Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Laramie Project: 10 years later

I finally went to my first play in Oregon. Can you believe it took me over a month to figure out where on campus the theatre even is? However, this is not my typical review, but third in my weekly journal series. It is theatre looked at through the lens of student affairs.

Last week I went to "The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later" produced in the main stage theatre on the OSU campus as a staged reading. This was the follow up to the play The Laramie Project. Both the original Laramie Project and the new epilogue are a very unique theatrical experience. The Laramie Project was produced as a reaction to the tragic death of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. He was brutally beaten by two young men and left tied to a fence half dead for four days before he was found, and his death attracted massive national attention to hate crimes, and to the town of Laramie, Wyoming.

OSU was one of over 100 theatres to produce a staged reading of this new play, on October 12, the 11th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death. The Laramie Project is the intersection of my two passions: theatre and student affairs. Much of the discussion of the Laramie Project is around Matthew Shepard as student at the University of Wyoming. The play raises a lot of questions. How does a university respond to such an enormous tragedy? What does a horrific hate crime do to the perception of a small town and the university housed in it? How do students and professors and community move on? The Laramie Project posed some of these questions. In the days of the media coverage surrounding Matthew Shepard's death, a theatre company went to Laramie and conducted hundreds of interviews with the people of the town, the local sheriff, professors and students at the university and Matthew Sheppard's friends and family. The play is taken from these interviews, literally from the words of these people. Because of that, it is a very special theatre experience.

"The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later" is just what it says. The same theatre company members went back to Laramie and re-interviewed all the people they'd talked to 10 years earlier. Many real life people recur as characters in both plays. The police officer who found Matthew Shepard shares that experience the first time around and in the follow up discusses how dramatically her life was changed by it. A university professor shares her thoughts on the changes in the school itself in the intervening years. In this way, these people feel familiar. We as the audience get to see their journey.

While I've been setting up the context, I think the thing I want to discuss here is how this play impacts college campuses and what the effect of having it preformed on ours might be. A lot of the epilogue discuses the idea that the town of Laramie wants to move on. One of the ways they are doing this is claiming that Matthew Shepard's death was not related to him being gay, but was a truly a robbery. Yet the play shows a variety of view points. It truly does its best to show every person as just that, a real person. In this follow up, the company members were able to interview both of the men serving time for Matthew Shepard's murder. And one of the strengths here, is that neither of these plays are trying to prove anything, no agenda to push other that honest and through investigation of the reaction to a nation tragedy. And the two murderers are not painted as two dimensional criminals, but as troubled young men with a lot of life factors leading them up to one truly terrible act. Nor does the play attempt to exonerate either of them from their actions.

Yet in the interest of moving on from this that has me interested. The play does not go in depth into the university's grieving process, and importantly to my lens here, student affairs role in it. One man interviewed states that he is openly gay, and almost left Laramie because of Matthew Shepard's death. But he met the man who is still his partner at Mathew Shepard's memorial service and the two of them still live in Laramie. He works in a non specified department of student affairs at the university. He called student affairs a safe cocoon and indicated that the rest of the town and the university itself is still not as accepting. This is the root of the discussion, this idea that nothing has changed.

In "10 years later" they discuss the 10 year coverage of the incident in the town's newspaper. An editorial in the paper stated that "Laramie is a town, not a project" and this attitude is reflected through out. Yet how do they move on from something that put them on the map in the worst way possible? What does a new college freshman do, when starting at a new college in a new town, when the only thing people ever know of their home town is this tragedy? The town is ready to move on, but have they healed?

So this brings me back to OSU. An article in the Barometer a few weeks ago stated that we were the only university in the state of Oregon doing this staged reading. While nothing I read indicated any kind of selection process for which theatres could take part in the staged readings, the article expressed disappointment that no other universities in Oregon took part. I'm inclined to think there was some kind of process. Surely more than 100 theatres all over the world, would want to take part in this event. Strictly as a play, the Laramie Project has a lot of prestige. The interview structure is interesting and the play itself is moving. So why are no more theatres involved? A part of me thinks that my alma mater, Puget Sound would have had a huge support for this play if they'd taken part. They didn't, for whatever reason.

