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Who Is Listening? Gun Violence on Campus

20 February 2018 Written by   Elizabeth H. Boquet
Who Is Listening? Gun Violence on Campus © Thomas Shanahan/

This piece was originally published on October 13, 2015, in the wake of the school shooting at Umqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon. It was reposted on November 29, 2016, after campus attacks at University of Colorado Boulder and Ohio State University. Elizabeth H. Boquet subsequently expanded this post to a book-length treatment in Nowhere Near the Line, in which she elaborates on her efforts as a university professor to respond to moments of violence with a pedagogy of peace.

We repost it again today in the wake of the tragic February 14, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

My adopted hometown of Milford, Connecticut, bills itself as “a Small City with a Big Heart” and boasts of its perfectly manicured town green, one of the longest in New England. After a brutal winter and a cold, damp spring, I played hooky on one of our first truly warm summer days to spend an afternoon strolling among the shops.

And so it was that I came upon a fender bender at the intersection near the train station, occupants spilling out of the cars and a police cruiser that had just arrived on the scene. I watched the officer exit his vehicle and recognized the familiar stride, the trim of the hairline just above the collar, the set of the jaw. It was my husband, who is a nineteen-year veteran of the Milford Police Department.

I rarely see him in uniform. He leaves the house in jeans and a plain white t-shirt and returns in sweats from his day’s-end workout. His gear he keeps at the station: Kevlar vest, handcuffs, Taser, body camera, radio, and sundries, like plastic gloves. Short of running into him like this, I see only disembodied articles—a shirt and a pair of pants thrown into the wash, a hat sprayed with Febreze and disinfecting in the sun, boots and a shoeshine kit set out on an old newspaper in the basement.

Now, as he moves toward the accident, all these pieces are set in motion, and the crowd starts to converge. I have no idea how to assess this situation. I move closer, though not quickly. His back is to me, but I see his hands lift up, like he’s directing traffic, and I hear him shout, “Stop.” Then again, quickly, pressing his hands out for emphasis, “Stop!” This elicits a brief pause in the action, what we might call a kairotic moment. He grabs it: “I will listen to all your stories.”

I will listen to all your stories.

The collective weight of the group shifts almost imperceptibly, but just enough, everyone toward their own cars. My husband pulls out the tiny spiral pad he carries around for jotting down information at the scene. A writer’s notebook of a very particular sort.

As I have witnessed the tragic story out of Oregon unfold over this past week, I sense profound agreement that enough is enough, along with a common refrain: “Why isn’t anyone listening?” Or, put another way, “How can we make ourselves heard?”

Colleagues in my field of rhetoric and composition seem especially moved by this latest episode of school violence, as we learn that the shooting took place in a first-year writing classroom, that the instructor was among the fatalities. Many of us are responsible for programs just like this one at our own colleges and universities, would have hired that faculty member, would have placed those students in that section. We already struggle with our complicity in a system that renders its faculty radically contingent, very nearly invisible, and we now share an unspoken guilt when the scene of that classroom, when that faculty member’s sacrifice, is thrown into such sharp relief. We seek catharsis on Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and listservs. Maybe in blog entries like these.

But who is listening to our stories?

Over the now almost fifteen years of our marriage, my husband has taught me how to listen without judgment (though I enact this skill imperfectly, admittedly), and he has taught me how to apply the law. The former I use every day in my teaching, on my campus, in my community. The latter I have rarely found occasion to use at all. I think it is time.

Those of us who work on college campuses, certainly those of us who teach writing, will undoubtedly seize this moment to tell our stories and also to share our students’ stories. But we need to make the stories meet the law, and we just might have to sponsor our own literacies on this one. We have a kairotic moment and a collective story to tell, one that can effect changes in the gun laws at the local, state, and national level.

Who is listening?

On your campus: Find out whether your president has signed the College Presidents for Gun Safety’s Open Letter to Our Nation’s Policy Leaders. If they have, thank them; if they haven’t, urge them to add your school’s name to the list.

In your state: Join an affiliate, learn about local and state efforts to prevent gun violence, and donate to the cause.

At the national level: For a comprehensive approach to education, advocacy, and legislative action, no organization matches the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. For information and actions focused on changing the gun laws in this country, support the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Additional resources: A Teacher's Stance on Gun Violence

Elizabeth H. Boquet is professor of English and director of the Writing Center at Fairfield University. She is the author of The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice and Noise from the Writing Center.