When Student Writing Could be a Red Flag

Virginia Tech's creative writing faculty craft guidelines to help instructors and teaching assistants discern writing that may signal danger from prose that is just disturbing.
September 5, 2007

As creative writing instructors have discussed how to respond to disturbing or strangely violent student writing in the months since the Virginia Tech shooter’s bloody paper trail came to light, many have pointed to the value of professional judgment. But how does a new teaching assistant distinguish a legitimate artistic exploration of a violent or dark subject from a sign that a writer may be a danger – and then, if need be, respond effectively?

Virginia Tech’s creative writing faculty have formulated written guidelines for “responding to disturbing creative writing,” which, while applicable to all creative writing faculty, were written with graduate teaching assistants in mind.

“It may well be that the traditional way of dealing with disturbing writing -- relying on the sensitivity and intelligence of the creative writing instructor to respond to a troubled student -- is best,” says Ed Falco, director of creative writing at Virginia Tech, where professors had identified disturbing trends in senior Seung Hui Cho's creative writing and behavior before he killed 32 students and faculty in April. “At Virginia Tech, however, we have just come through a difficult time and the creative writing committee felt that under these circumstances it would be wise to offer advice to instructors, especially young instructors, on how to deal with the complicated issues raised by disturbing student writing.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that few creative writing departments have written guidelines dealing specifically with disturbing student creative writing, although the protocol for responding seems fairly consistent across colleges (albeit in a more informal guise). The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's approach, for instance, seems fairly typical: "[F]aculty members are in constant communication with each other about all manner of student needs and concerns, certainly about individual as well as collective student health and safety," the director of the entirely undergraduate creative writing program, Bland Simpson, wrote in an e-mail. "We are all always on the lookout for 'disturbing or strangely violent student writing,' indeed anything that might merit involving the university's student affairs office and/or counseling services in a given case, though we have not gone the route of written guidelines on this subject."

Falco, in fact, says that Virginia Tech’s guide largely outlines procedures that were already informally in place prior to the April massacre. The document – which Falco stresses is meant only to provide guidelines, and is open for revision – offers suggestions regarding when and how faculty members should speak with the student directly, and when to involve department leadership, the counseling center, dean’s office or university-wide justice system.

The document also reflects the tightrope its drafters were walking, leaving ample room for intuition and judgment in identifying disturbing writing and offering a series of questions instructors might find helpful in distinguishing creative and literary explorations of themes like violence, drugs and suicide, from a threat or cry for help. Among the questions, geared for fiction, poetry or playwrighting courses:

  • “Is the creative work excessively violent? Do characters respond to everyday events with a level or kind of violence one does not expect, or may even find frightening? If so, does the violence seem more expressive of rage and anger than it does of a literary aesthetic or a thematic purpose?"
  • “Are the characters’ thoughts as well as actions violent or threatening? Do characters think about or question their violent actions?...In other words, does the text reveal the presence of a literary sensibility mediating and making judgments about the characters’ thoughts and actions, or does it suggest unmediated venting of rage and anger? If the literary sensibility is missing, is the student receptive to adding that layer and to learning how to do so?"
  • “Is this the student’s first piece of violent writing?...Is violence at the center of everything the student has written, or does other writing suggest that violence is something the student is experimenting with for literary effect?”
  • “Are the violent actions in the work so disturbing or so extreme as to suggest they go beyond any possible sense of purpose in relation to the larger narrative?”
  • “Is the writing full of expressions of hostility toward other racial or ethnic groups? Is the writing threateningly misogynistic, homophobic, racist, or in any way expressive of a mindset that may pose a threat to other students?”

“The danger,” Falco says of the Virginia Tech document (which has received approvals from the university’s counseling center, legal counsel and provost’s office) “is that written guidelines can be misused….that a situation would come about where you hamper creative freedom because students are afraid to write something because they’re afraid it will get them thrown into a system.”

Yet, he adds, “After having thought about this now for several months, my feeling is that students will turn in disturbing work and that given that, it’s a good idea to have a set of guidelines to deal with that work.”

“You have to find some middle ground,” says Dave Smith, chair of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, which doesn’t offer any written guidelines for instructors dealing specifically with disturbing student writing but does invite therapists from the university’s counseling center to meet with teaching assistants during orientation. “I think the promulgation of a document like this is probably a good thing, all in all. I also suspect that it will lead in some cases to overreactions” on the part of teaching assistants who may feel they’re being asked to recognize something that doesn’t always exist, Smith says.

However, he recalls a recent experience in his own classroom in which a student wrote a couple poems about suicidal intentions. Concerned, but not immediately convinced it was necessarily reflective of the student’s own intentions, he watched the student closely and as it turned out, he says, “There was no problem whatsoever and there would be no reason to engage any of the protocols in place."

“That’s a judgment call, but in my case it was a judgment call with 30 years of teaching experience,” Smith says. “Had I been a teaching assistant, facing this for the first time, I would have been lost.”


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