her index finger extended toward the television screen. News coverage from CNN was on. I didn’t know what this was in reference to. I asked, “what’s this?” She quickly responded, “there was a shooting at a screening of Batman in Colorado.” I quickly went back into the office, opened up a search window via Google and began to type in Batman, when autofill popped up with Batman Premiere Shooting appearing as the first result. I clicked on it and began to make my way through the list of search results.
I read what local news stations were reporting, I read what national news stations were reporting, I viewed YouTube footage that had been posted almost immediately after James Holmes had opened fire on the crowded audience who had gather to see Christopher Nolan’s latest film.
Noticing the activity that was popping up on Google (as well as any other search engine), I logged into Twitter to see what people were posting there. Needless to say, there was an extensive chain of Tweets under #theatershooting. As I was making my way through the chain of Tweets I noticed that new Tweets continued to flow in at an approximate rate of 20 new Tweets every 35-40 seconds. This continued this was for the next fifteen minutes.
Of course, there is still more pouring in. There is still lots of coverage flooding in on television and web news channels. More and more footage is being uploaded to YouTube. We can see from the Tweets that news organizations are reporting information as updates are being made available, while individual users are posting prayers, well wishes, and consolations to the twelve who died in the theater and the fifty who were injured.
I’ve also been able to find information about James Holmes. I’ve been able to find out when he graduated high school, what high school he attended, and that he was a student in the Neuroscience Program at the University of Colorado-Denver.
I’ve been listening to various police and law enforcement press conferences as the sound from the television in the living room is filtering back to the office. As I stop and think about the piles of information that are flooding before my eyes and ears, I think that the best way to process this is to write about it. I logged onto my WordPress account, opened up this blog and began to type into the text box. My mind jogs back to April 16 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho, a student at Virginia Tech University killed 32 people and injured 17 people, before turning the gun on himself. I remember it quite vividly, as I was a graduate student at Ohio University at the time. In this case, there was also lots of information about Cho, what happened on the Virginia Tech campus, how police responded, all before the inevitable, burning question of motive was raised. Much was made out of the websites he visited, the movies he watched, the journal entries that he wrote. These things combined help to paint a portrait of an individual who felt trapped and isolated, someone who had no where to turn to in order to express and engage with those thoughts and feelings. This must have been even more frustrating for Cho, who as an English major focused on the process of communication and expression that takes place when you create a piece of writing. In the end he couldn’t be identified as “a lone gun nut,” a familiar phrase that has traditionally been used to try and explain people such as Charles Whitman, Lee Harvey Oswald, David Hinckley, and Mark David Chapman.
A few months later I had graduated from OU, and I was teaching in the Writing Program at Rutgers University, there was still talk about what had happened at Virginia Tech. In the November/December issue of Academe, Richard E. Miller, a friend and colleague at Rutgers, wrote an essay entitled, “The Fear Factor,” that reflected on the Virginia Tech shoothat’s that had occurred approximately six months before. At this point it had become common to ask, is there anything we can do in our classrooms to help students, to make them feel as if they are not so isolated that an eruption of violence is the only option they have in front of them. In response to the question of what, if anything, we as educators can to do try to help produce an atmosphere where reflection, and not violence, is seen as a real possibility for arresting such events in the future, Miller writes:
If we are to offer an alternative to the violent options that are now always just a click away, then we’ve got to foster an equally powerful counter-experience—one that cultivates optimism and resourcefulness and resilience. Confronting the limits of one’s own understanding is a scary business, but this is the task that lies forever before all who are committed to the life of the mind. A tolerance for ambiguity, patience in the face of uncertainty, calm while the earth moves beneath one’s feet: these are the attributes of a mature mind, attributes that can be acquired through introspection and then expressed through action in the world we have, a world always just outside the reach of full understanding.
