Monday, January 4, 2016

A future introduction to the work of Maged Zaher

His collected(!) is coming soon, and he invited me to introduce his work.


Some Propositions on the Poetry of Maged Zaher

I first heard of Maged Zaher when Leonard Schwartz told me about a poet new to him who made Seattle into a suburb of Cairo. (Or was it the other way around? I don't think so.) Suburbs exist outside urban centers. Zaher is an outsider's outsider: he's a Copt in Muslim Egypt, a brown man in white America, a software engineer and a poet. He is a materialist and a Christian, and he veers between expressions of righteous anger (see “brown man in America” or “Arab from the Middle East”) and pleas for peacefulness (see some versions of “Christian”). He is often the “you” of his own poems: “you move as if you were trained from childhood / to inhabit someone else's country”[.] “You” often stands in for “I” in poems, but it also suggests a relation between the you and the I. In Zaher's poetry, this relationship is often fraught.

The problem of space is also one of time: if “you” are of two places separated by thousands of miles, a language and a culture, the shift between what you remember and what is is dramatic. In these poems, Zaher moves back and forth between Cairo and Seattle, with stops in Atlanta to see his son, Daniel. When he changes places, “Each action is threatened—while it is performed—to be the last of its own kind.” It sometimes seems impossible to represent this wash (whitewash?) between two versions of the poet: “Before even heading to Cairo,” he writes of one trip, “I can imagine myself sitting in Cairo airport, on my way back to the States, and in between, a block of time that I know will capture nothing, because there is nothing to be captured, and I think, trying to find a purpose, an immigrant is just someone who is deeply implicated in the problem of time.” The time of transport (which transcends nothing) exists out of time, or is perhaps the only thing inside of it. The immigrant is neither here nor there; he shuttles constantly within this no-space that is not part of either of his own cities. What had been home, as well as what is, takes on a quality of temporal confusion. If Maged Zaher is a lyrical poet, his “I” is more fractured than most. His English-reading audience can only witness half of this fracture, while the other half remains a phantom.

If Zaher's Seattle is Cairo's suburb, does he also meditate on the passage of time t/here? No doubt, as on the “wariness” of corporate and military power in the USA. Power is wily. Whoever possesses it quickly abandons utopian dreams for hell realms of industrial complexes: military, corporate, even poetic. Seattle sits at the center of Microsoft's power, which is as pervasive as it is often unseen. A space needle looks over all of it, and it's sharp.

But Cairo is also a power center. In a recent poem, published on-line, Zaher writes: “Cairo – then – is a meditation on the passage of time and wariness of state power.” He called the Arab Spring's counter-revolution before most in the West saw it coming. He warned against the Muslim Brotherhood before many of us knew who they were. He knew that out of revolutionary fervor comes a reactionary one.

But time is itself an immigrant now. What is time when it's been digitized? What is time when you share it between computers, and not in person? What is the time of social media? For several years now, Zaher has posted his poems on Facebook, which calls them “status lines”; they answer the corporation's question, “what's on your mind?” His mind is a rhizome or rain globe (Seattle gets little snow): it shakes up into scenes of late capitalism and mysticism, sexual love and persistent loss, the language of the workplace and that of Middle East conflict. There's a consistency to what's shaken, but not to the patterns these elements take when they hit the page. These poems occur on a “timeline” that moves. If you catch them, they sting. If not, they move away without your ever having known they happened. And his poems “happen,” even more than they seem to be written-things. They float on a digital pond, the 1s and 2s of our ever-dividing and divisive world. These poems are whole until they break apart. Then they happen again. Only the process offers the promise of completion. And so he continues to write. The poem is also an immigrant. It's about “this business of being an outsider,” to which Zaher returns obsessively.

The life Zaher describes is one of transactions: like him, we transact business with our credit cards, on-line or off; we transact our poetry via facebook; we transact our love lives on social media. These transactions are exchanges, but they don't necessarily change anything. To the extent that our digital world renders us into passive consumers of music, video, love, we ship ourselves out to the suburbs of a revolution that doesn't happen. When I told him about a poet who wondered why the revolution had not started, Maged said: the real question is why revolution is impossible in the west. No revelations here: just more of the same. A persistent unraveling.

