I spent the majority of my undergraduate career in the communication building at my alma mater. It was a giant, ugly concrete monstrosity that looked like it was put together by Willy Wonka’s emo cousin. Entrances and exits were on multiple floors, there were giant open spaces on top of the second and third floors. Rumors swirled that there was a helipad on top of the roof.
On the inside, the halls were never linear, in that there was at least four ways of getting anywhere. Concrete columns jutted into the hallways, making easy for anyone not paying attention to walk directly into them. The building had two floors below grade, thus you couldn’t have a window in your office of any value even if you were on the second floor.
The legend of the building, constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was that this was constructed specifically to keep the student demonstrators of that era from being able to take it over. The entrances and exits gave law-enforcement officials multiple access points. The halls made it difficult to pin down force that was trying to take the building back from the students. Even those columns were there to provide safety for SWAT teams who needed to advance in standard cover formation. It might have been true or it might have been a fantastical story, but that didn’t make the building any homier.
I thought about that building Thursday as I watched the CNN footage of a virtual military force descending upon the UCLA campus after police received a call of an active shooter. Once police had cleared the scene and learned this was a murder-suicide, I thought of the building I currently occupy and what it says about this era in which we live.
I work in the newest academic building on campus. The eco-friendly garden roof complete with solar panels helps take in energy for campus use. The auto shades and lights go on and off based on the light needed or the heat required in the building. Giant “solar daisies” are in the parking lot, following the sun’s every movement and capturing its energy-saving rays. Every aspect is meant to make the building a LEEDs dream.
The rounded edifice of the structure gives it that newer feel, although etchings in old Roman text and red brick facings give it that classic look. Almost every office has a giant window that overlooks one of the many fine aspects of campus. Mine oversees a river.
Under this utopian skin lies the harsh reality of our time.
My office has a tiny window in the door so that I can see out without providing access to someone who might do me harm. I always thought this was ridiculous, so I stuffed baseball cards in the hole so at least the people stopping by had something to look at.
The furniture and office set up is placed in such a way that I can hide in the case of an active shooter. On rare occasion, I’ve changed clothes in the office, using that “hiding space” to prevent me from being seen.
The classrooms have a digital card-key access and they are unable to ever be fully unlocked. One of the more ridiculous parts of my job comes when students leave to use the bathroom, only to be locked out upon their return.
The clocks our building were part of the bigger “let’s go digital” paradigm that differentiated this new place from those other analog spots throughout campus. Eventually everyone got digital clocks and it turned out that this was because the clocks could be used to send out warnings and alerts in the case of an attack of some kind. I always thought it was stupid because the one thing they were meant to (show the time) was the one thing they rarely did right.
When I started teaching so many years ago in that dim, shitty building I described above, I got “the warning lecture” from the faculty member who was overseeing my TA job.
“Don’t be alone in a room with a student,” I was told. “Keep the door open and speak loudly enough that you can be heard in the hall.”
This was particularly important when it came to female students, he explained, because the worst thing that can happen to you is to be accused of sexual misconduct. If you are giving a kid a bad grade, that kid might be out to ruin you.
This lecture went on and on for what seemed like hours:
“Don’t make jokes that people might take as sexual advances.”
“Don’t make physical contact with students.”
“Don’t sit on the same side of the desk as a student.”
“Don’t… Don’t… Don’t… Don’t…”
This made me paranoid beyond all belief because I was, at the time, an unmarried 22-year-old and I was fresh fish, just waiting to be shanked in the yard.
My first boss at Mizzou was much more blunt: “If I catch you fucking a student, I’m firing your ass.”
I laughed. She didn’t.
Of all the things I worried about, the kind of thing that happened at UCLA wasn’t anywhere close to that. I’d had students who cried over failing something and I’d had students who called me all manner of names in evals and even to my face.
The only thing close to this was a newsroom legend of a kid who heard his story was being changed. He grabbed a large cylindrical trashcan and flung it at a copy editor and then charged at the guy. An editor, who was once an offensive lineman in college, grabbed the scrawny student and hung on for dear life. Steve later told me the kid’s strength was beyond his ability to comprehend.
It was truly bizarre.
The next year, the student who had done all this damage returned to the newsroom. He introduced himself by name, always adding “I’m on medication, so I’m better now.”
Kids get angry all the time over perceived slights, inflated sense of self-importance and grade issues. I usually get angry emails that demand this and that. My answer always is, “Come to my office and let’s talk about it.” Most of them don’t. They won’t take that step to really lay it on the line.
Even those who do, I never really think they have it in them to really make their beef a huge problem.
That’s why this line gave me a chill:
Both instructors were aware that Sarkar had issues with them. “But I don’t think that is cause for somebody to believe that they were going to be a homicide target,” the chief said.
The discussion of the “why” and the “how” and the “what now” of this shooting will likely follow the same pattern of previous incidents like this.
My wife and I were discussing this today: I talked about guns, she talked about mental health. Around and around and around we went.
If two people who essentially agree on most things, including gun violence and mental health, can’t find a common answer on this, what chances do we as a fractured society have?
People will point to how UCLA was a “gun-free zone” and that didn’t stop anything, so what’s wrong with a right to carry on campus? Others will say stopping “the crazies” needs to happen right away, ignoring the fact that most mentally ill people aren’t violent and there’s no outright clarity now regarding the mental status of this shooter.
For the Wayne La Pierre’s of our society, the answer is more guns.
Arm the professors.
Arm the secretary
Arm the students.
A good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun.
For me, I don’t know if it’s better or worse to have a moment in which I get shot in my office or having shot someone in my office. I don’t know how I would live with either.
However, there have been 186 school shootings since Sandy Hook in 2012, according to the L.A. Times. That comes out to about one per week.
And this doesn’t seem to be stopping.
UCLA professor William Klug was about my age and had a family somewhat similar to mine. However, what hit me hard was that he was killed in his office while a colleague survived because he (or she) was not. (And I am apparently not the only one thinking like this…) The “kill list” Mainak Sarkar constructed included two professors and his wife. He killed her and then got Klug. The third, unnamed person survived because Sarkar couldn’t locate this person, who was apparently off campus that day.
For as long as I have been teaching, I made a promise to myself and to students that I wouldn’t be “that professor” when it came to access. Instead of having only a few specific office hours, I always keep my door open when I’m there. The goal is to solicit people to show up and engage me. It could be a question about a test or a bit of feedback on a paper. It might be they had time to kill between classes and they figured time with me would be more productive than their 353rd attempt at Candy Crush Level 93. Maybe they needed career advice or they needed a “buck up li’l camper” speech I was so good at giving.
The rule was simple: If I’m in the office, I’m going to have my door open. If the door is open, whatever you need as a student is more important than whatever it is I’m doing, so c’mon in.
Whenever I need to write, I go to my office.
Whenever I need to research, I go to my office.
Whenever I need to think or work or anything else, I go to my office.
My office is a tiny box that I’ve decorated with idiosyncratic crap I’ve collected over the years from bobbleheads to baseball cards. It’s a home away from home where work tends to get done.
My wife jokes that I practically live there.
I never once thought about what it would be like to die there.