This is not simply a metaphorical offer that Miller is presenting here. It is a serious offer that lets students know that they are not just going through the motions when they are in our classes. The process of education is not a static tradition, where the student simply receives canonical bits of texts and information for the sake of keeping the tradition of English, or History, or Philosophy alive. Education is not a time capsule where various disciplines and programs store things from the past. Engaging in the process of learning, or more specifically, as Miller identifies in his essay, “confronting the limits of one’s own understanding,” is a necessary component of growing to understand yourself, and understanding what your place in the world could be. To clarify, I am not saying that education is the golden key that will unlock the door to a future that is free of violence. Such an outlook would be foolishly naive. Rather, I am suggesting that an effort be made by teachers, by programs, by universities and colleges, by all schools, to embrace a pedagogy that unambiguously identifies the value in education as a process where students can explore the limits of their understanding, and use that as a means of building up a strong sense of who you are and what your place in the world could be.
As important as this perspective seems to be right now, this doesn’t seem to be the case. There are two things which I’ve noticed while listening to interviews with politicians, public figures, and social commentators – one is the standard party lines fighting for, or against, gun control legislation, and two is the casual use of the term “evil.” What is so unsettling is that these two points seem to be used as a one stop response that is intended to cover all points. This is illustrated perfectly by comments that Newt Gingrich made when he was being interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN this afternoon. When asked if the massacre that occurred at the Century 16 movie theater signaled the need for reconsidering the current state of gun control laws, Gingrich confidently replied that it wouldn’t have made a difference. The reason for this was presented in painfully simple terms – according to Gingrich, this was an evil act that needs swift retribution. Stricter gun laws, or new federal gun registration wouldn’t be an appropriate response. Instead, Gingrich advised that harsher sentences be distributed, sending an unequivocal message that evil, criminal activities will not be tolerated. Gingrich’s response seems to have an inherent common sense appeal. Such an act is unimaginable. I cannot begin to fathom what was in this man’s mind as he went out to his car, suited up, and returned to the theater auditorium. However, this seems to be incredibly problematic to me. That is not because I fail to see how these actions could be identified as horrifying, unconscionable, or devastating. Obviously, this is a tragedy that anyone would find to be both frustrating and heartbreaking. It is something that we would not expect to hear reported on the news, or read on a news crawl on a website. Yet, it is only a year and a half since the shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona. five years since the shootings at Virginia Tech, and thirteen years since the massacre at Columbine High School. What that would seem to indicate is that this is not an isolated incident. This is certainly an uncomfortable feeling to confront. It requires us to acknowledge that this is not something that can be shuffled out of our collective memory. What is necessary now is to be willing to confront what we don’t know. We need to take the things that we do know, the violence, the grief, the anger, and be prepared to ask what is behind an eruption of violence such as this. We cannot afford to dismiss this as simply being an evil act of an evil person. It is crucial that we move beyond the flood of information that we find through various media outlets. This is the time for us to confront the aspects about our world and ourselves that we are uncomfortable in acknowledging. We’ve been here before. Now is the time for an honest exploration of our country, our culture, our communities, and ultimately, ourselves.
Before I get started with this post, let me apology for falling behind on my posting. Things have been a little hectic after spring break. It shan’t be repeated! Now, on to the post.
It is my goal to generate several posts that will function as a meditation towards the development of a theory and practice of teaching with technology. One might wonder why I would assume that I am in a position to pen such a manifesto. My answer to that would two points; I have immersed myself, the courses that I teach, and the students that I work with in what could be called a digitally driven framework, and, ultimately, technology as it applies to education is (and should recognized as) a continuing work in progress.
These two points are contingent upon each other. The best way to explore how technology can be utilized within an educational space is to approach it as an experiment. Some approaches will work, while others will not. The duality of technology can, and should be exciting and potentially frightening, as there are no text books on how to work technology into a given class, although some textbooks may have some suggestions, there are no definitive “right ways,” although there are certainly some guaranteed “wrong ones,” and there have yet to emerge iconicographic practicitioners in the field. All of these are things that will come when teaching with technology has been codified into a concise educational formula.
For the time being, teaching with technology can still be seen as something of a subversive activity, where the discursive space has yet to be set in stone, and there is still plenty of room for dissenting voices and radical ideas. It can be seen as something of an outlaw period within the history and theory of education, before it has been subject to the disciplining of formal educational theory, before it has become formally incorporated into the infrastructure that is education in America. For some it is the best of times, for others it is the worst of times, however, it cannot be denied that it is an uncertain and exciting time for educators, from grade school all the way up to the Academy.
