Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Amy Bishop Story: Murder in Huntsville

For now let's put aside the question of Amy Bishop's motives. Admittedly, we are all intrigued by the picture of a mild-mannered, Harvard-educated, mother of four pulling out a gun during a faculty meeting and murdering three of her colleagues. And we are aghast at the fact that this was not the first time she committed cold-blooded murder.

However much we want to know the secrets of Bishop's pathology, I would like to begin from a different angle.

When Bishop opened fire, she was making a statement. She was trying to say something, even to trying to persuade people of something. Whatever her motives, they will perhaps be more easily accessible if we look first at what she was saying.

Bishop was saying that those who denied her tenure deserved to die. Clear and simple.

She was saying that she had the right, even the moral obligation, to strike out for justice. Denying her tenure had been a grave and monstrous injustice. It was up to her to set things right, for her and for the cosmos.

To make that statement Bishop sacrificed her own life. She martyred herself for what she considered to be justice. Not only that. She abandoned her husband and four children. And she marked them all with the stigma of being related to her, of having lived with her, and of not having stopped her.

Regrettably, Bishop's family will pay a very high price for her pursuit of justice.

So fully did she adhere to the narrative of crime and punishment that she acted as though the only solution to her anguish was to live out the narrative and to force others to live within it too.

She did not see herself as having lost a competition; she saw herself as having been denied her just desserts. The first sends you back into training; the second sets you out on the road to the rough justice called vengeance.

Bishop might also have been trying to effect a form of persuasion. Whatever she intended, whatever she meant, she seemed to be saying that she felt that she was denied tenure because the committee had not been sufficiently afraid of her. What other reason could there possibly have been? They must have done it because they thought they could get away with it, because they could do it with impunity.

The powerful wert preying on the weak. They had always done so because no one had ever made them pay for it.

Perhaps, her guilt narrative could only find one reason why a committee would deny tenure to a Harvard-education biologist: they did not fear her reaction.

One wonders what effect her actions will have on future tenure considerations. Will they make committees more likely to look favorably on candidates who make them feel threatened?

Let us hope that this is not the case. Even so, it does not obviate the possibility that Bishop, having given up on her own hopes for academic success, was martyring herself to help future candidates.

Since we do not have a way to look into Bishop's mind, let us simply examine her circumstances. What might have driven her to such an extreme distress?

The husband of one of her victims offered one clue. His wife, a member of the biology department, had told him that Bishop: "was not as good as she thought she was."

This sounds strange. Bishop had received a Ph. D. from Harvard. In principle, she must have been very, very brilliant. Many of her students thought so.

But how does it happen that a Harvard Ph. D. is denied tenure at a less-than-prestigious school like the University of Alabama, at Huntsville, a branch school of the University of Alabama system?

Did Bishop feel that it was beneath her dignity as Harvard Ph.D. to be teaching nursing students in Huntsville, Alabama? The New York Times reported that she had problems with most of her nursing students. Link here. See also the remarks at Link here.

Was she suffering from academic snobbery? Does that explain how some of her students could think she was brilliant and helpful, while others saw her as remote, disinterested, and condescending.

For all we know she thought that the biology department at UAH should have been honored by her presence, that she was doing them a favor by working there and teaching nursing students.

Yet, as one student wrote: "I hear she's from Harvard. I hope she remembers that she is not at Harvard." Another wrote: "She might have graduated from Harvard but she had very little common sense."

Bishop might well have believed that since she was from Harvard, she should have been granted tenure automatically, especially in a place like Huntsville, Alabama. If UAH was several steps down from Cambridge, then not receiving tenure at such a place might have felt like a drop into oblivion.

She might have felt that she had lost everything in terms of academic standing and prestige, and in terms of professional dignity. If that was true, perhaps she felt that she had nothing to lose. She could go out with a statement about the system that had treated her so unjustly.

1 comment:

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