What is the recipe for a Maged Zaher poem? I think it is this: one part political anger; one part wry observation from a cafe window; one part cynical aside; one part blurt of hope; one part lust. His recent poems are short, diaristic. He is the Basho of our age, but without the frogs or the pond. What gets made is a fairy tale about class structure or about a princess who is not one and a prince who lost his magic just moments ago. The moral has to do with an immoral world through which we negotiate our passages as truthfully as we can, even if truth is simply a taking note of.

Desire drives itself apart in his work. There is no such thing as clarity of purpose, unless it is to get a kiss (or a fuck) that lasts a while. Desire comes in the middle of everything else that distracts this poet. One could say that desire is his poetry's center, the one feeling that is not suburban. Distraction is his muse, as befits someone who lives so much on-line. But this is not the distraction that entertains us, so much as a distraction that threatens to hurt us into recognition. Distraction, in other words, not as puddle of confusion but as a knife that cuts through certainty. Distraction as counter-insurgency against the fundamentalisms of our age. Distraction has a bad name, but a carefully witnessed distraction is the mirror in the street that Zaher holds up to his readers.

As poetry publisher and editor, I've received interesting submissions over the years, with cover letters that run the gamut from overly showy CVs to “hey, Susan.” When first I heard from Maged, he wanted to send me a project he'd been working on with Australian poet, Pam Brown. He'd sent Pam poems for consideration by the Australian Jacket. He'd forgotten only one thing: the poems he'd intended to send. I'd done a collaboration with Pam, myself. In our collaboration the seams between our voices were clear. Hers were poems, mine were prose. In Maged's and Pam's poems, I could scarcely tell who wrote what line. They existed in a mind-meld that defied separation, of thoughts or words or images.

How does an Egyptian poet, writing in American English, meld with an Australian poet, writing in her own version of English? Theirs is a global poetry that has nothing to do with shopping malls or image consumption. Global poetism asserts the primacy of the imagination over Kapital. It's capital in its subversions. This is not to say that assertions win the day, but it's to note that not everyone's been silenced, yet.

Many of Zaher's poems address the problem of languages. “Embedded is the knowledge that I lost fluency in Arabic and didn't acquire it in English—So I operate despite the notion of the poet as a master of language—I operate specifically because I am not a master of any language”[.] But literature is not just made of language; it also comes with assumptions. Those in Arabic are different from those in American English: “Growing up in Arabic, I was exposed to a heavy amount of literary criticism that focused on the 'message' of the poems. Forever I am marked by confessional-ism”[.] What this means is unclear to me; does he mean to say that a message inevitably confesses something? Because “confessionalism” is clearly an American preoccupation, nay a poetic movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It also bears the freight of religious meaning. He begins the poem I just quoted by writing, “I grew up with the concept of evil.” A message offers mastery, even if it is only a confession. But without the mastery of language (as he puts it), there can be no fixed message. The message is a migrant, a crosser of boundaries. While Zaher is obsessed with some meaning-searches more than others, his poems never arrive. They are what happens in the terminals between countries and languages. They live outside of meaning, or as Ashbery puts it, “on the outside looking out.” That does not mean that nothing means, however.

He writes that he transferred the notion of Satan onto capitalism. If there is a character in Zaher's poems, other than the poet and his constantly shifting beloved (who never quite materializes into a person), it is Karl Marx. The full extent of his work is haunted by the promise of Marxist theory, and the impossibility of its taking root in the West. In one of the most consistent narratives among his poems, Zaher (with Pam Brown) writes: “Marx was here for breakfast / he said good things about the Proletariat, / ate scantily, according to his needs, / stacked the dishwasher, according to his ability . . . / mumbling things like: 'fuck Castro' / and 'Rosa rocks'” The “we” in the poem, perhaps as close to a collective as Zaher comes, ignores Marx until he leaves. Then, we “sad commodities” run after him, begging for him to pray for us. But the poem ends badly, as Engels appears on Oprah and offers up Das Capital as a movie, coming soon. Like any of the revolutions Zaher inhabits or imagines, this one ends badly, with the appropriation of its fervor toward another—corrupted—end. Arab Spring ended with the Muslim Brotherhood's counter-revolution, just as any thought of revolution in this country ends on Oprah's show. If she's not giving away cars, she might as well give away copies of Marx's masterpiece.

