Fighting Fire with Empathy

Road in Ventura County with smoke filled sky

“12 DEAD IN MASS SHOOTING AT THOUSAND OAKS BAR AND GRILL.” This  unfathomable notification jolted me awake just after midnight on Thursday November 8, 2018. As I read of the shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill, my thoughts immediately turned to our CSUCI students who would frequent Borderline’s College Nights every Wednesday. I began crafting an email to the eleven other members of our composition faculty, all of whom were likely to have impacted students.

As Composition Director, I work with a collaborative and responsive team of faculty. In the wake of a devastating event, we understand that the well-being of students is of primary importance. That can mean setting aside the agenda for that day’s class meeting and carving out space to discuss what just happened. It could also include seeking out resources for students who are not okay and don’t always feel safe expressing that. Even at a point in the semester filled with deadlines and due dates, empathy comes first.

Over the past several years, disasters like the Springs Fire of May 2013, the Thomas Fire of December 2017, and the deadly Montecito Mudflow of January 2018 have presented emotional and logistical challenges to our composition team, often compelling us to be resourceful when a routine semester takes an unexpected turn. We’ve strangely come to understand catastrophe as part of our “new normal.”

Nevertheless, what happened at Borderline was neither an act of nature nor of benign neglect on the part of humans. It was a deliberate, large scale act of violence in a venue where our overextended students could gather for one carefree evening a week. One student I’d seen in class Wednesday morning landed on the pages of the Los Angeles Times the next day, photographed crying and hugging fellow survivors. The image gutted me.

Emotionally and physically drained, I dragged myself to class that Thursday and appreciated the opportunity to connect with students. We engaged in the oddly concurrent activities of revising papers while acknowledging that our world felt quite different than it had one day earlier. As students prepared to attend a vigil for Borderline survivors in the late afternoon, smoke began pouring across campus. Phones blared with evacuation notices as wildfire threatened our campus and community once again. The vigil would have to wait.

While the Hill Fire quickly blazed through the path the Springs Fire had torn through five years earlier, resulting in no loss of life or homes, the Woolsey Fire exploded and spread exponentially. As fire and winds wreaked havoc for days, CSUCI issued another campus alert: in collaboration with the federal government and the U.S. Department of Education, the University declared a formal state of emergency until November 26, 2018. This meant that no instruction could take place and no students could submit work until the second to last week of classes, almost three weeks after the shooting.

For our twelve composition faculty and collective 900 students, these weeks would have been crunch time. This was typically the point in the semester devoted to faculty and peer feedback as students revised and polished final papers for submission to our composition team for holistic evaluation. The suspension of instruction required that these students largely be left to their own devices for the final stages of what would amount to 40% of their course grade.

When classes resumed, our composition team triaged to support our students, many of whom were still reeling from the events that had rocked their semester. My team and I agreed to help these students finish as strongly as possible and to assess their writing with empathy.

As we observe the one year anniversary of our university’s most difficult month in its history, that spirit of empathy continues to guide our team. It does not mean that we are naïve or “soft” on students. It means that we know that life can change in an instant, and that the best laid plans (and curricula) allow room for contingencies that are beyond our control. At the end of the day, modeling empathy, flexibility, collaboration, and resilience for our students is as valuable a lesson as anything else we may teach them.

4 thoughts on “Fighting Fire with Empathy

  1. Thank you, Stacey! This resonated to the extent that I shared it with our PROMESAS STEM Service Courses leadership team. (It’s a group leading long-term faculty development for math faculty at CSUCI and our three VCCCD partners.) The last sentence of your post sums it all up!

  2. Thank you Stacey. I appreciate the extraordinary leadership demonstrated by you and so many others during this horrific time. Empathy indeed matters, as it allows for us to connect, grown and ultimately learn. I will be sharing this post with many.

  3. Beautiful reflections on facing heart-wrenching times, Stacey. I so appreciate how present and thoughtful you have always been with our students and colleagues. Thank you!

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