It is through this lens that I will be posting from over the next couple of posts. One item to note as we proceed, I am interested in having this develop into a dynamic dialogue, as opposed to a rigid monologue. I welcome any thoughts, comments, or criticism that readers may have.
More posts to follow soon. Check back soon!
Lets engage in a quick thought experiment. Think back to when you were in high school, working on a paper in your senior English class. Perhaps you are trying to write a paper about similar motifs which Shakespeare used in “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” and “Othello.” Maybe you are trying to put the finishing touches on an essay that asks you to analyze the underlying causes of American involvement in World War I. You might even be ready to rip your hair out as you try to compose a college application essay that discusses an event which changed your life. Hopefully you have a similar experience in your mind. Now, think about what the process of creating that document, whatever it might have been, entailed? Think about what is was like as you sat there, typing away on either a typewriter, word processor, or computer. For most of us, this scenario calls to mind hours of sitting perched in front of a desk, consuming massive amounts of caffeine in the form of your favorite coffee, with our fingers hitting the keys (sometimes rapidly and sometimes slowly). Now, I am going to ask you to do your best to think about who you were thinking of as your audience? This may seem bizarre, but I assure you that this is not some sort of composition class trick question. Have you thought about who your audience was for the work that you selected as part of this thought experiment? I am going to go out on a limb and venture an educated guess that the audience for most people would be one person – the teacher who gave you the assignment. Possibly a slightly larger group of three to five people in the case of the college application essay. Now, as we approach the end of our thought experiment, think about the machine that you were using to create your document – typewriter, word processor, or computer – and ask yourself, what is the relationship between the equipment that you used to create your document and your thinking about what kind of life your document would have after you had completed it?
I am hoping that this post is the first of several posts that will make it possible to explore the shift that has occurred (and is still occurring) between writers and their audience.
For many readers, the man in the picture posted above needs no introduction. Hunter S. Thompson remains a vivid example of prolific writing. Thompson, the author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Hells Angels,” and “The Great Shark Hunt” may seem like a strange example to bring into a discussion of authors with a limited author. After all, Thompson had, and still does have, a large audience who reads his work.
The clip above, from the 1981 film, “Where the Buffalo Roam,” does a good job of illustrating the perception which many people have of Thompson, that of a rambling, ranting, drunk, drug using writer, however, what I find striking about this scene is how well it presents Thompson in the familiar model of the writer, working in isolation. In this scene Thompson, just like the high school student of the past whom we focused on in our thought experiment, is working alone, secluded from the world as he sits at a desk, typewriter at the ready. Chances are this does not seem strange to most people, in fact it would seem that this is in keeping with our understanding of what happens when someone sits down to write – that is to say that writing is (and has traditionally been seen as) an activity that originates out of isolation. Thompson, much like any writer who came before or after him, works in isolation because the very idea of composing something is synonymous with being in solitary confinement. When the writer sits down at the typewriter the understanding of what the ultimate fate of the document will be would look something like this
This would logically point to the creation of a document and the consumption of a document as something of a static process, with the writer sitting alone typing and the reader sitting (or standing) with the finished book in their hand as their eyes scan over the text on the page. Not only would this be logical, it would be accurate, since this is the only option that paper based reading and writing leaves open to either party. However, what if we imagined Hunter S. Thompson working with something other than his typewriter?
What would it be like to imagine Thompson creating a video essay? What might a podcast of Thompson speaking be like? An initial response might be that Hunter S. Thompson would still be Hunter S. Thompson, no matter what machinery he used. However, I would call attention to Marshall McLuhan’s famous (some might say infamous) phrase, “the medium is the message.” If the medium of composition was the typewriter, word processor, or a software program like Microsoft Word, what would happen when these were replaced by YouTube videos and blogs?
To be continued…
This post was originally composed in March 2011, when I was asked to generate a piece for a new writing publication. Several months later, it is not certain as to when (or if) this publication will see the light of day. Given this uncertainty, I wanted to get this post out into circulation. Below is a video with provides background information about this case.