Maged and I were in Denver several years ago to give a poetry reading at Counterpoint Press's gallery space; he read from Tinfish Press's The Revolution Happened and You Didn't Call Me. Margo Berdeshevsky, Ya-Wen Ho, Maged, and I went to see the Colorado Rockies play at Coors Field. After our bags were searched at the entrance, Maged was ushered off to the side, where an older white man frisked him. I proclaimed loudly, “he's a famous American poet!” and Maged wryly responded, “don't make it worse, Susan.” We lingered over the murals in the stadium, which record history from its origins to the taking of the west from native Americans by the heroic settlers. It's their descendants who inhabit the stadium from time to time. The narrative was totalitarian, the style Soviet realist. The stories were deeply racist.

Maged calls out racism in poetry, racism in the police, racism in our language. But he also calls himself out, often. His poems are objective, like Basho's, but they are also confessional, deep and self-lacerating and ethical. Maged's soul is often in danger, but his wit is not. He possesses one of the largest laughs I know.

Later on the trip to Denver, we went to the Terrorism Museum in Denver, lodged next to the wonderful art museum. Among its features are rooms where you can experience a terrorist attack (there are loud booms and the room shakes violently). There are also beams from the World Trade Center at the front, and a snack shop at the end. I forget what food they served. The museum is called “The Center for Empowered Learning and Living,” even if it seems devoted—like so much of American culture—more to death than to living. The Economist reviewed the museum and concluded: “If this sounds like an expensive, museum-size example of America's paranoia, that's because it is.”

What place is more paranoid in the American experience than the suburbs? Havens for white flight, they mushroomed outside the real or perceived violence of the inner cities after the Second World War and during the 1960s. In later years, many of them were “gated.” I remember seeing a film about Bible salesmen in the South who wandered a suburb of miniature castle-houses, each surrounded by a moat. I also remember that there were three suicides within a block of my parents' house in an upscale suburb of Washington, DC. The suburbs may have offered an escape from communal violence, but not from the violence we do to ourselves. Who needs a museum to simulate terror, when it resides so comfortably at home?

If Seattle is a suburb of Cairo, it is also a suburb of the American malaise. Which means that it lies directly at its heart. And, while it's part of the sleepy, rainy Northwest, real violence has been directed against the ravages of capitalism. 1999's WTO protests left many downtown windows shattered and some events cancelled; there were further disruptions on May Day, 2012. It was to revolutions what a single game is to a baseball season, and just as easily forgotten. When I visited Seattle in September, 2015, I saw the heart of downtown being transformed by Amazon. Like Honolulu, Seattle is full of people who live on the street, as well as people who live in comfort high above those streets. Zaher writes with uncharacteristic tongue-in-cheekiness about American consumerism:

this is the life come on
an abundance of optimism
we will do it and how bring it on
the wonderful world
the total fucking brilliant world
and oh how lovely is everyone
the car seat is lovely the child is lovely

and so on. Out of an abundance of optimism and the loveliness of everyone comes the phrase, “bring it on,” which emerged most famously from the lips of Pres. George W. Bush. I find a YouTube of him saying, with characteristic eloquence, in July 2003: "There are some who, uh, feel like that, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is: bring 'em on. We got the force necessary to deal with the security situation.” American optimism falls into a blunt equation between happiness and force. We'll be happy if we have enough firepower. If we're not happy, we need more. We go to eat with our guns strapped on. It's the death drive, but it makes us grin. And so the American proverb falls into itself, as Zaher ends the poem with a quick shift to the opposing position (he tends never to synthesize, only split):

we're making a difference from the beautiful car
passing by an infinite number of lovers
an infinite number of broken hearted lovers
and stacks of clothes they used to wear
cast aside in impulsive aspiration
of the liberty that promises independence
it's entirely fucking brilliant

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” or what the Declaration of Independence mandated as the American creed, leads to thrown away lovers and dispensable aspirations. The language of this poem is steeped in the Declaration's undoing. We've taken the car, and thrown away our lives with the lovely, seat-belted baby and the bathwater.

