Active Shooter Trainings and English 101

RIP Lawrence Levine, Writing Instructor at Umpqua Community College (family photo)

RIP Lawrence Levine, Writing Instructor at Umpqua Community College (family photo)

The invite to the Active Shooter Training at Eastern Washington University landed in my faculty inbox among a flurry of other “Welcome Back to School” memos: the carpet cleaning in the library, the new requirement that all employees complete a commuter survey, and the strategic placement of student ambassadors to help incoming freshman find their way. A few weeks ago I tidied my inbox by deleting these messages, thereby making room for what I considered to be more important emails from the Composition Department and my new cohort of English 101 students.

The shooting at Umpqua Community College sent me rooting through my Trash folder for the Active Shooter Training email. Given the shattering event two weeks ago, I was suddenly interested in the content of the training because, for one thing, I had no idea what I would have done if the shooter had entered my classroom.  I also wondered if the training, which is scheduled for December, would need to be hosted in a much larger room.

Would students and other faculty feel the same fear I did? I knew that the faculty member who was murdered in the massacre, Lawrence Levine, was teaching English 101 when he was shot in front of his class. Over the past dozen days, I have imagined, over and over again, the adrenaline in his body as the scene unfolded, his hands and whether they were clasped or shaking, and his last look at his students’ faces before he was violently silenced by the gunman.

These shootings are rare, I tell myself now. My reaction to them is not based on critical reasoning. I suspect that I am more likely to die driving to the university than I am by gun violence in the classroom. Moreover, as a teacher of rhetoric, I am aware of how easy it is to commit a logical fallacy during a crisis. The fist of fear and sadness tightens in my gut and I realize that, in my confusion, I am “affirming the consequent”; I committing one of the logical fallacies that I teach to my students to avoid. Here’s how it goes:

Premise—He was an English 101 instructor
Premise—He was shot in class.
Premise—I am an English 101 instructor.
False conclusion—I will also get shot in class.

Although it is illogical to let my fear fuel my preoccupation with my own demise, it is not a fallacy to assert that other students and professors may die this year. There is evidence to support this claim; for one thing, USA Today reported that this is the fourth shooting on a college campus since August. It’s only early October now.

As the information is released regarding the motives of the gunman, everyone seems to have focused on his fixation with mass killings and his dislike of religion. However, I can’t help but consider how coercive it is to murder an instructor who teaches critical reasoning and rhetoric.  In English 101, students refine the writing and critical thinking skills needed in every class of their college career. What’s more, they learn to rhetorically analyze their world.

It is precisely tragedies like what happened in Oregon that remind us why the ability to analyze rhetoric so important in the first place.  In the ensuing debates, we will potentially discover the momentum that is crucial to effecting the kind of change that would make our world healthier and safer. However, first we must confront the unwieldy task of dismantling the rigid, artificial drawing of hard lines: Pro-gun control vs. anti-gun control. The second amendment lovers vs. liberal regulators. The hunters vs. the hippies. If anything is to be done about this violence, then we must equip ourselves to sift through the polarized chatter, assess the core concerns that incite people to violence, and propose thoughtful, reasoned arguments regarding possible next steps.

The coming weeks of public debate will be tense for all of us and excruciatingly painful for those directly affected by the losses of lives. I hope it will also be enriched by the kind of work my students do in English 101: listening; recognizing that arguments do not have two sides but rather exist on a spectrum; and accepting that, while there is no single answer to any problem, there are approaches and strategies that are worth trying.

What I’m trying to say is that I have hope. In my classroom I witness the kind conversation through which we desperately need our politicians and community leaders to guide us—the kind of conversation that Mr. Levine was probably having with his students on October 1st—the kind of conversations that all educators would like to safely facilitate in their classrooms this year.


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