Disturbing Writing: Guidance for Faculty

A creative writing class or assignment develops the skills of students as writers. This process naturally involves the freedom of expression. It has been my experience that from time to time UVU instructors may get much more then they were expecting from a particular writing exercise. In our post Virginia Tach world, and mentality, we are becoming accustomed to instructors taking second glances at the many works that cross their desks. The purpose of this document is to give guidelines and information regarding disturbing elements in student writing. The context or content of some student writing can create an unwelcoming environment for peers or raise questions about the author’s mental state. Instructors often feel the need to address these issues. Below is an outline regarding strategies, resources, and procedures for taking appropriate action. Most importantly it offers a thinking process to follow as you determine at what point action may be necessary.

Primarily, it should be said, that there are two states that may elicit discomfort from the educational system.

  1. If students feel that a program monitors and threatens them with disciplinary action for the themes and language they choose.
  2. If instructors feel that they must take on the roles of therapists or police officers.

This document is was created with the intent of striking a balance between holding safety and security in high regard while remaining connected to the educational purpose of the institution.

Mental Health

Identifying Disturbing Writing

A sense of what is disturbing will differ from person to person. However, most of us have a sense about what constitutes disturbing themes or disturbing writing. Content that warns of potential to self-harm or harm to others naturally caries with it what appears to be an immediate threat. Themes of violence and gruesome details or writing that that portrays deep desperation may also be included in the themes that arouse concern. However, these themes in themselves do not establish a problem.

In the case of outright threats there is little information gathering needed. This is a concerning incident and should be reported to the department chair and law enforcement.

The following questions are meant to help faculty assess the student’s situation and whether what’s disturbing reflects creative exploration or a more concerning thought process.

  • 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
    • Does the level of violence hold 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 demonstrates no self-awareness or moral consciousness, are other characters aware of or disturbed by what has taken place?
    • If this awareness is missing, is the student receptive to adding that layer and to learning how to do so?
  • Is the writing of concern 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 the violent acts 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 thinking?
  • Is the writing full of expressions of hostility toward other racial or ethnic groups?

Responding To Disturbing Writing

If after going though the above thinking process you remain concerned about a piece of writing the following will serve as a process for your actions.

NOTE: If you feel or see the presence of a threat to yourself or other students do not try to meet with the student alone or try to solve the problem alone.

  1. Immediately contact the Department chair. They can consider and advise on possible next steps.
  2. Contact Law enforcement.
  3. Contact Student Health Services to seek consultation regarding the writing.

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, 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
  • Some bit of history
  • Was it inspired by another piece of writing?
  • Allow the student to contextualize what he or she has written.
    1. Most writers will be able to give you some sense of how their writing began and evolved.
  • Ask the student to discuss the motivation of the characters
  • Ask the student for 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.
    1. 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.

This is often a good time 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 Student Health Center at SC 221 (801-863-8876). You can volunteer to call for the appointment and follow through at a later class to see if the student has gone. This is called a “hook,” it represents one of the best ways to ensure someone will seek help. Most individuals need to make a commitment in order to go though the work of therapy. A hook is a person or situation that can inspire this commitment to take action.

Document your meetings and advice by writing down the date, specific advice given, and outcomes you know of.

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

If your conversation with the student does not convince you that the disturbing features of the writing are literary in nature, consult with the necessary administrator within your department.

Here is an outline of important information to share:

  1. Share the writing in question
  2. Explain the situation in detail
  3. Review notes from your meeting with the student
  4. Seek advice about interacting with the student.
  5. Present a thorough picture of the student and his or her writing.

The chair may have some history from other 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. This is a very valuable primary source of information in determining if there have been other concerns raised about this student’s work. An informed and engaged department chair is critical in evaluating and reducing threat.

This is the point where confidentiality becomes more critical. All discussions and decisions should be made with great concern for the student’s privacy. All correspondence and conversations should be confidential.

If it is the considered opinion of the instructor, the department chair, or one of the other parties contacted in investigating the writing that the student may pose a threat to self or others the department should move to Step 3.

Step 3: Department involves the university

At this point the department will seeks the support of specialists beyond the department. A department has multiple sources of consultation and advice:

  • The Dean of Students
  • Student Health Services
  • Judicial Affairs
  • Campus Police
  • The "Concerned about a student" Website

The 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 action 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 instructors are concerned about a student, their best service is to encourage that student to engage with our specialists at Student Health Services.

Guidelines help us think through situations, but they cannot tell us what to do in any absolute sense.

The Virginia Tach English Department Faculty Page from which this document was adapted stated the following:

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."