I was in Seattle last September to give a reading with Norman Fischer that was organized by Maged. Maged was in Cairo, where his mother was in her last days. He trans-acts his life between continents and languages. He grieves on both sides of his lives. But I don't want to paint Zaher solely as a poet of conflict and despair. He is a love poet (or a sex poet). His poems often express unrequited love, but he addresses them to Seattle, to Cairo, to women, to other poets, to the vernacular sounds of English (the language most of us know him in). His texts may be brief, but they ping a note of delight on our devices. We read them, only to await the next. He doesn't use the typical language of the love poem, preferring software and capitalism to roses and hearts, but there's something alluring about these poems. “Mohamed tells me that I am obsessed / with language and that he likes my poems / best when I am falling in or out of love,” he writes. In one of the most upbeat of his love poems, one I adore for its wit and open vulnerability, he writes:

At 6:00 a.m.
With you in my arms
I could believe in God

I will even pray
And send thank you notes
To all the angels

We are half water
Half advice columnists
And the rest is love

I mean you should believe
In few maps
As our bodies traverse each other's

But usually, as in the section, “Simple Colonial Encounters,” the power plays of the world infiltrate his feelings. “let us chat freely / but please remember that all these pronouns / have no life in themselves / unless you bring them with your own imagination / well the truth is, I was too drunk to unhook her bra / but we fucked anyway”[.] The language itself (in love, there is little but pronoun) is dead, unless we bring our imagination to them. Which might be a lovely thing, except for the way the poem ends, more in brute realism than in imaginative (love)making.

To William Carlos Williams's adage that it's difficult to get the news from poems, Zaher responds: “Poetry is a ghost / That erases the good news.” But, if poetry is a ghost, “these words can be taken seriously.” The poem, according to Maged, is a division of labor—not a unifying force. But he keeps trying, over and again, on paper and on the internet, to disprove his own adage: “Then God—on a bad day—invented the poets.” It was not a bad day when Maged Zaher emerged as an English-language poet. We live in a serious time, and would do well to take his words seriously as they fill our “news feeds.” Join me in clicking “like.” Read on!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Questions for the new year

Happy new year to any of you who still find this place--

I'm preparing to teach a graduate workshop in Poetry as Prose/Prose as Poetry, as well as a single author course for upper level undergrads on Gertrude Stein. So I'm writing lists of questions for myself and others.

First, the poetry workshop. Here's a description of it:

and here are the questions, so far. I'm not a fan of workshops, because they are so difficult to move past the point of pressure points, sensitivities, and opinions. So here I'm emphasizing reading that is done without judgment.

Poetry as Prose/Prose as Poetry
Spring, 2016


What do we write (about)?
For whom do we write?

Describe what you or another has written.
Describe it as carefully and precisely as you can, avoiding judgment.

Again, without judgment, analyze the piece you have just described.
What are the pieces and parts of the mechanism, and how do they work?

Thinking as a writing mechanic, which of these pieces works best?
Which piece might require some re-visioning?

Where are the issues? In the chassis, the axle, the engine, or the wheels?
What tools will the writer need to do his or her work?

What is the effect of the piece on you? (Again, without judgment.)
What part of your body does the piece touch, or fail to touch?

How does the writer get to that part of your body/mind?
Find the precise words and syntax that makes it happen.

If you remain untouched, suggest some replacement parts from your toolkit.

What forms do you see within the relative formlessness of the prose poem?
Consider that a mode of seeing can be expressed in a sentence, as well as in a genre.
(Write a sentence that's a nature poem, a love poem, a documentary poem.)

What work are these forms doing?
Take a couple sentences and translate them into other forms (love into car mechanics, documentary into lyrical, haiku into letter and so forth). Consider the effects. Change them back.

Take something out.
Add something in.

Consider the writer's use of pronouns. Switch some. Switch them back.
Consider the writer's use of verbs. Change modes. Active to passive, passive to past tense, past tense to subjunctive (what's left of it).

Consider the writer's meaning. If you are disturbed, consider why you feel disturbed (without judgment).
If you are moved, consider why (without judgment).

Say something critical, without judgment.
Say something positive, without judgment.

The Gertrude Stein course is full, over-full. I doubt many of the students know what they're in for. But, as she's an excellent partner in drawing out our assumptions (and reactions), my questions about her work so far center on them. The description of the course can be found here:


What do we write (about) and how do we write (about it)?

How do we tell stories?
What is a story?

How do we write poems?
What are poems (for)?

How do we use words apart from their meanings?
How do we find meaning in that?

What connections exist between writing and painting, music?

What is the function of repetition in language?

What is punctuation and why does it exist?

What happens if small words (the, it) assume a larger role in our writing?

How do we read?
When do we stop reading, and why?

What is the relationship between life and art?
What is the relationship between a writer's biography and her work?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

New from Tinfish Press!!!

