January 11, 2012

Fracture Mechanics

First of all – welcome back! I’m honored to get to post on the first day of classes for 2012, and I hope all the returning students, staff, and faculty reading this have an excellent, productive, and fulfilling semester. I’m very much looking forward to the classes I get to teach this semester as well as the different programs with which I get to work. I am also starting to mentally prepare myself for this May; as much as having the opportunity to work at a college is a blessing, there’s also this issue of having a large portion of the population taking off every year…

One of the facets I most appreciate about working at a college is in the diversity of backgrounds and interests of the population. When the mission of the institution is “…to engage the mind, elevate the spirit, and stimulate the best effort of all who are associated with the University; to contribute in diverse ways to the local community, the state, the nation and the world; and to attain and maintain a place of real leadership in all that we do,” there is a wealth of possibilities for how that might be accomplished. The university represents fertile ground for interdisciplinary projects and for the cross-pollination of experiences and expertise that are rarely in such close proximity within the world outside of academia. The university also provides opportunities for different communities to come together to explore the broad commonalities as well as the subtle (and sometimes less-subtle) differences within those communities.

And here, I’m afraid, is where fracture mechanics comes in.

Fracture mechanics primarily covers how cracks manifest and spread through materials. An object that could otherwise withstand a certain amount of stress can come apart due to the propagation of one or more cracks. The forces that exist within the material are re-distributed due to the existence of a flaw. The stresses get concentrated to levels much higher than average in the vicinity of the crack, and a once-cohesive material capable of sustaining much higher tensions is progressively ripped apart as the crack spreads.

I am concerned about the fracture mechanics of Duke’s undergraduate LGBTQ community, specifically within the context of some of the discussions that have occurred on these pages and offline. I worry that there are flaws that are perceived or real, and that there is a tension in the community that is being concentrated on those flaws. I fear that fractures may race across the community and make separate and disconnected what was once mutually supportive. I wonder about whether the energy might be channeled to form new bonds across boundaries or if that energy will end up being expended in accentuating the cracks.

Part of the difficulty I see is this – the LGBTQ community is not some homogeneous entity but rather an aggregation of diverse individuals. And that intra-community diversity is evident even when you start looking at the people macroscopically labeled by the umbrella terms within 'L''G''B''T''Q'. Besides, “LGBTQ” doesn’t even cover the full spectrum – I think the most inclusive alphabetical attempt I have seen is something on the order of LGBTT2QQIAPS - so inclusive, it includes a number, but still not enough. Beyond that, even, we’ve recently read examples of people who have identified with a “label” writing about existing outside of them in different ways. Just as the discrete rendering of the rainbow flag doesn’t completely represent the continuum of colors to be found in a real rainbow, mere assemblages of letters cannot completely represent the continuum of people to be found in community.

Along with that, I wonder how much using the macro labels to posterize groups of people might be helping to promote fracture. “Well, the Purples are doing this, and as an Indigo, I don’t like it!” “Why are we always talking about / do we never talk about being Orange?” My fear there is this: that the worst behaviors and attitudes ever seen in any member of a group then gets codified as The Behavior and Attitude of That Group. At which point, members of that group either get defensive or offended, and the potential for communication – between the groups or the individuals – is diminished or lost completely. It becomes a clash of the stereotypes, and it initiates a crack in community.

Given the above, my deepest hope for the New Year is that the community I will choose to refer to as the Aggregation of Awesome will be mindful of the hazards of fracture mechanics and will instead direct energy towards strengthening the bonds of mutual respect and understanding. Where there are flaws, perceived and real, determine the most constructive ways to identify them, if possible – eliminate them, and if elimination is not possible – at least keep them from spreading and causing more damage. Where there are differences, acknowledge them, celebrate them, and learn from them. Understand that Differences and Flaws are two wholly different things.  Recognize that there will be times when everyone can be together and times when smaller communities are needed to provide a space for exploration, discovery, and affirmation that should be respected and encouraged.

Finally, as we are at a university, seek to educate yourself and teach others in ways that will “engage the mind, elevate the spirit, and stimulate the best effort of all who are associated with the University” – including letting others know ways they can better engage your mind, elevate your spirit, and stimulate your best effort.


  1. Great Post! I agree with pretty much everything you said minus the engineering parts that went over my head. lol (i'm a history major, forgive me). But in all seriousness you are right, "mutual respect and understanding" is the only way to bring our community together. I think discussion is also a great way to gain that understanding. I have faith that we can mend those cracks and come out the other side stronger.

  2. Are you sure you weren't some kind of counselor/community consultant (?) with magical powers in a former life...? Haha but for real, it's so important to have this measured perspective...so constructive. Your writing always has a nicely balanced tone --- it always makes logical sense and is grounded in solid arguments. The engineering tidbits are fun as well (#strainedengineeringreference)! Always well-written. Thanks!