The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

THORNTON: What’s due in the mourning

When capitalism doesn’t allow for true grieving, how can that desideratum be provided by a university that unimaginatively exists in its framework?
The Empty Chair COVID-19 memorial was set up on Library Lawn April 6 and 7 and honor those within and outside of the Vanderbilt community lost in the pandemic. (Photo by Joe Howell courtesy of Vanderbilt University)
Joe Howell
The Empty Chair COVID-19 memorial was set up on Library Lawn April 6 and 7 and honor those within and outside of the Vanderbilt community lost in the pandemic. (Photo by Joe Howell courtesy of Vanderbilt University)

As I sat in one of my Zoom classes early last week, I found myself constantly staring out of the window. I rocked back and forth in my chair a bit on edge, trying my best to grab something near me while still paying attention, to ease my fidgeting fingers. As I half-listened, I toyed with one of the dangly earrings that I hung from above my desk, working the metal chain in between my fingers, struggling to focus my eyes on the professor’s video. 

Every time I was called on I got the answer wrong. I knew the material. I was prepared. But I couldn’t shake the feeling: the wave of sadness that clouded my brain and the question of why not one professor had asked if we were okay. If we wanted a day off. To grieve. Did it even shake them? Or like any other hashtag, was it—was he—just scrolled over? Do they, professors, even feel like they have time to process? 

Move on to the next tweet. Next story. Next class. Daunte wasn’t related to you or anything. Neither was Adam. Or Ma’Khia. You didn’t know them. Let it go. Get off your phone and focus. 

That week in March I didn’t want to go to class. When the Atlanta shooting happened. I struggled to keep my composure in class, sick to my stomach over the lives of the six Asian women who were taken: Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng; as well as the other victims: Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels and Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, who was seriously injured. 

Stop checking news updates. You have to study. Put down your phone. Close The New York Times. You have to go to class. It starts in 10 minutes. 

In my time at Vanderbilt, I’ve scrolled through many hashtags: endless names of Black and brown people lynched by the police and have read news time and time again of mass shootings and lives stolen; watching it on a loop, a never-ending cycle, so that the initial shock no longer exists when I read news headlines. 

Atlanta, Georgia. Boulder, Colorado. Orange, California. Rock Hill, South Carolina. 

All sites of mass shootings since 2021 began. 

I’ve also watched Vanderbilt neglect to give us time to grieve. The most has been vigils compressed into lunch breaks or slipped in before dinner. Even in a pandemic as the death toll ticks further and further up, surpassing half a million in the U.S. and three million worldwide, we have not had a single day dedicated to mourning. But then again, our university is just a microcosm of the greater culture of never stopping, never mourning, never breathing, always working. That’s the American way. 

A moment of silence in between classes. A lowered flag. A panel discussion. An encouraged trip to the counseling center. That’ll suffice.

In my recollection, it’s only happened a few times: when a professor asked how the class was doing specifically in terms of grief and took action. Notably, once was in an African American Diaspora Studies (AADS) class in which the majority of the students were Black during the summer of racist police-inflicted violence. Another was in a Philosophy course that taught literature intended for political resistance, thus many of the writings were for the purpose of liberation, the abolition of policing, and the rejection of capitalism. And while both of their curricula dealt with ad rem topics, both professors were the type to give us a day off from class to mourn properly and for both us, the students, and them to feel okay enough to participate in the next class discussion. For them, I’m grateful. 

Did any of your professors ask how you all were after the horrific Atlanta shooting? Ask how you were processing? If you needed a day off? Was there a break in the lecture? In the class discussion? An email? A Brightspace post? 

Yet in these cases, I don’t blame our professors who are still trying to adapt their classes to a pandemic lifestyle and grieve and process and live all at the same time. I blame the capitalistic culture that has convinced us that there is no need to stop and no need to process. It has turned us into zombies: the undead who never received peace. Desensitized. We walk around numb, craving the sort of stillness grief requires that our environment—our rise-and-grind culture—cannot fathom, nor possibly provide. 

Under this system, death is and will always be profitable. As Medium contributor, Isabel Mares puts it, “Capitalism does not want your prayers without tithes, nor pain without purchasing medicines. Thus, capitalism will only allow for the kind of grief that demands payment. Capitalism only allows for a grief that is a hungry ghost.” On campus, the ghosts look like zombies and they’re hungry for success: the type of grief that makes us succumb ourselves with our busyness and work ethic until the strive for good grades makes us forget that we are in a collective mourn, an incessant funeral. Outside of the library, sits the memorial exhibit that allows us to remember the chairs left empty at kitchen tables. It is beautiful, however, I only get to admire it and feel its weight when I’m on my way to class, dashing from main campus to Commons, before I check the time and have to run. 