To end the year, Tinfish Press has published five chapbooks--a long essay by Lisa Samuels, as well as four 7" chapbooks by Timothy Dyke, Jen Crawford, Joseph Han, and Salah Faik (trans. Maged Zaher). You can find these books and more at

You can purchase the chapbooks separately for $12 each, or together for $36. Samuels's chapbook is $13 and is also available at

Sunday, November 8, 2015

My very most latest response to UHM administration on the student death protocol issue

The ASUH resolution, passed unanimously on Sept. 23rd, was in support of a student death protocol. The Graduate Student Organization passed a similar resolution by a similar vote (one vote only was negative). The Vice Chancellor for Students has responded to the resolution with a 2 1/2 page letter to say thanks, but no thanks. Here is the resolution; what follows is my response to the VCS's letter. (Click to enlarge.)

7 November 2015

Dear Regents, President Lassner, Chancellor Bley-Vroman, Mānoa Faculty Senate, and representatives of ASUH and GSO:

I write in response to the letter of 30 October 2015 from VCS Lori Ideta, which in turn responds to the ASUH Resolution 06-16 “in Support of More Integral Procedures in the UHM Protocol Regarding Deceased Students,” which passed on 23 September. This resolution, passed unanimously, is similar to one passed by the GSO, which voted overwhelmingly in favor of theirs. It calls for better communication in the event of tragedies at UHM, as well as a wider net for grief counseling. The GSO resolution also calls for more attention to suicide prevention on the UHM campus. I strongly support the student government resolutions. Let me respond here to VCS Ideta's letter.

My deep investment in this issue is based on my having had a student in a class over a year ago who was deeply traumatized by witnessing another student's death. Other students were deeply distressed that day, and some remain so. I wondered why I had no knowledge of a tragedy on campus, or any idea how to handle it. I have heard since from students and colleagues who had to do research on-line to find out what happened to a classmate; who wondered what had happened to a student who disappeared; who put together a memorial service for a friend on their own, rather than with the help of the university.

In the second paragraph of the response to ASUH, VCS Ideta et al write: “the UHM campus has long-established uniform protocols and practices to compassionately, appropriately, and sensitively respond to death.” The only death protocol I was given, when I asked, was two pages long, and desperately out of date. Where are the documents? What are these protocols and practices? Why does the administration not share this information and knowledge with students or faculty?

Issues of family notification and privacy concerns come up in VCS Ideta's letter. The resolution addresses this issue, too: “the ASUH fully respects the privacy of the family and 'ohana of deceased students,” they write. As for the privacy concerns covered by FERPA, they do not extend beyond a student's death; FERPA relates to educational records, not the announcement of a death.

The VCS's mention of a “glorification of suicide” is simply over the top. For cutting edge material on preventing “suicide contagion” in reporting a death, I ask that you refer to the following resource, used by media and universities across the country to explain “safe messaging” in the case of suicide: Suicide is the second leading cause of death among the college age population in this country; saying nothing about it is simply not an option. The question is how to talk about it, and so prevent further suicides.

The VCS's assertion that benchmark institutions operate largely without protocols is highly misleading. There are 18 benchmark institutions, which you can find by googling “UHM benchmark institutions.” Among their ways to deal with student deaths are the following, existing with or without a full on-line protocol:

Annual memorial services for deceased faculty, staff and students: SUNY-Buffalo; U of Missouri, U of Oregon; UC-Berkeley.
Compassionate communication to the community from administration: Indiana University, UC-Davis, UCLA, University of Minnesota, CU-Boulder, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Colorado State, LSU, and the University of Virginia (which is a peer institution, not a benchmark, according to the records I found). This includes obituaries in newspapers and on-line.
Posthumous degrees: U of Oregon, University of Minnesota, University of Missouri.
Behavioral Intervention Teams: Arizona State University, the University of Oregon, (as well as the University of Washington-Bothell, which is a benchmark institution to UHWO) have Behavioral Intervention Teams, which are a current “best practice.” To find out more about BITs, which provide eyes and ears to locating distressed students, please see here:

Would you rather learn of the death of your student, colleague, or classmate by way of Facebook rumors or from a leader at the university? Would you feel comfortable hearing about a death on campus from local or even international media sources, or from someone at this institution? Would you like such communications to include information about where to find grief counseling on campus? These are questions we need to ask ourselves.

Further: would you rather be at an institution that takes student needs and desires into consideration or one that thanks them and then ignores their votes? That, also, we need to think about.

