Friday, March 23, 2007

How can we heal?

There has been much talk at UW Law School about trying to heal and move on from L'Affaire Kaplan. In my own view, certainly one informed by my long friendship and many conversations with Professor Kaplan, he has shown extraordinary restraint while under nearly constant assault for things he has been accused of but did not do. He wrote an extraordinarily gracious statement to our Dean Davis, subsequently publicly released, which repudiated the statements wrongly attributed to him, calling them hateful. He eloquently expressed his understanding of the pain sustained by his students, and by the Hmong people more generally, in the course of their tempestuous history over recent generations in South East Asia and in America, and apologized once again for his part in causing the pain experienced by his students and others. He did his very best to allow for a gracious mutual de-escalation of tensions. He did not, however, violate his own integrity as a scholar or a human being to repudiate his pedagogic commitments or his commitment to treating his students as developing legal professionals capable of learning and growth.

Yet this has not been enough for at least some of Len's former Hmong students, some other students at the law school, and others in the Hmong and larger Asian American communities outside our building and our university. One law school student, previously responsible for precipitously circulating a false, reckless, and inflammatory (and potentially libelous) attack on Professor Kaplan and his reputation, chose this week to violate the clear, forward-looking ground rules (observed by all others present) of a recent law school teaching workshop, to renew her ongoing personal attack on Professor Kaplan. (She had not been present either in the February 15 class or in the February 20 meeting between Professor Kaplan and his actual students. One wonders what agenda she is pursuing, and why.) Attacks by other groups continue to come in to the law school and to be posted on web sites receiving international attention. The law school's hope, however well-intentioned, that we could somehow heal and move on without facing up to the realities of what actually happened in Kaplan's class on February 15, has proved vain. As one commentator to this blog has observed, we have been ignoring the elephant in the room. Healing cannot progress while the wounds fester.

Now, a lengthy diversion into my recent medical history, with the promise that I will bring us back to show its relevance. Since my blog also purports to attend to "the experience of illness," this account will be relevant to my overall purposes in this second sense as well.

Just about two years ago, I was diagnosed with a "top of the charts" aggressive prostate cancer, present in abundance throughout my prostate gland (we hope not beyond). There was considerable doubt that surgery could reliably get it all; if I had surgery, I would probably need a full course of radiation as well, and probably additional treatments beyond that, with a panoply of likely side-effects. We decided on a non-surgical course, initial hormone suppression, followed by an aggressive course of external beam radiation, and then further hormone suppression. It was not pretty, and was further complicated by my wife's contemporaneous health issues. So far, so good: I got the needed radiation, eventually came off the hormone suppression protocol, and so far, the cancer has not returned. I am grateful for that. All of us live with uncertainty about what the future will bring; perhaps I have a bit more reason than some to be conscious about the particular uncertainties that I face. (The statistics suggest that in the population of men with prostate cancer, more men die of heart disease than of their cancer. I have more than my share of cardiac risks as well; who knows--that may be a kinder death than metasteses to the brain or bone.)

I was making a very slow recovery, encountering major daily problems with lack of energy, inability to concentrate, some memory deficiencies, and several of the well-known but unpleasant to discuss side-effects of treatment for prostate cancer. Still, I was looking forward to my return to teaching in Fall of 2006. I attended my wonderful daughter's wonderful wedding to my wonderful new son-in-law in Boston in mid-August, and while the travel logistics took their toll, the experience was one of the happiest in my life, the more so because my wife and I were healthy enough to be present and, as my wife's grandmother once said of us a generation earlier, to dance at their wedding. (Sadly, my wife's mother unexpectedly became ill and quickly passed away a few weeks before the wedding, making for a complex blend of powerful emotions.)

I became quite sick shortly after my return to Madison following the wedding. The symptoms and labs were not definitive, and it was initially diagnosed as a transient and self-limiting virus. But I did not get better, and my fever kept getting worse. Finally, an early morning trip to the Emergency Room, an inconclusive exam, and then, fortunately, some fancy imaging of my skull, where much of the pain seemed to be originating. Lo and behold, the CT picked up a significant cellulitis of the scalp, not easily visible under my hairline (at least until after they figured out where to look). It was bacterial, not viral, and antibiotics could help. We never did get a firm fix on the bug, although it was most likely drug resistant and very well established in my system by the time we began treatment.

I was admitted to the hospital for stabilization and IV antibiotics. Thus began what turned into a sixteen day hospitalization, the first of three. My fever was raging. My kidneys kicked out of commission. My blood pressure swung wildly. Consultants came and went. The doctors huddled on whether to send me to the ICU. My wife really got scared when I started signing informed consent forms for various interventions without arguing about them or trying to redraft them. She had never seen that before. I learned subsequently that there was concern as to whether I would survive. Many of my symptoms eerily mirrored those experienced by my mother-in-law a month before (I slept in her bed when we came after the funeral to close up her apartment); she died in less than four days after beginning to feel ill.

