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Bullying Among University Students: Cross-National Perspectives
Date Reviewed: October 26, 2016
Helen Cowrie and Carrie-Anne Myers’ Bullying Among University Students studies bullying in universities worldwide, with contributors from educational psychology, criminology, counseling, media, and other disciplines. One insight of the volume is that we tend to address bullying as a relationship between the bully and the victim without addressing bullying’s social and institutional contexts. The introduction reminds us that university students occupy an ambiguous position, neither protected children nor employees. In the university, therefore, bullied students feel lost, reporting “that they do not know of any policies, systems, or avenues to help them” (3).
The essays begin with the student experience, move to the nature of bullying, look at social context, suggest interventions and policies, and end with reflections, suggesting that universities might address bullying by coordinating communications between the students, staff, administrators, and student services and by using research on workplace bullying as a resource. The corporatization of higher education, valuing individualism and competition, may unconsciously generate a context for bullying, meaning that systems must be put in place to address bullying, including strong counseling.
The writers align bullying with what they call “laddish” behavior – indeed, boys bully more frequently than girls – which Toni Pearce defines as a “‘pack’ mentality evident in activities, such as sport and heavy alcohol consumption and ‘banter,’ which were often sexist, misogynist and homophobic” (17-18). It includes sexualizing behavior toward women and intolerance of gay and transgender students and racial ethnic students, all vulnerable, which leads to harassment and violence. The essays examine multiple forms of bullying, including stalking and cyber-aggression, which occurs as “invisible” bullying (113). Drawing lines in these cases is a key, but difficult, act: when, for example, is online activity conversation, teasing, or bullying?
One finding is that bullies tend to bully throughout their lives (36). Osman Tolga Aricak’s essay explores genetic and environmental causes of bullying and the impact on the bullies themselves. Aggression is an outward sign of complex issues like poor self- and impulse-control and narcissism. The bully and the victim can experience ongoing mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and isolation.
“The Research Student Experience” chapter is informative for those of us supervising graduate students, unveiling the sometimes unconscious bullying in the power-laden supervisor-student relationship. Graduate students also occupy an ambiguous position, being students and teachers or workers, making them vulnerable. Graduate supervisors must be mindful of power, avoiding actions like giving excessive or unauthorized work to teaching assistants and using their research as the supervisor’s own.
This collection offers immense insight into an understudied subject. One article on “Cross-Cultural Comparisons” reminds American universities that we have “some of the highest rates [of bullying] among the developed world” (135). Our cultural and economic diversity, insistence on free speech, and desensitizing media violence confuse notions regarding appropriate behaviors (135). Since there is not clear data on what works against bullying, a system-wide response is necessary.
An Empty Seat in Class: Teaching and Learning After the Death of a Student
Date Reviewed: June 16, 2015
An Empty Seat in Class emerges in the midst of the increasing deaths of young black and brown men and women around the country, and it seems rather prescient as the debate about responses to this violence emerges and takes center stage. While Ayers addresses the larger context of death and particularly the deaths of marginalized students in oppressed communities, this book is a shared meditation on grief and the role of the secondary school teacher in processing, responding to, and teaching alongside death and grief. It is shared because Ayers not only reflects on his personal stories and experiences in the classroom, but he invites a broad selection of teachers involved in secondary education to reflect on their experiences of and responses to the loss of a student.
The book is framed around the recent death of one of Ayers’s students and his community and school’s response to this loss. Ayers is clear that it is not a how-to book and rather than focus on prescriptions or even overt psychological or pedagogical advice he turns to the practice and ritual of writing and reflecting. Ayers reminds that “our salvation lies more in literature and stories than psychological and political analysis”(6) and provides us with stories, engaging literature, and reflections as the reader proceeds through the tragic life cycle of a community’s, specifically a teacher’s, response to the death of student.
The first half of the book outlines the complexity of dealing with urban violence and identifies the multiple issues faced by teachers, specifically those from vastly different socio-economic and political contexts than their students. Ayers does not shy away from the myriad ways that students and teachers respond to the “mystery” of death. He and his contributors look at the emergence of “murder economies” (23), individual and institution missteps, white privilege, and the simplistic and problematic assignation of blame and innocence that often permeates responses to death in urban communities and classrooms. While the first half of the book explicitly examines death and dying in urban, marginalized communities, the last section looks at mass school shootings and mortality in its many forms. By the end of the text, Ayers is clear that death is a specter that no one can escape and that all teachers and schools need to critically reflect on it together. Ayers emphasizes that “There are so many other ways that the terrible finger of fate points at our students. And for each of these tragedies, there is a classroom; there is a teacher” (88).
I am deeply sympathetic to Ayer’s project, and the book makes a convincing argument for this type of intervention and its format. His work succeeds as a “meditation with and for teachers” (7) during these tragic times. However, the text also suggests that there is a better way to deal with death in our school communities, and I think more explicit engagement with successful models of intervention and more context about Ayers’s school and community would strengthen the book and would add nuance and depth to its focus on and argument for the inclusion of narrative and literature in our responses to death. Overall, Ayers’s multi-layered analysis that includes reflection, memorial, research, and deep attention to literature on death and grief will be an invaluable resource for teachers and will hopefully spur additional research on the practical and pedagogical issues that arise as a result of a student’s death.