When Student Writing Could be a Red Flag

Va Tech’s guidelines for evaluating disturbing student writing, as a Word file and as filtered through an analysis by Inside Higher Ed:

The document also reflects the tightrope its drafters were walking, leaving ample room for intuition and judgment in identifying disturbing writing and offering a series of questions instructors might find helpful in distinguishing creative and literary explorations of themes like violence, drugs and suicide, from a threat or cry for help. Among the questions, geared for fiction, poetry or playwrighting courses:

  • “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 or a thematic purpose?”
  • “Are the characters’ thoughts as well as actions violent or threatening? Do characters think about or question their violent actions?..In other words, does the text reveal the presence of a literary sensibility mediating and making judgments about the characters’ thoughts and actions, or does it suggest unmediated venting of rage and anger? If the literary sensibility is missing, is the student receptive to adding that layer and to learning how to do so?”
  • “Is this the student’s first piece of violent writing?..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?”
  • “Is the writing full of expressions of hostility toward other racial or ethnic groups? Is the writing threateningly misogynistic, homophobic, racist, or in any way expressive of a mindset that may pose a threat to other students?”

“The danger,” Falco says of the Virginia Tech document (which has received approvals from the university’s counseling center, legal counsel and provost’s office) “is that written guidelines can be misused….that a situation would come about where you hamper creative freedom because students are afraid to write something because they’re afraid it will get them thrown into a system.”