Fighting Fear With Design

Fighting Fear With Design

Cutting through the emotions surrounding campus carry, a group of design students brainstorms practical solutions.

Few subjects have ever been as controversial on the Forty Acres as the implementation of Senate Bill 11, better known as campus carry. Many professors have publicly opposed the bill, with one resigning and another vowing to ban guns from his classroom in defiance of the law. A student protest planned for when the law goes into effect in August went viral more than 10 months prior, and in December, a gun-rights group’s mock shooting protest made national headlines and drew counter-protesters. For some, it has become a topic as weighty as discussing politics or religion at the dinner table. But one group of design students is hoping to change that.

Last fall, design professor Kate Catterall chose campus carry as the focus of her class, Design in the Social Environment. Students spent most of the semester discussing and learning about the bill; guest speakers representing diverse views visited the class, from Chancellor McRaven to a UTPD officer. Then they were tasked with creating a design proposal in various mediums—one was a video, others made slideshows, some created websites—addressing physical and social aspects of the law’s implementation on the Forty Acres.

This may sound a little obscure, but as the students presented their final projects in front of the class, one thing was clear: Students want to have a say. Catterall says the semester started out with some confusion and anxiety: Students didn’t know much about SB 11 or how it would affect them. After the legislation passed last June, she says, many people were caught off-guard. Her colleagues expressed apprehension, but not Catterall. “This is an opportunity rather than a huge disaster,” she says.

Catterall’s class allowed students to have a healthy debate. You can’t ignore the law any longer, she says. “So how do you move forward? As a designer, you have to find the weak spots and push through, explore, and ask questions, the same as an educator.”

By encouraging students to research all aspects of campus carry, Catterall gave them a chance to develop their own responses. In a debate exercise, she asked students their feelings about guns. Once she identified the students as for or against guns on campus, she swapped them. By making students argue for the opposing side, they were able to grasp the complexity of the issue. “People who had strong opinions and were very conservative became more centrist, and vice versa. I noticed everyone becoming more accepting of the other side,” she says. With more knowledge and understanding, students were able to trade fear for solutions.

In the midst of final exams, the atmosphere was surprisingly casual and relaxed. Students roamed to grab coffee and snacks from a table surrounded by posters and prototypes. Catterall prefaced the presentations: “We’ve realized after the Second Amendment debate that there’s a lot of gray area. You can’t just go around waving a ‘No Guns’ flag.”


Instead, the design students came up with ways to live with guns on campus, rather than to protest or ignore them. Some of the projects addressed mental health issues, with junior Moses Lee designing a smartphone app that encourages college students to unburden their emotions and relieve stress. The app, he explains, gives people a quick, accessible alternative when UT counseling services are booked. Although Catterall cautions against conflating mental health problems such as anxiety and depression with an active shooter situation, she says we should be concerned about the mental health requirements for concealed handgun license-holders.

Junior Kendall Hanna suggests combating anxiety through mentorship. The program she envisions would match younger students with upperclassmen or graduate students who care about their wellbeing; in-person interactions would help reduce stress by fostering empathy. “No matter what age they are, students [should] have someone to talk to,” she says. “I wanted to create a project that brought the whole campus and community together, in contrast to SB 11, which is causing a division between people for and against it.”

campus-carry-4 campus-carry-5

Other projects explore concerns about guns. Echoing the class’ aim, senior Natalie Campbell wants to start a conversation about SB 11. She interviewed people on campus by asking them to write their thoughts about the law on a white board. Then, she created a photo blog with the responses and encouraged the use of the hashtag #LetsTalkSB11 on social media. “People at UT were [either] frustrated, had little hope, or wanted to avoid the topic of SB 11 and guns [altogether],” Campbell says. “Being misinformed or not informed at all can only hurt, so I wanted to ease people’s fears.”

Not only did she give people an outlet to voice their opinions, but she also put a face to them. “‘Let’s Talk SB 11’ was … making people feel important and listened to,” she says. Responses are often more than just pro or con expressions; they are thoughtful and complex. One student wrote, “Guns impede the candid, important discussions that college is all about.” While another simply wrote, “What is SB 11?” Others expressed frustration about their voices not being included in the decision-making. Campbell wrote, “It creates more problems and no solutions.”


That’s exactly what this group of design students hopes to change. Catterall met with UT interim provost Judith Langlois to see how students can be involved as the university implements the law this year. Hanna hopes that her proposed mentorship program can become a reality. “It’s definitely a possibility to create a friends-type program,” she says. “Many people come to UT without knowing anyone, so it would make the transition easier.”

Aside from grappling with guns on campus, students learned how to confront controversial issues in a broader sense. Tough subjects don’t have to be intimidating or polarizing; they’re often much more nuanced. The key, Catterall says, is to acknowledge and transcend the fear surrounding those topics. “[Fear] diminishes us as human beings and diminishes the educational mission of the university,” she says. “How can we support and empower our community and not make this a fearful place?”

Photos from top: Pro-gun activist Murdoch Pizgatti speaks with media and counterprotesters at a march next to UT campus on Dec. 12; Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News

Junior Moses Lee’s proposed app encourage students to relieve anxiety by typing their stressful thoughts into it; Moses Lee

Students share their thoughts about campus carry in senior Natalie Campbell’s project “Let’s Talk SB11”; Natalie Campbell


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