The main stage theatre that this happened in at OSU holds 360 people. It was 95 percent full; I was disappointed that there were not more students or faculty or staff or community members interested. Maybe it wasn't well publicized. But maybe people don't remember what happened. Without the play, I wouldn't know. I was 12 years old 11 years ago; I had no idea when it happened. If I hadn't had a chance to see the Laramie Project when I was in college I might have had no interested in seeing this follow up to it. Most of the students at OSU may not have any idea who Matthew Shepard was or what the importance of the Laramie Project is. But is this good and natural, or is it cause for concern?

Maybe it's just that we as a nation are ready to move on. I'm just worried that we are moving on because we don't want to dwell on tragedy, or that we don't remember. I wish that we were moving on because we have recovered, and healed. Laramie just happens to be the place this happened, and this university could be any university. This is why I am concerned that this event didn't get more attention. How can we move on from a tragedy we haven't recognized? Laramie could be any town and that is part of the tragedy of it.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Small Fish in a Big Pond

This week for my second journal I've been thinking about students at a big university, as I've now found myself. I went to a small private liberal arts school, of about 2 thousand. I am now at a huge public University of over 20 thousand. At Puget Sound, my largest class was probably 50, (and I only ever had one class this large, and ironically it was a biology lecture) my smallest class was about 8. I'd say that most classes were around 20 students. This creates a special environment where all of my professors know my name, and I got a lot of individual attention. When the class is that small, as a student, you are very responsible. Responsible for being present, responsible for having done all the work and always having an opinion. And while this small environment was prefect for me, it may not be what everyone is looking for.

During the first week of class I didn’t send a lot of time on campus if I wasn’t in class, at work, or studying for class. This was my second week of school and I felt a little less overwhelmed by classes, and I spent some time on campus during the day. I spent some time observing other students. And there are so many of them. I can't help but feel very anonymous on the OSU campus. I rarely see people I know, and when I do its considerably exciting. At Puget Sound, I couldn't go anywhere with out seeing everyone I knew. And even if I didn't know names I knew faces. And I miss that. I think that the anonymity of a big school could be both exhilarating and terrifying. But maybe it gets smaller? I'm not sure.

This week, for my assistantship, I sat in on a biology 211 lecture. There are two lectures, with a total of over 1000 students enrolled in the class. This is half the size of my undergraduate institution! The lecture I went to had 600 students registered. I'm not sure how many seats the auditorium in Miliam holds or how many were actually there. But 600 students. I sat in the upper balcony very far from the professor. There is no one up there to monitor what the students are doing. One of the biology TA's I work with was observing form the upper balcony, but he didn't seem to be there in a disciplinary function. From where I was sitting I could see about 4 open laptops. And of the two screens I could see, one was following along with the black board presentation and one was playing some kind of game. Right in view of everyone around him! The student sitting directly next to me was taking notes and following the lecture, but also texting on his phone. While I clearly know all of these things are issues, I've never experienced any of them before. I am only one year out of college; I expected to still have a good sense of the "student experience." But some combination of the extra 20,000 students at OSU and the 5 years that now separate me from a college freshman leave me feeling clueless. Student trends move fast. And as an aside (but on the same point) spell check does not recognize "texting" as a word. With the technology college students have in their lives, their lives move at lightning speed. How do I even attempt to keep up?

Sitting in on the lecture leads me directly back to where I was last week: assumptions. During the lecture the professor gave a quiz question and gave the class permission to speak to their neighbor. The question was based on the lecture I had just heard, but I hadn't really been paying attention to the biology. I'd been absorbing the environment, the professor's style of lecture, and what the students around me where doing. The young man next to me asked me what I thought about the quiz question, assuming I was a student. I truly had no idea at all, so I threw the question back to the young man. What do you think the answer is? And he said "E." I told him I thought that might be right (still having zero idea) and finally he talked himself in the right answer, which was "D." I didn't tell him I wasn't in the class because it was unnecessary, but it was rather humorous to bluff my way through a biology question.