Finally, I ask you to consider the first paragraph of the UC-Berkeley Chancellor's Compliance Services page that reads: “How we handle death reflects how we value people in our community. As a campus, not only do we celebrate each others' accomplishments, but we are supportive and compassionate during difficult times. Good communication is particularly important following the loss of a member of our campus community.” Or listen to our own students, when they write in the ASUH resolution: “acknowledgement of an incidence of death within a community may in itself serve as a commemoration for the life of the deceased.”

Yours truly,

Susan M. Schultz
Professor of English

Attached: Resource Sheet

University Mental Health Resource Sheet

(selected resources from benchmark institutions only—other colleges and universities have great resources, too)

Protocols from other institutions

Relevant Mental Health Organizations

The Jed Foundation:

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):

Safe Messaging about Suicide:

Suicide Prevention Resource Center:

Action Alliance:

Expressions of Support to Communities from benchmark institutions

University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Wisconsin-Madison obituaries:

LSU on-line memorial site:

Campus memorials

Posthumous degrees

University of Missouri:

University of Minnesota:

University of Oregon:

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Creating Compassion Contagion on the UHM Campus

As a Professor of English and a writer, I believe that words matter. Unlike sticks and stones, they might not break my bones, but they can certainly hurt me. Words can also reassure me that I'm cared for, whether by a family member or by the institution to which I belong. But the words that express personal caring--those by family members and friends--are not the same words as those that express the caring of an institution. There's a big difference between individual compassion and that of an organization. We can find that difference in the current debate over student death protocols at UHM. Over a year ago, I and members of a group that has formed around mental health issues at UHM, went to the administration to request that there be more communication between them and us after a student death. We were assured then, as we are still being assured, that UHM handles on-campus tragedies well, and that administrators are compassionate in their attention to students.

I have no argument with their claims to be compassionate. No one who is not a caring person goes into education. But I do have an argument with their elision of personal with institutional compassion. In my experience, students and faculty at UHM do not feel that the the university cares about or for them. In large numbers, they don't know where the Counseling Center is on campus (see here). In the cases of deaths on campus, they often don't know, except from social media or the rumor mill, that someone they know, or know of, has died. And, if they are traumatized by that loss, unless the administration finds them--on the floor of the dorm where the dead student lived, in clubs, on teams--they don't know that counseling is available to them. Faculty, who are in a profound sense the first responders to tragedy on campus, often have no idea how to deal with distressed students.

As I lobbied for the protocol over this past year, I've learned that UHM does some things very well. They have a Counselor-in-Residence program in the dorms; they do their best to "target" friends of the deceased; they provide emergency/crisis counseling. Someone from counseling came to my department to talk about how to deal with "distressed students." I learned that counselors have been coming for years to talk to grad student instructors; this was the first time all of us were invited (by one of our Mental Health Hui members is in my department).. But even where they are doing a good job, communicating the availability of their services is a weak link. If you're a student in crisis, do you know that you need to tell the person at the CDSC desk that you need to see a counselor immediately? If you're a faculty member with a suicidal student, do you know to call CDSC yourself? If you have a friend in distress, do you know that you can reach out for them? Increasingly, I think that the fundamental problem is one of communication. Who died? How many each year? (At a recent meeting, administrators could not answer this question.) Who is left grieving? Where do they go? How can I help? These are among the questions that need to be answered. To pose them is not to attack the Counseling Center; in point of fact, we are trying to get more people to use their services.

And the UHM Counseling Center is in a very difficult position. According to the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education, "The level of severity of college students' presenting concerns is also much greater than the traditional presenting problems of adjustment issues and individuation that were typically identified in counseling center research from the 1950s through the early 1980s." Mental health issues are becoming more frequent, and more serious, across the United States. "According to a survey of over 100,000 U.S. college students at 130 universities conducted by teh Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH), 1 in 5 students report having experienced sexual assault, 1 in 10 have attempted suicide, 1 in 3 take psychiatric medication, 1 in 4 have self-injufred and 1 in 3 have experienced a traumatic event." This report goes on to argue: "it is increasingly important for college counseling professionals to be prepared to work with physicians, community mental health providers, other campus departments, and health care professional to create an appropriate systemic response to student's needs." These are dry words, but behind them lies a great deal of anguish and a terrific need for care. According to their Director, UHM's Counseling Center already has a backlog of students needing their services. So, when I argue that we need to send more students there, I also want to insist that the legislature provide more funding for mental health services in the UH system. If we can afford frequent pay-offs for administrators and coaches who leave under ethical clouds, surely we can afford some ethical and much needed funding to care for  the young people who attend our state university.