About a month ago a high school English teacher in Doylestown, Pennsylvania made headlines. They were not the usual headlines, detailing how she helped struggling students bring their grade point averages up, design a community based volunteer initiative, or land a much needed college scholarship. The attention that the 30 year old teacher was garnering was sufficiently negative to cause Central Bucks East, the high school that she taught at, to suspend her with pay before ultimately firing her a few weeks later. The controversy centered on a blog entry that Munroe had written over a year before, detailing her frustration with generically prepared (“canned”) report card comments that teachers were directed to use. Munroe theorized about the reactions that parents would have if she were able to provide an accurate account of their child’s behavior, aptitude, and overall work ethic. If you conduct a Google search for the name “Natalie Munroe,” or the term “blogging teacher in Pennsylvania,” you will discover the flurry of Internet news coverage and the response that it has generated across the country. We do not need to dwell on the specific details of the blog comments in question, as these are really not what I intend to focus on here. Instead, I would like to discuss the larger issues at play that seem to be lost in the shuffle of the various news and digital media that have addressed this situation thus far.
One question that could be settled with relative ease is: Should Natalie Munroe be fired for her comments? We could consult the regulations and bylaws that Munroe was subject to as an employee of the Bucks County school district to find out if there was a specific rule prohibiting employees from participating in online activities, such as blogging. We could also ascertain whether or not these rules were clearly identified and fully explained to the employees of the school district. These are clearly legal points which would seem like the logical starting point for anyone who is interested in the question of whether Natalie Munroe should be fired. However, that is not the question that I am interested in. My interest in this situation lies in exploring what the boundary lines are when it comes to composing in cyberspace.
Munroe’s blog site, “Where we are going and why are we in this hand basket,” was originally written anonymously under the moniker of “Natalie M.” There was no location information about where the writer of the blog lived or worked, and there were no pictures on the blog. Munroe has stated that prior to the media coverage of the scandal surrounding her blog that she only had nine people following her site, including herself and her husband. What appears to have occurred is that somehow a student or parent from C.B. East discovered that Munroe was writing a blog (how this information was discovered is still unknown), and this information was quickly circulated among parents who filed complaints with the school that Munroe taught at. Munroe was suspended, with pay, before learning that the Bucks County school board had ruled that she would be terminated from that position immediately. Since then, Munroe has continued to write new entries, now openly identifying herself as the author of the blog amid the fading media interest in the story as the initial controversy has died down. As an instructor in the Writing Program at Rutgers University, and as a staff member of the Plangere Writing Center, I find myself disappointed about the content of the blog post that ignited the controversy (referring to some unidentified students as “grade grubbing,” “lazy,” “rude” and “ratlike”); however, that is not what is most unsettling to me. Although the immediate controversy of this situation has tapered off with Munroe’s firing, there are larger questions that still loom, both in cyberspace and in the embodied world of our everyday existence. The core question that I am interested in is what do we really know about writing and the exchange of ideas and information in the digital age mark by an ever increasing numbers of blogs, Twitter pages, and Facebook updates? This question is prompted by the dual nature of the currently shared view that the Internet is equally divided between being incredibly personal and secretive, while at the same time being a seemingly limitless pool of shared information and personal interactions. This question requires serious consideration, but has yet to receive it.
The one point that seems most troubling in the case of Natalie Munroe’s blog and the controversy that surrounded it is that it has unveiled an eradication of the boundaries that many of us believe separates our existence into two distinct realms; the public and the private. Perhaps what is most disconcerting about this situation is the fact that the wizard behind the curtain has been definitively exposed once and for all, never being able to take his place behind the curtain again. What I am referring to here is the disappearance of privacy, and not in any kind of negative or authoritarian sense, but in a much deeper, psychological sense that anyone who has participated in blog postings, discussion forums or Facebook postings can easily relate to, while struggling to verbalize those feelings in a concise and effective manner. It seems clear, at least from the information available at the time that this controversy originally broke, that Natalie Munroe was genuinely shocked by the streams of protests coming in from enraged parents, as well as people from other states, whose only connection to the story was from something they had seen on a television news program or on the Internet. This shock seemed to be compounded by the fact that Munroe was vigorously supporting her posts on the grounds that they were nothing more than the written expression of her feelings about various subjects, something that is no different than an editorial that has been written in a newspaper’s op-ed section. This was further cemented by the fact that Munroe refused to provide any type of apology for her blog comments. She maintained that she had a right to express her opinions, just as those who disagreed with her had a right to express their opinions. But how can we account for Munroe’s professed shock at the backlash that she received in response to her posts? How can we accept that she genuinely thought of her blog as something that would never reach beyond the eyes and monitors of those nine followers that she had prior to this controversy? The answer to that question lies in an intellectual and philosophical reconsideration of what being an author in cyberspace really means. If there is one thing that is certain out of this whole situation, it is the need for everyone who participates in the creation and exchange of information via the Internet to be open to the possibility of unlearning deeply ingrained concepts like privacy and composition in the 21st century.
