Teaching in a Post Virginia-Tech World

          October 21, 2008- This month Provisions explored the controversial topic of Teaching in a Post-Virginia Tech World. Presenters included, American Studies instructor Nan Mullennaux and Jay Hamer, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services. Nan Mullennaux shared a personal experience with one of her students and the step by step process in which she dealt with the situation. In doing so, Mullennaux displayed the appropriate way to handle a situation in the classroom. Jay Hamer presented a great deal of information pertaining to the counseling center and the services they provide for students. These services include consultation and crisis intervention. Hamer also shared his “wave” method for treating students who are experiencing anxiety and panic attacks as a result of stress or the increase of fear which is ever so present in our society since 9/11. 

          Major questions and issues that were addressed during this session were how to better inform teachers, especially adjunct teachers, how to deal with students of special interest, how to ensure students that college campus’ are a secure and safe environment, and how to identify when a student is expressing creativity or expressing a disturbing behavior. 

          Below you will find the materials in which each presenter shared during the session, as well as links to other helpful and informative resources.  

 

 

 

Responding to Disturbing Creative Writing: A Guide for Faculty and GTAs 

Virginia Tech 

August 2007 

 

Principles and Purposes 

The creative writing program develops the creativity of student writers, which 

necessarily involves allowing them freedom of expression. Students should not feel 

that the program monitors and threatens them with disciplinary action for the 

themes and language they choose. Instructors should not feel that they must take on 

the roles of therapists or police officers—roles for which they have no professional 

training. Occasionally, however, student writing can create an unwelcoming 

environment for peers or raise questions about the author’s mental state, and the 

instructor may feel the need to address these issues. This guide offers a series of 

questions to help instructors think through the disturbing elements in student 

writing, and it outlines strategies, resources, and procedures for taking appropriate 

actions. 

 

Please note that this document deals with disturbing writing only. For problems 

with behavior, please refer to “Responding to Disruptive or Threatening Student 

Behavior: A Guide for Faculty,” available on the English Department’s faculty web 

pages (www.faculty.english.vt.edu). Disturbing writing in combination with 

disturbing behavior will heighten concern. 

 

Identifying Disturbing Writing 

Everyone’s sense of what is disturbing will differ. We recommend that instructors 

follow their own instincts and common sense when determining what constitutes 

disturbing writing. Probably at the core, we’re concerned about writing that seems 

to warn of potential harm to self or others, or writing that reflects a deep 

desperation. Themes of violence and gruesome details might be markers, but they 

do not in themselves establish a problem. Outright threats are more problematic. 

The following questions may help you assess the student’s situation and whether 

what’s disturbing reflects creative exploration or something more idiosyncratic.  

 

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? If one set of characters 

demonstrate no self-awareness or moral consciousness, are other characters 

aware of or disturbed by what has taken place? In other words, does the text 

reveal the presence of a literary sensibility mediating and making judgments 

Responding to Disturbing Writing: A Guide for Faculty and GTAs 2 

 

Virginia Tech Department of English 

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? If yes, what is the nature of his 

or her other work? 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? Do 

they seem to be the point of the piece, or a component? Does the nature of the 

violence—or the nature of the writing overall—suggest extreme depression or 

suicidal inclinations? 

 

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? 

 

Responding to disturbing writing 

Once you’ve decided you are concerned about a piece of writing, we suggest you 

move through the following steps. If you feel even a hint of threat to yourself or 

other students, however, please do not try to meet with the student alone nor try to 

solve the problem alone. You should immediately contact the Director of Creative 

Writing and the department’s chair and associate chair, who can consider and 

advise on possible next steps.  

 

Step 1: Instructor talks informally with the student  

If you suspect that the disturbing features of the writing are literary in nature, talk to 

the student about the writing. Try to make this discussion as informal as possible. 

You’re after honest and direct give-and-take. It may be best to do this before or after 

class, or in a common area, rather than having the student come by your office. If the 

student seems at all threatening, do not meet the student alone.  

 

It may be a good idea to let the student talk as much as he or she wants. You’re after 

a fuller sense of the person behind the writing. Try to keep an open mind. Listen 

carefully to the student. 

