Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Dear Colleagues,

Responding to troubled students is not a new topic for creative writing
teachers. By the nature of the craft we teach as creative writing faculty,
we may see, at times, glimpses into the destructive (or self-destructive)
psyches of our students through their stories, poems, and plays.

You may be aware that colleges have seen a sharp increase in students who
arrive with psychological and psychiatric issues. According to the 2006
National College Health Assessment 43.8% of 94,806 students surveyed "felt
so depressed it was difficult to function," during the previous year and
9.3% had "seriously considered suicide" during the year. In addition, in a
landmark study of school shootings, the United States Secret Service
concluded in 2002, that more than one-third of school shooters "exhibited an
interest in violence in their own writings, such as poems, essays, or
journal entries."

While it is true that teachers at any level, and in any subject, might pick
up on troubling signals from a student, it is college teachers in creative
writing for whom the issue is pressing.

The following brief survey (click on the link below) presents an opportunity
for you as a creative writing teacher to respond to the question: The
Troubled Student and Creative Writing: What's a Teacher to Do?


I appreciate your response (responses can be anonymous) regarding this
sensitive but critical subject. Collected responses will be instrumental to
a forthcoming presentation and scholarship on this issue.

Thank you for your time and contribution.


Dianne Donnelly

Department of English

University of South Florida

Tampa, Florida


Kate Weber said...

I think that one must look at not just a single, disturbing piece of writing, but at the student's collective work, as well as at the student himself/herself. If a student consistently produces writing that is disturbingly violent, and that student seems 'off'--depressed, overly angry, just plain creepy--then I think it's fair to call the student's work to someone's attention. Maybe they aren't about to grab a gun and shoot up a classroom, but likely they need some form of help.
Obviously a perfectly sane, rational person can produce disturbing work, but it's safe to say in such a case that the particular example of writing is not a reflection of the writer's preoccupations, longings, or overall mental state.
Those authors who become indignant and defensive over the idea that students may be judged for the content of their writing, their 'art,' seemingly haven't come in contact with a young writer whose prose is steeped in gratuitous violence and rage. I used to know such a group of writers in high school, was even friends with them before they took a dark, disturbing turn (echoed in their writings), and I regret to this day that I didn't say something to the school psychologist (though I did confront them, resulting in the rather messy ending of our two year friendship). Such writing strikes me as a cry for help, and it would be irresponsible of a teacher--whether at the high school level or a professor in a college setting--not to at least address the matter with the student, and, if necessary, take further action.

Catherine said...

It is interesting to hear your opinions based on such a different experience than I have had.

I hesitate to take on the "in loco parentis" role as a workshop leader, because the institution is a terrible parent. An instructor reporting a student to the school counselling staff is quite different from a fellow student doing so.

I also hesitate because right now in the US, there seems to be a rush to addiction/disease diagnosis and to depression diagnosis -- accompanied with medication with pretty serious side effects and often labels which permanently travel with a person.

We writers are pretty much all completely nuts in one way or another.

On the one hand, one ought to be allowed to express oneself in writing; on the other hand, it should not be the job of a writing workshop leader or the experience of an entire group of writers in workshop to slog through bloody-minded story after story. It is real anguish that is visited on the other members of the workshop.

My experience as a workshop leader has been of 1) writers in too fragile/vulnerable or angry/defiant a psychological state to accept criticism, 2) writers interested in writing as therapeutic (i.e., "art therapy"), 3) writers who view writing as free expression which cannot be evaluated or criticised -- these writers usually have trouble imagining the importance of audience or revision, 4) writers truly obsessed with conspiracies, serial murder, etc. -- who often turn their obsession on other workshoppers ("well, that would be your comment, because ___," etc.).

None of these writers even belongs in a writing workshop, with the exception, probably, of the art therapy writer belonging specifically in an art therapy workshop.

In my experience, the writers in 4) category are the most dangerous; yet writers I've ejected from workshop because they lose control of the conventions of interpersonal relationships have not been depressed, violent, or creepy outside workshop -- they've been successful professionals who have gone on to try to learn to write without the support of the workshop environment they can't handle.

But I've also had workshop participants who have handed in serial murder story after story, and when told to try something new (especially in a multi-genre workshop where trying a hand at every genre is required), have dropped the course.

Yet this has not happened to me during a workshop on campus at a residential college.

On the other hand, my undergraduate institution was next to one of the oldest mental hospitals in the country. Very often writers there would take upper division writing workshops. Also, some of the best undergraduate writers happened to have started out at other colleges, were unfortunately resident at the institute for a time, and then enrolled at the college because it was near their mental health care provider. These workshoppers were very keenly aware of what was healthy and what was not. Having fellow writers with this level of sophistication was pretty formative for me.