The other side of student writing

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 19 April 2007

From this Guardian article on the murders at Virginia Tech:

[Lucinda Roy] had removed Cho from a poetry class in November 2005 because his behaviour and writing frightened fellow students, as well as his professor, Nikki Giovanni. "There was something about his anger that made me think it just wasn't someone writing. It was a deeper place where it came from," Ms Roy said. "I just thought, here is someone who doesn't have much to lose." She notified campus counselling services, the legal department, and the dean of students about Cho. "He seemed incredibly depressed. He really needed help," she said.

She also asked campus police to review the writing sample which had disturbed Ms Giovanni. The police were responsive, but Ms Roy said there was little they could do because Cho had not made direct threats [...]

[Another professor, Edward Falco] said: "Periodically you get very violent writing. You get writing that is misogynistic, that is hateful. You have to deal with that. What is lack of craft, and what is a reflection of psychological problems - these are not easy to discern."
In a sense, it's just a lengthy if-only. To think that a crime like this was nearly prevented is consoling, somehow, and if someone was concerned enough to take a writing sample to the police, then it's much easier to think of this as a 'nearly'. And it's difficult to imagine academic staff taking student work to the police unless that work was so clearly the sign of psychological illness and of a potential threat. On the other hand, is it ever that easy to tell?

Student creative writing can be a very strange thing. Not all potentially disturbing material implies something's wrong with its author, and young writers tend towards extremes anyway, because... well. Because they're stretching their writerly wings, I suppose, and because they've yet to learn the power of understatement, and because why write a touching and poignant conversation between parting lovers when you can get your TA to mark acrobatically explicit sex scenes instead? ("You're overusing exclamation marks here. Also, I think one of your protagonists would have sprained something by now.") And sometimes they come across as angry or angsty or downright weird, but a lot of teenagers are angry or angsty or downright weird, and most of them don't hurt anybody. Still, there's standard creative writing eccentricity, and then there's the work that goes beyond 'eccentric'. Most academics haven't taught mass murderers, but I bet lots of us have taught students like 'Pete'.

'Pete' was in my first-year class a few years ago. Smiled a lot, sat at the back. A few of the girls stuck to him like remoras and giggled at every joke. He was a handful without being too difficult, and so long as the limelight shone on him for a few minutes in every class he wouldn't be too disruptive. But Pete was there for the credit, not the books, and when it became clear English wasn't the easy ride he'd hoped for, Pete started resenting both the work he had to do and the fact he had to do it. He wasn't happy when I said I would no longer be marking him present if he turned up to class without his books; he was even less happy when his first assignment got the fail it deserved. And he didn't like me much.

Pete's second assignment was a creative response piece, and the most disturbing student work I've seen so far. It was a re-writing of a text we'd already studied in class, but it had little in common with the source material except for the female protagonist's name: in this version, she was kidnapped, graphically tortured, and broke free to start killing and torturing people herself, including her mother and various men. I say she had the same name as the protagonist in the source material, but she was only called that once, in the first paragraph, and described just as 'the slut' or 'the whore' after that. I didn't know what to say about it, let alone what grade to give it. I still don't, really.

I don't think Pete was a danger to me or anyone else in the class. I think he was a brat who was trying to shock me. But I remember meeting him in the corridor the day that assignment was due in, and stepping out of his way as he sprinted past to get to the office before the deadline, and how he laughed and waved hi to me when he was holding that story in his other hand. Only a tiny, tiny minority of students will be murderers, but they're all people, and sometimes they won't be the kind of people you'd want to be left alone with. Still, there's never going to be a way to tell the unpleasant ones from the disturbed ones from the truly dangerous ones, based on their writing alone. How would you ever know?


  1. Laz Says:
  2. Out of interest, what did Pete get? In the olden days it would have been a fail, a clip around the ear and a sound talking to. Now... Well, if you tell us we'll know.

  3. Am also very curious. Do tell!

  4. A fail for the assignment (and therefore the whole course). It was the vaguest grade I've ever given to a second-marker, though; I think my grade sheet just said 'I have NO idea what to do with this.'