 

Try to open up the conversation in a way that makes the writer comfortable. One 

way to increase comfort is to focus on the text itself, not on the student writer. You 

might consider asking about the inspiration for the piece. Was it inspired by an 

image or idea, some event in the news or some bit of history, or was it inspired by 

another piece of writing? Allow the student to contextualize what he or she has 

written. Most writers will be able to give you some sense of how their writing began 

Responding to Disturbing Writing: A Guide for Faculty and GTAs 3 

 

Virginia Tech Department of English 

and evolved. Ask the student to discuss the motivation of the characters, and their 

sense of how different imagery or actions will function in relation to the overall 

effect of the work. Try to touch on any published works the student feels are 

relevant. If students have read authors such as Stephen King or Anne Rice or Chuck 

Palahniuk, these influences may give insight into the disturbing material in the 

writing.  

 

At this point, it may be appropriate to offer your best counsel to the student and to 

provide as much support as possible in helping the student deal with any issues you 

perceive as a result of your meeting. If the student offers personal information 

suggesting a need or wish for help, or if the student seems unable or unwilling to 

discuss the piece in literary terms, encourage the student to visit the Cook 

Counseling Center (231-2104, 240 McComas Hall, http://www.ucc.vt.edu). You can 

volunteer to call for the appointment and follow through at a later class to see if the 

student has gone.  

 

Please document your meetings and advice by writing down the date, specific 

advice given, and outcomes you know.  

 

If after this meeting you continue to be concerned about the student and his or her 

writing, if you think you are dealing with a student whose writing suggests that he 

may present a threat to self or other students, move on to Step Two. 

 

Step 2: Instructor consults with the Director of Creative Writing  

 

If your conversation with the student does not convince you that the disturbing 

features of the writing are literary in intent, consult with the creative writing 

program director. Share the writing in question, explain the situation in detail, 

review notes from your meeting with the student, and seek advice about interacting 

with the student. Try to present a thorough picture of the student and his or her 

writing.  

 

If the conversation between the instructor and program director leaves either feeling 

uncomfortable, they should confer with the associate chair of the department. The 

associate chair handles student issues in the Department of English and may have 

some history to share from other English classes as well as knowledge of resources 

beyond the department. You may determine together that it is advisable to confer 

with other instructors who have taught this student, both in creative writing and in 

other English classes, in order to determine if there have been other concerns raised 

about this student’s work. Also inform and engage the department chair.  

 

All discussions and decisions should be made with great concern for the student’s 

privacy. All correspondence and conversations should be confidential. At this point, 

if it is the considered opinion of the instructor, the program director, the department 

Responding to Disturbing Writing: A Guide for Faculty and GTAs 4 

 

Virginia Tech Department of English 

associate chair or chair, or one of the other parties contacted in investigating the 

writing—if anyone feels strongly that the student may pose a threat to himself or 

herself or other students—the department should move to Step 3. Our concerns, 

however, as individuals and as a department should be considered and serious 

before moving on to the next step. 

 

Step 3: Department involves the university  

 

The department understands its strengths in teaching English and its limits in 

mental health diagnosis and treatment and in law enforcement, and for such issues, 

it seeks the support of specialists beyond the department. The department will seek 

advice first from the Dean of Students, who may advise or initiate contact with the 

Counseling Center, Dean of the College, justice system, or some combination of 

these. This discussion of the student’s writing should be undertaken with deep 

concern for the privacy of the student and his or her right to free expression. The 

sole concern of this group should be the possibility that the student’s writing is so 

disturbing that further action or intervention may be the wisest course of action.  

 

 

Concluding Thoughts 

Judging writing and student intentions is an interpretive act.  It is impossible to 

predict behavior on the basis of writing alone. When writing teachers are concerned 

about a student, their best service is to encourage that student to engage with 

specialists. We offer these guidelines caring about our students both as developing 

writers and as human beings. Guidelines help us think through situations, but they 

cannot tell us what to do in any absolute sense. 

 

One role of creative writing is to disturb and disrupt comfortable, uncritiqued  

assumptions. Disruption that leads to new understanding is one of its contributions 

to culture.  

 

Some of the greatest writing in the history of our literature, from Catullus to Kafka 

to Toni Morrison, is deeply disturbing.  Intervention with students as a result of 

writing that pushes limits or is violent should be recommended only when there is 

genuine and deep concern upon the part of all involved that the writing in question 

is more of a call for help or a screamed threat than it is in any sense a literary 

creation. 

 

 

 

Reviewed and approved August 16, 2007 

Provost’s office: Anna Beth Benningfield, Mark McNamee 

Counseling Center: Chris Flynn 

Legal Counsel: Mary Beth Nash

 

 

Related Resources: 

University of Colorado: Identifying Distressed Students 

Central Michigan University: Assistance for Faculty in Responding in a Time of Crisis

Northern Illinois University: Teaching in Times of Crisis

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