VTech, Violence, and Writing

As the news trickles out about the killings at VTech, I know we are all pretty saddened, shocked and alarmed. For me, I find it disturbing that Cho Seung-Hui had written extensively for his courses as an English major and that he even was referred to counseling by his writing teacher. These things hit real close to where I spend a good part of my day, a day I often share with many like you.

So, I want to ask what our response might be at this time. We might think about revisiting some scholarship that has been published on dealing with violence in writing. I can't remember the title of it, but I recall an article about a piece of writing that described beating up a homeless man. It turned out to be fiction, but the teacher's response and thinking about appropriate action was really insightful. This may be a good place to start.

We may even look at Cho's writing. Distasteful as it may seem, it is posted online. We may ask what separates it from other writing that is also predicated on violence or just ask what we would do if a student handed in something like it in our courses.

My hope is that we can at least take an opportunity to inform ourselves on the possible situations we face as instructors.

So, I guess I am open to suggestions or ideas at this point and have a lot of questions about how to make this happen. If you have an article, a suggestion, a clue, or word of wisdom, please share! All I ask is that this not turn into rampant theorizing or polemicizing. Please keep the politics to a minimum.



Unknown said...

A good article discussing the intricacies of assessing violent writing from Inside Higher Ed is posted here.

Unknown said...

After talking with colleagues here, I want to clarify my position somewhat. I am NOT advocating a kind of textual analysis so we can SPOT the pathology of student X. Nor am I suggesting that we as teachers of writing hold some special insight to students' lives by virtue of our subject. Finally, I am also NOT implying that the 31 deaths at VTech are somehow more important or serving of a response than the thousands in Iraq (127 today alone), Sudan, Somalia, and other places in the world.

My opinion is that the US is a very violent society. Yet, many of us who teach writing as well as many in the humanities and, perhaps, academia in general, are quite open about trying to change this. In not responding to this moment, aren't we missing an opportunity to DO something, especially about what we profess to teach -- the ideological effects that lead to violence in the first place?

What I propose here is something more creative than simply diagnosing pathology via critical interpretive methods. I am proposing a *dialogue* so we can all take the actions we feel are appropriate. Maybe it's just as small as reaching out a bit more or fostering more intimate collaboration and emotional support. I certainly do NOT think we need recourse to further alienation and the reinscription of figures of "authority." Rather, I feel our role is more about fostering skills for students to not only deal with the isolation and violence around them all the time, but also with the skills to address that violence as unwelcome and unproductive.

Anonymous said...

Mental illness is not particular to race, class, religion, or any social constructs—the only thing in common is that most mental illness is treatable. Unfortunate as it seems, FERPA states that I cannot contact a student's family to make them aware of mental status changes in their child if the student is over 18 or an emancipated minor. I can talk with my department and alert them of a potential situation, but I cannot furnish a diagnosis about underlying causes of a student's behavior. I have talks with students in conference about their well-being and have advised a few over to counseling services. If their behavior creates a threatening environment, I have right to contact student conduct and or law enforcement.

A couple of years ago, I had a student who suffered mental anguish, frustration, etc and who had turned to drugs and alcohol (when he did arrive to class and always very late, he wreaked of marijuana and alcohol). I warned him of his eminent failure and suggested that we could work together on a learning contract only if he sought counseling and verified his attendance to any session with a campus counselor. He disappeared for a week. When he returned, the class was in the midst of their writing conferences and so he waited outside my office making statements that he was going get me and serve some lesson upon me. My students that came in after his arrival notified me of his threats. When I went to leave for the day he was still outside my door waiting. I quickly stated that I had to be somewhere and if he needed to speak to me, he should email me for an appointment. The student followed me across campus yelling and flailing his arms while encircling me.

What amazed me about this was that no one seemed to care: from the students out on campus, to the student conduct board. What finally got the school to pay attention was when I notified student conduct that from here on out I would call the police first, obtain a restrainer, and notify my department. I quoted from the state statutes on workplace safety and said the school was in violation. Finally, someone paid attention.

I think we can still be student centered and understand that the law states we should have safe workplaces and classrooms. We just need to apply those statutes that are in place accordingly. Maybe if when we get a student that displays abnormal behaviors that distracts from a safe environment, (which means a threatening environment), we seek out greater authorities other than counseling services first so that our other 25 students can feel safe and help can be court ordered or university ordered. The student that I spoke of was expelled, but that wasn't the end of it. He was reinstated the following year after presenting evidence that he had received counseling. He graduates next year and has been a great student. I think that is the best possible outcome and extremely student centered.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Dave, for providing a forum to discuss this important issue. I do not think the various complications that your post, the IHE article, your colleagues's comments, and the comments here present indicate that we should stop talking about this formally, and confine our frequent discussions of troubling student writing to the back rooms. Rather, you have laid out very well all the complications that need to be considered, and should be considered in writing scholarship, by writing scholars.

I met Lucinda Roy, the creative writing teacher (then department chair) who referred Cho to psychological counseling, to the university administration, and to the police. She picked me up at Blacksburg's airport when I went to Virginia Tech last Spring to give a talk. The airport is a ways from campus, so we had a lot of time to talk. The circumstances of my visit are significant. There had been a number of incidents of racial insensitivity on campus. Roy thought it important to have an event to address the issues, and the opening of VTs new rhetoric center, headed up by Kelly Belanger, became that occasion for that event. I can tell you that none of the complications about race, student rights, free expression, university culpability etc., would have been over-looked by Roy. She knew exactly the complexity of the task in front of her: protect the female students in the class who were being harrassed by Cho, continue to urge Cho to seek counseling, and continue to urge proper authorities to consider that this student was not just a little addled, but actively threatening, in word and deed.

I thought the most telling quote in the media belonged to Nikki Giovanni, Cho's teacher, who said that she had taught troubled people, and she had taught crazy people, but Cho was not merely troubled nor crazy; he was mean. Let's keep in mind that Cho's writing was not predictive of threatening behavior but concurrent with it. As late reports have revealed, Cho was already on the police radar for stalking girls, had already been sent to a mental hospital for evaluation.

Of course we aren't professional psychologists, and great ill can be done by our taking on that role. Nonetheless, if we are to consider language a meaning-making device (and I would ask why we're in this profession if we don't) then we can't ignore the meaning that some writing makes. Our attention should go first to analyzing the various mechanisms: legal, institutional, historical, medical, etc. that surround this writing, because those mechanisms effectively frame its meaning.

Unknown said...

Thanks Dorene and Cathy for both your posts! I think you both highlight very clearly the institutional constraints teachers need to be very, very cognizant of as we practice our craft.

Cathy, I think your suggestion to analyze the various structures that frames meaning is spot on! We can't simply rely on mechanisms within our daily sphere as we still participate in --sometimes enact -- the more global systems at the locally through our use of its authority and power.

Dorene, it saddens me that you write "no one seemed to care" since I think this is really at the base of Cho's anger, maybe even part of what motivated Dr. Roy and Dr. Belanger to invite Cathy. Racism seems a form of not caring for others. Ditto sexism, classism, urbanism, or any other form that privileges one group of people or type of person over others.

However, our society is really bad at providing ways to make people *feel* cared for. And I'm not talking about the alienating effects of institutions. I mean equipping each of us with ways to reach out and honestly express our care for another. Maybe its the level of cynicism. I don;t know.

Thanks for sharing your stories!

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Not always theoretical... not even always academic.. but always written..