The questions I posed above are answered at many other universities by a protocol. The UC-Berkeley protocol is on-line,  They also have a "Gold Folder," that includes an amazing brochure on how to deal with distressed students: find the link here. (Find another one from the University of Virginia here). It features compassionate language, as well as directions for everything from notifying the school of a death to dealing with grief. I'm told by administrators at our university that the protocol is awfully complicated and that, as one administrator said at a recent meeting, "they simply ignore it." After speaking for an hour with the woman who runs the "Guidelines for Responding to Death" website at Berkeley, I can assure that administrator that the protocol is used. The same for the College of William & Mary protocol, which runs to over 20-pages of guidelines and checklists (down to the tissues and mints an intern should have in a "grief kit" after a tragedy). A Faculty Senate committee on students was told by an administrator that parents of students who died at William & Mary were upset with the university for announcing their child's death. When I talked to Ginger Ambler, the Vice President for Student Affairs there, she assured me that they do nothing without the permission of the family, although they counsel each family that being open about suicide brings about needed conversations on campus. We were also told by an administrator at UHM that UH-Hilo, whose protocol is on-line, never approved it. When I emailed an administrator at UHH, I was assured that it was approved in 2010 and it's followed.

Now not all protocols say the same things. While William & Mary announces deaths by emails to the entire community, other schools do not. Berkeley is one of those. But Berkeley has an annual Memorial Service for everyone associated with the institution who died in the previous year. According to the website's administrator, Wendy Nishikawa, who also runs the Work/Life Balance website, they announce the memorial service to the entire community a couple of weeks before it happens, so that they can find out about deaths they might have missed (their website offers directions on how to notify the administration of a death). Then there's a one hour service, during which all the names are called out and so remembered. You can see a video of the most recent service here:

I don't know if the bagpipes are culturally appropriate for a similar service in Hawai`i, but the rest of the Berkeley service is respectful, sober, and offers solace to those who gather together. The video shows a goodly number of people present. There's a student newspaper report on the event, as well, which includes a list of those who died. The Berkeley student newspaper also ran a beautiful obituary for one of the students who'd died, Selam Sekuar. You can read that here. When I spoke to someone in the Counseling Center at the University of Virginia, (If you click on the UVA site, take a long look at the resources that they put on their webpage.) I was told that they report deaths with the help of the student newspaper. He meets with young reporters to make it clear how to report deaths in a way that does not cause "suicide contagion" (or the possibility that one suicide can become a model for others to follow). He distributes this document to young reporters:

But the mere fact that not all protocols are the same, or that they are not always followed to the letter, is not a good argument for not writing one. And that is the administration's stand at UHM right now, that every exception to a rule means that the rule itself is faulty, inapplicable to our situation, and so on. That, because all deaths are unique, our treatment of them must always be different. (To which my husband responds: firefighters know that every fire is unique, but they follow protocols in their attempts to put them out.) UHM is waiting for the crisis to happen before they respond. What we are suggesting is that they not wait so long as that. Come up with something on paper (something a lot better than the few pages I was sent when I asked) use some of the ideas that are brought to you, no matter where they come from (an English professor, a non-benchmark institution), and make a task force of interested parties from administration, the counseling center, the faculty and the students. Then put it on-line, so everyone can see it. Then revisit the protocol often, to make sure it works as well as it can.

The undergraduate government organization (ASUH) voted unanimously in favor of a protocol; the graduate group (GSO) voted overwhelmingly in favor. At these meetings, I found myself in an adversarial relationship with administrators: I argued for a protocol, and they argued against. I say there are problems; they say there are not. I'm wondering what it will take for us to sit down at the table and share our positive ideas about how better to communicate on campus, between administrators and students, but also between administrators and each other, administrators and faculty, faculty and students). I'm tired of showing up to put on yet another episode of Cross-Fire, whose major fascination was not how problems were resolved, but how dramatically they were perpetuated.