In many ways, the joys of academia are trampled on as institutions of higher education mold us into workers. We get thrown onto a treadmill, moving at the speed of a workweek designed for the utmost productivity at the expense of the worker. We become workers instead of students and when our education is measured by a means of productivity, the emphasis of digesting the material and immersion into the liberal arts is forcibly removed, and instead, the onus is placed on the amount of work we achieve. Our work time is carved into our calendars, and when learning becomes “clocking-in,” what we do in that time is measured based solely on its social or capital value. 

Capitalism persists in other areas of academia. We get put into competition with each other, so much so that after test days during a normal school year, I would immediately jam headphones into my ears so no one asked me how I did to compare scores. We get primped and polished to be the perfect Vanderbilt-bred consultants and investment bankers, so much so that we have not had one day off in the name of the thousands of lives lost in the most deadly pandemic our generation will ever see. What is our worth beyond students, when to be “absorbed in grief,” as Julia Cooper writes in her book, “The Last Word”, “holds no social value?”

Grief doesn’t conform itself into a timeslot within our work schedules. 

However, universities are a unique setting because they are like micro-towns. Each residency on campus is a neighborhood, and around us is need-based infrastructure. And while our shield of the “Vanderbilt-bubble” is often discussed negatively, this micro-town-like anatomy allows universities to redetermine what dictates “social value” in their social jurisdiction. Our home on campus can be an experimental site for the change we want to see in the world beyond our sphere. College campuses have been testing sites before for new structures. For example, the way we pay college tuition is socialist economics and equitable wealth redistribution in practice. 

Although many problems prevalent on Vanderbilt’s campus are a result of not only administrative decisions but the geopolitical region it sits in and the economic framework it’s placed under, it must be asked why we continue to function within harmful frameworks that don’t give us room to grieve if we are not obliged to operate in this way? 

In the upcoming school yearone that will hopefully be without the virus and the wave of death and trauma we have experiencedI hope our university will afford us time: a prerequisite for mourning when we must, for continuing to operate under a capitalist framework that does not give workers time to mourn conforms us into desensitized machines rather than people, and assignments rather than students. And in turn, those we are mourning do not become more than hashtags, developing stories and empty chairs. 

View comments (3)
About the Contributor
Miquéla Thornton
Miquéla Thornton, Former Opinion Editor
Miquéla Thornton ('22) is from Chicago-ish, Illinois, and double-majored in creative writing and communication of science and technology, aspiring to be a science writer. She was heavily involved on campus at Vanderbilt New Dawn and The McGill Project. When she isn't writing for The Hustler, she enjoys writing fiction and poetry. Aside from writing, she spends her time painting, roller skating and visiting art galleries around Nashville. She can be reached at [email protected].    
More to Discover

Comments (3)

The Vanderbilt Hustler welcomes and encourages readers to engage with content and express opinions through the comment sections on our website and social media platforms. The Hustler reserves the right to remove comments that contain vulgarity, hate speech, personal attacks or that appear to be spam, commercial promotion or impersonation. The comment sections are moderated by our Editor-in-Chief, Rachael Perrotta, and our Social Media Director, Chloe Postlewaite. You can reach them at [email protected] and [email protected].
All The Vanderbilt Hustler picks Reader picks Sort: Newest
Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Melissa Bourestom
3 years ago

Grief can’t be scheduled. And like many things in life, time to mourn isn’t something you are given, it is something you must take for yourself. If you need the time, you are responsible for yourself and for figuring out how to make that happen. Once you leave the Vanderbilt Bubble, there won’t be professors patting you on the back to see how you are feeling and employers won’t be offering you a day off.
There is a lot of passive messaging here: “we get thrown onto a treadmill,” “we become workers,” “we get put into competition.” The reality is those are all choices you make as an individual, and actions for which you are responsible. College is a time to figure things out, and personal awareness and accountability should be at the top of that list,

John E Ingle
3 years ago

Easy for me to be critical, since I graduated almost 64 years ago. Surely, though, you have plenty of time and the opportunity to grieve without having the professors assign it as part of the academic experience and without having everybody on campus applaud you for your sensitivity and your wokeness. I suspect it probably is still the case that undergraduates on college campuses have more free time and less in the way of actual constraints on their behavior and thought than they ever will have again in their lifetimes. I have to think that anyone there who needs to grieve is free to do so. And, while there is plenty to criticize in our capitalist society, I’m not sure that your peers in the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Iran are any freer than you are to express and feel their sorrow in their quite different frameworks. One thing is clear to me, though: There are no systemic constraints on your opportunity to whine about matters that affect us all. Capitalism is quite compatible with the attitude that everything ultimately is about me!

John E. Ingle
A&S ’57

3 years ago

Wonderful writing as always Miquéla! Thank you for taking the time to explain the feelings that I’ve been having for weeks.