I know part of the reason we have so many school in the US, is that every school is not right for every person. Yet I continue to feel like I’m on another planet, as far as being a student goes. And I’m hugely glad to be experiencing something different, if I’m going to work in student affairs, I should be aware of all types of institutions and how the affect the students.

In the coming weeks I plan to investigate what some of the issues students at a big school face might be. Currently I have no idea. I plan to do a little sleuthing. If I spend some more time on campus, and go to more campus activities, and I think some things should start revealing themselves to me. What is it that makes OSU special? And what kind of educational experience can an undergraduate student really expect to get here? I’m ready to find some more questions and answers.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Weekly journal: the beginning

Clearly I haven’t been doing such a great job with my blog. I really do intend to continue writing. I think I will be crazy busy soon, but there are things I still want to explore.

For one of my classes, a first year transition seminar, I’ve been asked to write weekly journal articles. My journals are emailed to my professor, and don’t have to take a specific direction, or be a prescribed length. What they are supposed to be is a reflection on student experiences, things I’ve observed on campus, or even reactions to articles I’ve read. So it occurs to me (actually it occurred to MoM) that I should go ahead and post these journals here. Because what does that assignment sound like, if not a blog?

So here comes my first journal.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the assumptions that people make on a college campus. I am only one year out of college. I am 23 years old, and I look young. I assume most people who see me on campus think I am an undergrad. I think this is an issue a lot of young people deal with going into student affairs: people assume we are students. And we are, but we are graduate students, on a professional track. And currently I feel like I’m more on the professional side than the student side.

Yet people make assumptions. I was at the OSU bookstore a few weeks ago buying books. My visit coincided with freshmen move in, and the bookstore was packed, yet the line moved very quickly because every student had extra people with them. I was alone and the cashier asked where my own entourage was. I told her I was a grad student, and she said, “Oh, so you’ve been through this before.” And I have, but not on this campus. Here, I am honestly just as lost as the undergrads with their parents. The assumption she made here may be wrong, but it was reasonable and safe. It did no harm to either of us and had no lasting consequences.

While I started talking about other peoples assumptions of me, I’m not innocent in all of this. I’ve been making some assumptions of my own. We all do. But I've also foun some situations are equalizing. At Dixon Rec on the elliptical machine, there is nothing to distinguish me from anyone else. It is an equalizer of sorts. The only things that signify status are outward appearance and particular exercise gear.

Yet assumptions can be dangerous. You never know who is in your vicinity. Two women in my cohort work in conduct. Recently we were at a football game there were students in front of us passing a flask back and forth. While the women work in conduct, and are only responsible after the student is in trouble (and honestly, neither of them actually saw the flask) these students made a call that the student section at the football game was a “safe” place to do this. Yet they had no idea who was behind them. People make assumptions all the time based on appearances. It seems that these assumptions need to be tempered by a little practicality.

Another young woman in CSSA works with sorority women. At the new student picnic she was at the Greek table wearing the same t shirt the sorority women were wearing. And students kept coming up and asking what activities her sorority takes part in, ect. And while she was in a sorority, it wasn’t here at OSU. She is the adviser, not an undergrad. And while that is a reasonable mistake on the part of the students and again causes no harm, it is still an assumption.

This is something I think most of us will deal with in student affairs for years to come. We will teach people older than we are, supervise those who are only months or years younger. This creates confusion for everyone involved. How do we balance the professional and the scholarly? Or balance student affairs professional with the friend?

Students often seem blissfully aware of some of these issues. The fact that I may not be in their radar at all doesn’t matter. While I know this reflection is intended to examine the mid set of today’s students, it somehow feels right to start with me. Where does my presence fit into the mindset of student? I wonder if these assumptions I’ve examined serve to help one make sense of the world. The world would be a truly confusing place if you had no ability to make patterns out of it. The danger is simply in letting assumptions take the place of real knowledge, both for me, and for the undergraduates in this scenario.