When does creative writing become concerning?

Creative writing instructors struggle to know when a student’s writing crosses the line.

Anne Millerbernd

For many college students, creative writing classes can serve as an artistic outlet or a place of expression. But when the created works are possibly threatening, the line between concerning and creativity becomes blurry.

The first sign of a student in distress can surface in assignments or interactions with professors, and professors nationwide say it’s difficult to know when intervention is necessary, and what kind of mediation is needed, to avoid potentially destructive behaviors.

“We’re in a program where you say to students, ‘Use your imagination, make things up, learn how to entertain a reader [or] maybe frighten a reader,’” University of Minnesota creative writing professor Julie Schumacher said. “But where is the line between frightening the reader in a creative, fictional way and frightening a classroom?”

Schumacher authored an opinion piece published in the New York Times late last month about a University student who wrote violent poems. She describes meeting with him and the intense distress she felt when she asked him if he intended to harm himself or others.

His response, she said, was the first thing that unnerved her: “If I was going to pull a Virginia Tech or Columbine, I wouldn’t tell you, would I?’”

Their encounter was five years ago, when Schumacher was the director of the University’s creative writing program, but in the wake of recent campus shootings, she thought writing the piece was relevant.

The University’s guidelines for handling written distress in students’ assignments is straightforward — nine steps that aim to help instructors through a conversation with a potentially dangerous student.

But Schumacher said she wasn’t referred to those resources and the University told her to only ask one question — if the student had violent intentions. She recalled the palpable tension as she sat across from him waiting for an answer, adding the University didn’t specify what she should do if he said “yes.”

Though Schumacher didn’t intend for her piece to criticize the University, some of its nearly 600 online comments are critical of the school’s approach to the situation.

Chief of Staff to the Vice Provost for Student Affairs Amelious Whyte said in a statement that faculty members aren’t forced to meet with concerning students, but he added that research shows students are more likely to open up to someone they know.

Azadeh Aalai, psychologist and faculty member at Queensborough Community College in New York, said writing can be a safe outlet for people to channel aggression or work through their trauma, so it’s difficult to tell if aggressive writings will translate to real-world violence.

When Aalai was teaching courses at a different institution, she had a student whose writings were violent in nature, but because of the relationship she had built with the student, Aalai said she knew the writings didn’t imply danger.

If a student does plan to harm others, she said, they often write their thoughts down and share them as a way to either seek encouragement to further their plans or get caught.

Developing a close relationship with students is important for creative writing and English professors, said David Mazel, an English professor and head of the English, theatre and communications department at Adams State University. 

Because the Colorado-based school is small, he said, it’s easier for the students to get to know their instructors — an advantage Schumacher didn’t have before her one-on-one meeting five years ago.

Mazel said in his experience, unusual writing generally turns out to be a matter of a student searching for their creative voice. He said he usually takes the student aside and addresses the problem himself.

“What I want to know is, ‘Is this scary person a character, or is it you?’” he said.

Managing the threat

Almost exactly one year before the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, the gunman wrote a paper for a creative writing class about a young man who hates the students at his school and intends to kill them all.

The school has since put a team in place to handle students who raise red flags, said Gene Deisinger, Virginia Tech’s deputy chief of police and director of threat management services.

And many schools have developed some variation of the team, generally comprised of members of the institution’s student affairs office, mental health services, police and various others.

At the University, it comes in the form of the Behavioral Consultation Team. It was developed in 2007 after the Virginia Tech shooting, said Glenn Hirsch, the University’s assistant vice provost and director of consulting and counseling services.

The approaches to students of concern vary, but unless team members think meeting with the student is dangerous, they’ll typically recommend the instructor to first speak with him or her to clarify intentions, Hirsch said. Behavioral Consultation Team members will intervene and meet with the student if the student’s intentions are still unclear, he said.

The team received reports of 137 students last year, according to Whyte’s statement.

But Hirsch said not all reports involve threats to others. In fact, many of them concern students who may only be a threat to themselves.

“The [Behavioral Consultation Team] is happy to become involved anytime a person has any degree of concern at all, regardless of how serious it sounds,” Hirsch said.

Duluth campus biology professor John Pastor said he had an encounter with a potentially harmful student about 13 years ago.

The student, he said, had verbally threatened others and sent an email to an employee on the Twin Cities campus implying a death threat. Rather than removing her from campus, Pastor said, she was given a research assistantship in exchange for her cooperation in staying off campus.

“Nothing seems to have changed. [There are] all these assurances from the University,” he said. “But when you have a bona fide case … they say, ‘Well, you’ll have to handle it.’”

What happened at Virginia Tech, Hirsch said, was the result of a lack of communication about the student’s behavior across different offices — a situation, Hirsch said, the University is doing its best to prevent.

The Behavioral Consultation Team developed an online database this spring that allows people from different offices to share information about concerning students, he said.

Schumacher and other creative writing faculty are planning to meet with the Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity to discuss the unique issues they face in their department, said University spokesman Steve Henneberry.