Thursday, February 29, 2024

MSU professors navigate student wellbeing nearing Feb. 13, struggle with lack of university guidance

February 9, 2024
Agricultural sustainability and food systems instructor Julie Cotton glances out the window in her office in the Plant and Soil Sciences Building on Feb. 7, 2024.
Agricultural sustainability and food systems instructor Julie Cotton glances out the window in her office in the Plant and Soil Sciences Building on Feb. 7, 2024. —
Photo by Alexis Schmidt | The State News

On Aug. 1, 2023, a letter was sent out to the Michigan State University community announcing that, in honor of the one-year mark of the campus shooting that occurred on Feb. 13, classes would not be held. It was also stated that while classes would resume on Feb. 14, exams and assignments were not to be made due on this day either.

Exceptions to the requirement that classes not be held on the 13th have been made for graduate and professional programs that need to meet for certification requirements.

In addition to this day of remembrance, professors must decide whether or not to make additional accommodations for their students and how to best support their wellbeing

MSU spokesperson Mark Bullion said the university has sent "some guidance" on the "best approaches (and) practices" to faculty in "handling some of the sensitivities around Feb. 13." This guidance came from the Office for Resource and Support Coordination and additional information was sent to administrators of respective colleges, who then passed on the communication to college deans, Bullion said

Other than university-wide accommodations made for Feb. 13 and 14, however, any other changes made to courses are up to professors.

Agricultural sustainability and food systems instructor Julie Cotton said she hopes to provide a safe space for students to be together.

“I try to work really hard to create a space of belonging in my classroom, so that they all feel like they have a space where they can come and if they’re sad they can be sad there,” Cotton said. “But also if they need to take time, they can tell me and I’m always good with that.

Every student's experience will be different on and around the one-year mark, Cotton said, and navigating this can be difficult. With some students being new to MSU, such as those in her introductory course, and others having experienced the shooting firsthand, such as those in her capstone course, she's focused on accommodating her students at different levels.

“I think it’s really important that we let our students know that whatever choice they need to make at that time for themselves is good,” Cotton said

Agricultural sustainability and food systems instructor Julie Cotton poses for a portrait in the atrium of the Plant and Soil Sciences Building on Feb. 7, 2024.

In terms of adjustments to her course work, Cotton plans to take a tactile approach the week of Feb. 13. She hopes students will be able to engage all of their senses and process their emotions in whatever ways feel right for them. 

“I don’t think we give enough thought for what it takes for people to process their emotions,” Cotton said, “The way that our body lets go of trauma and stress is through all of our senses, and I think for me, it’ll be a day where I bring in something for them to eat and ... (talk) about these heavy topics, but we’re gonna do it together.”

Cotton, who has experience with tackling hard truths in her courses, acknowledged there are a lot of elements to consider when considering student wellbeing through tragedy. She said she's doing her best to make her class a safe space for students while navigating her own grief and struggles at the same time.

“I don’t want to re-traumatize or overly focus on events that may disturb students," she said. "I’m very careful about how I present anything where violence is mentioned. I’m going to give space to honor it, but I also want to be careful about those kinds of things.”

This consideration is one of the guidelines the university set out for professors: to refrain from mentioning the shooting at length or repeatedly in order to avoid triggering students

Cotton said it can be difficult to navigate her courses and the upcoming anniversary because of the culture of approaching death in America

“I think sometimes we lack the right tools because we don’t have good common ways in the United States to deal with these events,” she said. "I think the way our work is structured, it makes it really hard to have a good way to help us with these moments."

Similarly, Tom Dewitt, a professor in the Marketing Department at MSU's Broad College of Business, said he finds it difficult to navigate the week of Feb. 13. In addition to not teaching material the day before or after Tuesday, Feb. 13, Dewitt plans to speak to his class about the tragedy and support. 

“I’ll bring it up, but I’ll also bring up that each one of us is in a different place about it, and that I encourage them to spend that day off with people who they care about,” Dewitt said.

Dr. Tom DeWitt, director of CXM@MSU and program director for the Master of Science in Customer Experience Management, poses for a photo at Owen Hall on Feb. 7, 2024.

Support student media! Please consider donating to The State News and help fund the future of journalism.

While trying to be a support system for his students, Dewitt feels a strong sense of frustration towards the university at this time. There is only so much he can do for his students while knowing that the preventative measures promised by MSU have not been taken, he said

On March 1, 2023, MSU announced that they planned to install locks on all classroom doors that did not already have them by the beginning of the Fall 2023 semester.

The classrooms that Dewitt teaches in have yet to receive locks

“I feel like I have a responsibility to protect my students, and I don’t feel anymore able to do that today than I was a year ago,” he said.

Dewitt said the lack of safety measures in place impact him as he teaches now, and feeling unsafe is always at the forefront of his mind.

“When I teach, I think about it- I think about a shooter who's going to come through that door, and I wonder if our students feel that way too,” Dewitt said. "I care about my students ... I think about them as my own kids. When I have them, they’re my kids, and the fact that there’s very little I can do to protect them leaves me feeling very helpless and vulnerable, and it’s very frustrating.”


Share and discuss “MSU professors navigate student wellbeing nearing Feb. 13, struggle with lack of university guidance ” on social media.