When David Raeburn, a lecturer in the Creative Writing program, attended a fiction reading in Rosenwald Hall last month, he was alarmed by a conspicuous presence outside the room: a police officer monitoring the event. Raeburn guessed that security for creative writing events had been bolstered after the tragedy at Virginia Tech, where, months prior to the shooting, the killer exhibited jarring signs of his instability in his creative writing assignments.
“I’m sure campus security said, ‘There’s a creative writing event’ [and decided to patrol it],” Raeburn said.
According to the University of Chicago Police Department, the coverage was routine for an after-hours event like this one. But Raeburn’s reaction betrays a wariness among members of the Creative Writing program about being over-policed after the shooting at Virginia Tech. With details about the killer surfacing since the massacre, one resonating story is that of faculty members who reacted to the killer’s conspicuously disturbing prose by mandating his removal from a creative writing class. The tragic validation of their formal response has sparked discussions on how teachers should proceed when student writing straddles the line between questionable content and free expression.
Take Cav, for example, a 26-year-old drug user from San Francisco whose experimentation with acid induced an intense psychedelic trip—the kind his creator, fourth-year creative writing minor David Pickett, has never experienced. Pickett, who turned in a novel about Cav in his creative writing portfolio, said it is important that students be able to write freely without worrying that a teacher is policing their work.
“If it ever came to a point where students are uncomfortable writing about things because they are afraid something bad is going to happen to them because of it, that would be bad,” Pickett said.
Pickett said a formula of “half experience and half imagination” helped him concoct passages about drug use and that teachers have never “turned [him] in for writing about it.” Like Pickett, many writers argued that fiction, no matter the content, is often no more than that—fictional. They said it should not be presumed to reflect the writer’s own life.
But Pickett added that it’s too simple to say teachers should never intervene. Depending on the situation, he said, it may be the teacher’s “responsibility” to speak up.
“Part of a teacher’s job is to make sure that their students are doing okay more than just in class,” he said. If the student might do himself or others harm, teachers should say something, Pickett said.
Julia Klein, coordinator of the Creative Writing program, said “there isn’t an official policy” requiring that Creative Writing faculty report work that lingers on disturbing topics, but occurrences are handled on a case-by-case basis.
When such a situation presented itself to Klein—she declined to discuss the details, citing the writer’s privacy—the next step was to speak to the student’s college adviser.
Garin Cycholl, a lecturer in the Creative Writing program who discussed Virginia Tech with his class, pointed out that creative writing classes are often executed as workshops, allowing teachers to get to know the students. The teacher can base judgments, like the one Klein made, on more than just a student’s writing, he said.
“It’s an intimate setup,” he said. “You get a sense of how willing [the student is] to take criticism about the subject matter in the work.”
He added that he likes to give students “as much rein to play. Unless there’s a clear psychological issue, I would not tend to push any kind of intervention.”
Dean of Students Susan Art, who coordinates the College advising program, said that if a teacher comes forward with questionable student writing, administrators would “follow the same practice as we would [if it were] disturbing behavior.” The student would be contacted for a discussion with the dean or other advisers.
“If we believe that a student may represent a threat to himself or others, we would ask that she be assessed at either the Emergency Room or at the Student Counseling Service,” Art said in an e-mail interview.
Thomas Kramer, director of Student Counseling and Resource Services, said his center welcomes referrals from faculty.
“If we got bizarre stuff like that, we’d brainstorm with the professor about ways to get this person some help,” he said.
But this equation makes some members of the Creative Writing program uncomfortable. They argue there’s a difference between disturbing words and disturbing behavior and that the success of their work often hinges on this distinction, especially in the case of fiction.
Rachel Landau, a third-year creative writing minor, is not a rapist. But a few years ago, she and her friends found themselves disturbed by Landau’s own writing.
“I wrote a story from the perspective of a rapist…. I kind of was really disgusted with myself for writing it,” she said.
But Landau said that writing the story helped her mitigate anxiety over one of her “big fears.” It allowed her to “explore an…element of…the unknown,” she said.
Creative writing resurfaced as a therapeutic process for Landau last month after the Virginia Tech shootings. Her friend, Jan Michael, is a third-year at Virginia Tech. One of his close friends was killed.
“[Michael] has always critiqued my essays and my stories. He goes over them line by line,” she said.
After the shootings, Michael sent Landau critiques of some recent stories, accompanied by a note: He said critiquing her work helped him restore some normalcy to his life after the tragedy.
“Through my writing, I helped someone who was living through, it and that made me feel better,” Landau said.
But the same medium that helped these students cope with Virginia Tech faces complications in the post–Virginia Tech college landscape. Undergraduate creative writing instructors question where to draw the line between free expression and what should raise red flags.
Cycholl said he’s seen colleagues speak up when students’ work conspicuously focuses on one particularly heinous crime.
“The line for them was sexual violence,” he said. “That was kind of the tipping point where they would intervene.”
But Raeburn argued that in fiction, there is no line. He recalled being a college student himself and being disturbed by a classmate’s racist story about a skinhead murdering a homeless man.
“[The rest of the class] figured he had just done a very good job of portraying the psyche of a racist skinhead,” Raeburn said. But the story was less fictional than classmates may have suspected: “I knew this person, and I knew he was [actually] a skinhead,” Raeburn said.
Yet nothing was done when Raeburn spoke up. “I brought it up with my teacher. He said, ‘Ya know, it’s not illegal to be a skinhead, so there’s nothing I can do with it.’”
Raeburn said he abides by this rule in his own classroom: He does not see the mitigation of other students’ discomfort as a reason to censor the topics students can address in their writing.
“Students are paying $40,000 to go here…but they don’t have a right to feel comfortable,” he said.
Still, Raeburn said that writers who lack empathy will have trouble finding success. In fact, he read the Virginia Tech killer’s writing and said it was poorly crafted.
“I have to admit the letter ‘F’ flashed through my head. I wouldn’t have accepted him to the [class],” he said. “People who kill or injure other people don’t think of these people as human beings. Their writing reflects that, and that defeats the whole point of writing: to reveal everyone’s humanity.”