some thoughts (April 16-27, 2007)


some thoughts (April 16-27, 2007)


Friends, Since a number of you asked to receive further installments, I decided to send this out to everyone who wrote to offer support. I have greatly appreciated it, profoundly so. Yesterday I used the basketball court for stress relief and to connect with another group of friends. One friend, a productive scholar, said he had just arrived at the point of beginning to plan what he might try to accomplish next week. That pretty much described my head as well. I may add entries in coming weeks as thoughts and feelings spiral, but I don't know. For now I'm done. I look forward to following up individually with each of you. Warmly, Gary

Friends, I'm getting too many messages to respond individually. I'm grateful for your concern. Below is a series of messages I've been sending out to those who have contacted me.

Monday afternoon

I and my family are ok. I was in my office 3 buildings away when the mass shootings took place, about 9:45. I didn't hear the shots. I learned of the lockdown from a loudspeaker announcing an emergency.

The 2nd floor of Norris Hall is home to the engineering science and mechanics dept, as well as the dean's office for the college of engineering. I have many friends in both. I don't believe anyone in STS teaches in that building. No names have been released. I'm holding my breath.

This is beyond comprehension.

Love, gary

[Note: much later I was reminded that I have taught in Norris Hall many times, in the big lecture hall, on the other end of the building from the shootings. I know the building well.]

Tuesday AM:

One of the professors killed was my friend, G.V. Loganathan, an Indian man from civil engineering. Last year he won the University's top award for teaching. His students had written passionately about the lengths he had gone to help them, both in the classroom and beyond. He was in his classroom.

I also knew the German instructor, Jamie Bishop, a delightful, unassuming young man. He also taught courses in web design. I was enrolled in one last year as part of what is called here the Faculty Development Institute.

Dr. Librescu held the door shut in his classroom to give his students time to jump out of the window.

The loss is devastating.

Tuesday PM:

At the convocation today, a father nearly collapsed and the proceeding stopped while he received care and was helped out of the Coliseum along with his family. Nikki Giovanni, the poet, concluded the event with a wonderfully stirring call for persistence and community--but to me it's not time yet. All those families.

Wednesday AM:

I awoke thinking about how what happened here on Monday happens every day in Iraq.

The sensationalism in U.S. news coverage is becoming the story. This country seems to know what it is only when it has an enemy. Virginia Tech has lost its innocence. It's now the object of a broader search for self-definition. Today the word Columbine means one thing. Is that what's happening to Virginia Tech?

Wednesday PM:

I'm watching two things, both in others and in myself.

On the one hand, a genuine sense of questioning about the decision not to announce that a gunman was at large. I'm glad President Steger asked the governor to appoint a commission to investigate what took place. That strikes me as the right course of action.

On the other hand, a sense of being attacked by the deluge of coverage and an urge to join together to fight it off. The intrusion makes it difficult to conceptualize a new sense of community, let alone build it.

Thursday AM:

My resistance to intrusion has grown. The relentless demands for clarity in the national media have become overwhelming to me. A nation uncertain about its identity lusts for the clarity of evil, identified and exorcised. Those who were complicit must be punished. But for the nation to gain its clarity and regain its self-assurance, we have to be torn apart. I'm watching decent people being challenged to admit fundamental failure, so others elsewhere can relax and resume. For me, the only way out is to accept the ambiguity. I'm just not sure how.

Note: Yesterday I deleted an expression of anguish from Monday about the 2 hour delay. At the time, the anguish was my own. But by Wednesday, it had been appropriated by the machinery of external demands for clarity. I had lost possession of it. It no longer said what I meant. It took me till today to understand that.

I sent a letter to the Roanoke Times affirming that Virginia Tech is part Korean. Many people feel similarly. Race may not become an issue.

Thursday PM:

I didn't want to go to a Department gathering at noon. I thought we might have difficulty coming together. We didn't. It was a meaningful experience. We helped one another. They are my people. We're going to gather again on Saturday.

I was wrong when I said STS teaches no classes in Norris. One of my graduate students, an international student, teaches a Friday discussion section of Engineering Cultures in 206. That was G.V.'s room.

Friday PM:

Yesterday I gave a long interview to the Toronto Star. He wanted to discuss the increase in mass shootings. I said it was about increased audience. In part because of the expansion of communications technologies. But mainly because of the dependence of national renewal on finding an enemy we can all share. Doesn't happen in Canada. I think Montreal was different. They were all women.

Today I am at UVA with my son, Michael, hosted by Admissions. Having two kids go here split my identity between my institution and its rival. Today is different. Orange and maroon everywhere. A memorial site where many students are writing letters to Tech students. All stop at noon as the Chapel bell slowly tolls 33 times. I read that many of the candles at Tuesday's vigil came from UVA. Every time I see the Hoos for Hokies sign, I cry. And I've never considered myself a Hokie. I've learned this week that I am indeed Virginia Tech.

Higher education can no longer be called sanctuary. Virginia Tech is of the world. Our theory must catch up.


One of my daughters, Megan, has flown in. Telephone, email, and obsessive reading had not been enough. She needed to be here. The father of the Blacksburg girl who died wrote an open letter to the community inviting us to cherish the memories we're creating with our loved ones, for one day that's all we might have.

I bought a Virginia Tech tshirt for the first time.

Marta and I hosted a gathering for STS families. Megan, Leah, and Michael did all the work while Marta and I attended the memorial service for G.V. His graduate students called him Gobichettypalayam Vasudevan, his name. We shared the food all had brought. The youngest kids chased our cats. We talked. We laughed. We discussed what to do in class the first day back.


Last night I was told that after killing G.V. and the woman sitting closest to the door, the shooter ordered the civil engineering grad students to put their heads down on their desks. He then put three bullets into each head. In the French class, the shooter left and came back. The wounded teacher tried to hold the door shut with a table, unsuccessfully.

I signed the petition supporting Charles Steger and Wendell Flinchum.

Tomorrow is the oral defense of a Ph.D. qualifying exam. I'm on the committee.


My biggest difficulty has been accepting the ambiguity. My career is about pursuing ambiguity, confronting ambiguity, wrestling with ambiguity, interpreting ambiguity, constructing narratives about ambiguity. But always ambiguity as object, external challenge, something to figure out. The deep, abiding acceptance of ambiguity is another thing altogether. I'm not so good at that. It came to a head for me yesterday at the crowded memorial gathering for the two faculty and fifteen students in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. Fifteen kids extending themselves past their boundaries, learning another language, led forward by teachers with relentless, sometimes infuriating, enthusiasm.

Yet the acceptance of ambiguity just may be serving as the vehicle of new community around here. I've always defined community as sharedness that is the product of work, sharedness that assumes initial difference. This week the regular boundaries among us have blurred, if only temporarily, and everyone everywhere seems to be reveling in the joys of simple encounters, recognizing and acknowledging their privilege. A staff member brings her toddler and her dog to the office, to the celebration of all. A dean and a provost feel liberated to openly express and share emotion. The horror is starting to become a thing. It's not going away, nor will it be explained. Sharedness seems to lie in our diverse struggles to accept.


I played basketball today. Lost all three games. It was wonderful.


Gary Downey




Brent Jesiek




Gary Downey, “some thoughts (April 16-27, 2007),” The April 16 Archive, accessed July 16, 2024,