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
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
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
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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
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
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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
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
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
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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.
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
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
Reviewed and approved August 16, 2007
Provost’s office: Anna Beth Benningfield, Mark McNamee
Counseling Center: Chris Flynn
Legal Counsel: Mary Beth Nash