I survived. Not without some challenges: the infectious disease folks were exhausting their armamentarium of fancy new antibiotics to try to bring my infection under control, and I kept having significant adverse reactions to them (ultimately requiring two additional brief hospitalizations). Mostly the antibiotics didn't make me better, although they probably kept me alive. Somehow the antibiotics couldn't defeat the infection on their own. It was all very mysterious. There was a raging infection somewhere inside me, probably above the neck, but they couldn't really find it, and the antibiotics couldn't defeat it. I was imaged every which way, poked and prodded and viewed. The radiologists thought there was probably an infectious pocket somewhere in my skull, but the ultrasound folks couldn't locate it precisely, and argued that it wasn't there. Finally one brave soul redid the ultrasounds, told me he couldn't be absolutely sure, and, with my feeble consent, plunged a syringe into the back of my skull. He hit a gusher. Out poured the gunk, syringeful after syringeful. It was very impressive, at least before I more or less fainted. I think that is the word they used, "impressive."

Thus I learned about my abscess, and began my short course on why it was so important to drain the abscess in order for healing to begin. You have to find the gunk and get it out for healing to proceed. And that course was not so short. Every day for the next two or more months, in hospital or at home, a doctor or nurse would have to squeeze that foul stuff out of a cavity in my head (we talk about the "yuk factor" in bioethics--this was a different kind of yuck), stuff my cavity with gauze to absorb the next day's production, and wrap on a headdress to keep it all together. Next day, unwrap the headdress, extract the long, pus-infused string of gauze (you really didn't want to see, or to smell, that process), squeeze out my head cavity, and go through the process again. Every day. For two months or more. Until the cavity cleaned out, and closed itself up, I couldn't finally get better. Eventually I did, mostly. Still pretty weak. Not much energy. Very low levels of testosterone, ever since the hormone suppression began. Still trying to cope with the continuing aftereffects of the prostate cancer treatments. Hoping to be able to come back to teaching, after a long pause, in the fall term.

That's enough on my personal health, at least for this posting.

I promised I would make that long excursis relevant. I'll try. I really don't think the law school can heal from its recent wounds until we confront and deal with the sources of our illness, rather than putting our heads in the sand, making equivocating statements, trying to finely balance everything so no one feels bad.

Let me say what I feel, think, and believe. I do not believe my friend and colleague Len Kaplan did anything wrong in his February 15 class. I think he did his job, and that it is a job that needs doing, at this and at every law school worthy of the name. I think he did his honest best in his meeting with the two students present in his February 15 class to explain what he was trying to teach, and why, and why it was important to do so, not least (but also not only) to improve actions by federal and state government to assist the Hmong in their acculturation as neighbors and fellow citizens here in Wisconsin and throughout America (and in South East Asia, where Hmong continue to suffer terribly). He sought to encourage his Hmong students to return to the class, to share their knowledge and experiences and perceptions, and those of other members of the community that they might wish to bring along, with the rest of the class, so that all could learn from one another. He sought to be a teacher, to re-include his Hmong students in the community of his class, and to turn the potential of diversity into a reality for collective learning. He sought to help his students marshal their emotions to energize their advocacy as future lawyers. He sought to respect them as future professionals and as persons, not to patronize or condescend to them. And for that, he has been pilloried and crucified.

It is not right. It is time that we as a community say so, in unmistakable and unequivocal terms. We all know that Len Kaplan did not make the statements wrongly attributed to him. We know he did not seek to put his students on trial, or to abuse his power as a professor. He sought to teach. What he sought to teach was important, and in our finest traditions as a law school. The nonsense has to stop before we can move forward.

It is not my purpose to dwell on how the students involved (in their varying roles) might have handled this situation differently, and better (although I think they could have, and should have). I would like this institution to be a more caring and compassionate place than it currently is, and that certainly extends to these students. And to all our students. And to all of us. School is a place that professionals in training can make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes, without paying too high a price. We should be encouraging our students to take more risks (within reason), and to develop the experience and improved judgment that come from making real choices, with consequences, and learning from the results, both good and bad. These students showed considerable courage in coming forward (if perhaps not always commensurate wisdom), and that, at very least, should be applauded.

Perhaps we can all learn from this unhappy chapter in our institutional history. But we have to be clear about the right lessons to be learned. And that requires a truthful accounting, however layered with compassion. The students have wanted to be heard. They have been. Perhaps now they can try also to listen. As can we all.

The students have been christened (that's a Jewish professor referring to Hmong students--talk about cultural contradictions) The Magnificent Seven, after the American film, adapted from the Seven Samurai. Personally, I always thought Rashomon was the better and deeper movie, and the better image to invoke here. I've tried here to provide my view of the situation. I'm content to leave it at that.

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