Back to the question of language, and how it can be used compassionately by an institution: the headnote to UC-Berkeley's "Guidelines to Responding to Death on the UC-Berkeley Campus," states: "The true character of our campus community is revealed in how we respond to challenges, adversity and loss." Chancellor Dirks  The first paragraph of the UH-Hilo Student Death protocol reads: "The death of a student can be deeply emotional and stressful for students, faculty, staff, and the family of the student. It is the aim of the University of Hawai'i at Hilo to respond appropriately and sensitively in the event of the death of a currently enrolled student. To that end, the following protocol has been developed to ensure a caring, professional, coordinated, and consistent response by the University administration." Even closer to home, and without a protocol in place (I'm told one is in the works), UH-West Oahu sends out occasional emails to their community about mental health, and I quote from one: "The 'Mental Health Moment' is brought to you by the University of Hawai'i – West O'ahu (UHWO) Counseling Services (CS). It is our hope to provide our UHWO 'ohana with information and resources needed to help our community live healthier and more meaningful lives. We encourage all of you to be agents of change in your families and friends by contacting CS if you know of anyone who may be dealing with emotional or psychological problems." What follows from this introduction is a list of reasons why a student might want to go in for counseling.

No matter the procedures outlined in these documents or emails, the frame around them is compassionate. But compassion does not end with the frame; it emerges from the checklists featured in some of them; it emerges from the directions about how to talk to grieving families. It emerges in the very fact of there being such documents. It emerges when an institution allows itself to speak, rather than leaving cruel silences. That's what it means for institutions to have compassion.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Questions for Administration re: Student Death Protocols & Suicide Prevention (or the lack thereof)

I will write more soon about my recent adventures in admin. But for now, some questions. Please feel to ask them yourselves.

Questions for the Vice Chancellor of Students' Office & The Counseling Center

On the Student Death Protocol Issue

--How many UHM students die each year? Have you categorized or studied them? Please provide details and statistics.

--Describe the procedures you have for handling a death by natural or accidental causes, as opposed to suicides. Are they different procedures? (According to best practices (see links below), all deaths should be treated in the same way to avoid the risk of suicide contagion.) In these cases of natural or accidental deaths, how do you reach out to the friends and acquaintances and staff members? How do you notify them of them of services that are available, in case of trauma?

--How do students who do not live in the dorms receive notice of a fellow classmate's death? Do Counselors reach out to them in the same way as they do for Student Housing residents? Please verify.

--We were told that the administration sent out a notification of a student's death to the community once, in 2006, and the victim's sister was re-traumatized by it. Did you notify the family that you would be putting a notice out before you did so? What can you do to avoid re-traumatizing someone without simply remaining silent, bearing in mind that hearing of a death through the rumor mill is itself traumatizing?

--When there are memorial services for students who died, how were people notified of these services? How many people were notified and how were they chosen? How often has UHM assisted families and friends in having such services?

--It appears that you notify only the very easiest to reach students who might be acquainted with the victim--the people on the same floor, the people in their clubs, and professors of their classes. How do you think that this represents the important acquaintances and friends of this person? What more could you be doing?

--Granted, we cannot always "beat" the news cycle about deaths on campus, can we enter the news cycle as a compassionate institution, rather than saying nothing?

--How will the compassionate procedures now in place (but not published or available to us in any way) be passed on to the next administrators, given that people retire or leave Hawai'i for other jobs?

On Mental Health Issues and Counseling

--What fraction of students in crisis are you able to serve? How do you know this? How does the Counseling Center receive funding and additional resources if they are experiencing an influx of students in need of services?

--How many students are treated by the Counseling Center currently? Over the past year? The past decade? How many more resources are needed to provide services to those students in need who have not been served.
--What specifically was done with the grant money from SAMSHA that the Director of Counseling mentions at recent meetings with ASUH, GSO and the Faculty Senate committee (aside from buying an ad in Ka Leo to announce their table at campus center)? Please provide detailed examples and outcomes (i.e. the final report).
--Where can faculty easily access information on what you do, both in crisis, and in the day to day, to care for our students?
--How does the Counseling Center support national mental health programs such as National Suicide Prevention Month? Please provide examples.

--How does the Counseling Center use state and local mental health services to educate and support UH students?

Communications Issues

--Who is the Communications and Outreach person for the Counseling Center, and how do they communicate with a student body of roughly 20,000? Please provide examples of on-going efforts that span the academic or calendar year.

--Only about 1,500 students pay to participate in New Student Orientation each fall. How are students who do not pay to participate in New Student Orientation informed of Counseling Center services? Please provide examples of on-going efforts.

--How does a staff member first hear about the Counseling Center services on campus? Where is there information about this through OHR?

Some resources on dealing with suicide in schools (for those who don't know of them)