What I believe the ultimate lesson of Natalie Munroe’s situation must be is a recognition and acceptance that our traditional understanding of concepts such as public and private are shifting. Traditional understandings of what is public and what is private are shifting radically and our familiar understanding of those terms and what the distinctions between those two realms are are changing continuously. The creation and maintenance of something like a blog or a Facebook account would seem to be an obvious example of something that was intended to be widely seen and commented on, however this does not seem to be the case when looking at Natalie Munroe’s response and continued insistence that she had no reason to apologize for her blog. When looking at Munroe’s comments, it appears as if she envisioned her blog as something that might best be described as a digital diary, which was safe from the countless pairs of eyes that peruse the Internet on a daily basis. This sense of security and comfort to be had in the secrecy of online communication is something that many people share with Natalie Munroe. The flaw in this line of thinking is mistaking a blog site or a web page as being the same as a sheet of paper or a notebook. Composing for an audience in cyberspace is completely different from composing for an audience in a traditional print format. Many people like to think that a posting to the various forms of social media that exist on the Internet is essentially an updated technological equivalent to writing in a notebook; however, due to our extensive exposure and participation in cyberspace we cannot afford to be so naive or nostalgic. This mode of thinking is more attuned to romantic notions about writers from the nineteenth century, however these notions are illusory at best, and a blog posting can never be compared to a page that I have written in a journal. Any ideas I have formulated in a journal are trapped within the confines of that journal, between the front and back covers of the journal, but those ideas are restrained even further, by my willingness to share the ideas that are contained within that journal to other people. To be perfectly honest, we do not really know what the boundary markers of the Internet are at this point. Going even further, there is no one in view who could function as an effective gatekeeper, as I could in choosing who can view what I have written in my journal.
The key issue at stake here is that any composition that is created with the express intention of being posted on the Internet is an extremely new and relatively unfamiliar discursive space that cannot fit into the familiar parameters of discourse that exists within traditional forms of print based writing. Considering that a high number of American families have only had a computer in their house for the past ten to fifteen years, it is crucial to realize that the rules which so many of us are familiar with from traditional print forms of composition do not hold true in the digital age that we are all a part of now. Perhaps the ultimate lesson to be learned from all of this is that our familiar concepts of space, place, and identity do not (and perhaps they cannot) hold the same meaning any longer. Writing a blog or creating a Twitter posting can certainly create the feeling of intimate discussion with a close knit group of friends, however, the reality seems to be that we have yet to comprehend the full extent of what being connected in the digital age really means. The example of Natalie Munroe, and the continued discussion about her that still takes place on the Internet indicates that we all will have to reevaluate our learning curve.
Post Script – September 2011 – Natalie Munroe has been reinstated as a teacher at Central Bucks East High School. Below is a video detailing the principals response to Munroe’s reinstatement.
The debate goes on….
Welcome to Conscientious Reflections – a blog that aims to focus on what it means to live, work, and think in the always expanding digital space of the Internet. Various forms of digital media will be considered here, as well as how our interactions with digital media may be seen as altering the ways in which we see and understand the world and ourselves. I will update the blog regularly (at least one new post per week – hopefully more!), and I am looking forward to any responses that readers may have to the entries that I post here. I will begin by bringing over a couple of blog posts that I began previously, but have since reworked in different ways. Stay tuned for further information and new posts!