Some readers want to know my take on the Amy Bishop Anderson tenure-denial mass murder, but I don't think there is much here that speaks to any general academic issues, not even those related to the anxieties of tenure denial or the travails of a female science professor (and mother of four children) or the 'pressure-cooker' environment of biotechnology (about which I know nothing).
I think this was the tragic action of an insane person.
This has been my opinion since I first heard the news, and has only been strengthened as more details emerged.
The initial news reports were incomplete and/or misleading. Some made it sound as if Dr. Bishop had just found out that moment in the faculty meeting that she had been denied tenure. I doubted that. It doesn't work that way.
Then reports were that she had been denied tenure the year before and had, earlier on the day of the murders, learned that she had lost her appeal to reverse the decision. Clearly this was a woman who had been under a lot of stress for a long time, but to shoot up a faculty meeting, including some people who clearly had no vote in her tenure decision, is insane and/or evil.
Even if the tenure denial had been extraordinarily unfair, reeking of sexism or anti-Harvardism or the petty dislike of an outspoken and difficult colleague, there is of course no justification for these murders. Even if the department chair had sprung the news on her in the faculty meeting, he didn't deserve to die. None of them did. Even after losing the appeal, she could have sued, she could have done a number of things besides get a gun.
Then I heard that she had shot her brother to death in 1986, allegedly by accident, but apparently during an argument. She has a history with rage and guns. Insanity.
The media coverage of this sad event has thus far followed the usual formula in the wake of such tragedies. Did anyone see this coming or was the murderer just a normal hockey-and-soccer mom until she snapped?
He and others who knew Dr. Bishop described her as a normal person, perhaps a little quirky but no more so than most scientists. (NY Times, 2/14/10)
Was the murderer one of the scary quiet types?
"She was a very outspoken person,” Mr. Reeves said, “and outspoken people don’t bottle things up." (NY Times, 2/14/10)
And that is a good thing?
But there have also been some unusual aspects of the coverage, owing to the fact that Bishop was a professor. For example, soon after the shootings, some websites/blogs reprinted Bishop's ratemyprofessors.com evaluations. I suppose it makes sense to look for any information possible to try to figure out what kind of person would have done such a thing, but can the twisted personality of a murderer be discerned from teaching evaluations?
She is an excellent professor!
All she does is read information from the book.
She is smart, talks about more stuff than just the book.
She reads straight from the book.
Bishop uses the online stuff, the internet, powerpoint, from the book and some stuff not from the book.
Well, which one is it? Are these students talking about the same professor? Of course they are; these are typical evaluations. The New York Times and various bloggers writing about the incident decided to mention only the she-reads-from-the-book type evaluations, as if this shows there was something wrong with her. There was something very wrong with Amy Bishop, but this is not evident in her teaching evaluations nor in other reports of student complaints about her teaching.
No, we can't use teaching evaluations to predict who among us is capable of killing, but perhaps there were other signs, including what happened in 1986, and perhaps there is a way (though I doubt there is a will) to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.
10 years ago