24 April 2007

Living with Virginia Tech

I have no doubt that everyone on this blog was riveted by the events that took place at Virginia Tech last week—particularly since Cho Seung-Hui regularly took classes in a field in which many of us are currently teaching. The enormity of the event looms large—5 faculty and 27 students dead—and I can’t help but reflect on my relationship with some of my own troubled students. We all have them: every semester, students who come from difficult backgrounds, others who are on medication for psychiatric problems, and still others who should be, sign up for my fiction classes. Every semester, violent fictions are submitted for critique to my workshop. What seems to be missed in the reports that have arisen about Cho and his work, however, is that violent fictions are written as frequently by “healthy” students, as by students who are still coming to grips with their problems.

As the public tries to come to some kind of understanding about what role creative writing, academic bureaucracy, and our mental health system may have played in last week’s tragedy, I’ve become frustrated by the continued association between Cho’s violent “predisposition” and his creative work: that his writing was oracular for the terrible events that took place last week.

Stephen King is the most recent “expert” to chime in on the matter:

“For most creative people, the imagination serves as an excretory channel for violence: We visualize what we will never actually do….Cho doesn't strike me as in the least creative, however. Dude was crazy. Dude was, in the memorable phrasing of Nikki Giovanni, ''just mean.'' Essentially there's no story here, except for a paranoid a--hole who went DEFCON-1. He may have been inspired by Columbine, but only because he was too dim to think up such a scenario on his own. On the whole, I don't think you can pick these guys out based on their work, unless you look for violence unenlivened by any real talent.”

(Read the entire piece at: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20036014,00.html)

I understand why it’s much easier to blame the work or the person, rather than addressing the systems in place that might have caught Cho before he took the incalculable actions he did. If Stephen King were the least bit introspective, he’d try to address the larger context arising from VTech. Of course then he wouldn't be Stephen King.

At this point, some of us have no doubt read (or read reports of) Cho’s plays “Richard McBeef” and “Mrs. Brownstone.” For better or for worse, I’ve seen material as violent in my classes. Television and video games (or a simple lack of talent) might be blamed for the all-too-easy transition between character development and violence in works like these. (Certainly, our workshop discussions inevitably take up the question of genre, the influence of the media on the scene of the literary, and the role that language plays in the creation of voice.) But that question, for the moment, belongs to a different day.

Let’s face it: Cho's writing isn’t what clued his professors in that he was ill. From what I’ve read, it was his persona in class—his inability to relate to students or his teachers. His actions and behaviors (an unwillingness to speak, photographing other students with his cell phone, hiding his face etc) were the evident and eerie disruptive force in those classrooms—not his work itself. I’d like to think that, if any of us had a similar student, we would have tried to flag him or her ahead of time, to call attention to such inappropriate behavior. What’s frightening is that Lucinda Roy (then Chair of Creative Writing) seems to have tried her best in this regard—to no success.

What I fear from this event—my reason for posting at all—is that Cho’s actions will change the field in which we work: that administrations will censor what students turn in to class (perhaps through obligations put on instructors to report violent work), though more insidiously, and more worrisome, is that student will begin to censor their own imaginations. For example, one student who handed in a manuscript with pedophilic content this week prefaced to the class that it was written “pre Virginia Tech.”

This might be just one sad outcome arising out of larger, far more tragic circumstances.

What has become more than evident however is that academic bureaucracies aren’t equipped to handle one lone distressed student. Certainly, our mental health system is too clunky and inadequate to handle the isolated minefield that represents a single person’s mind.


Lance Olsen said...

Like you, I was mystified by the goofily simplistic dots the media kept trying to connect between writing about violence in creative-writing classes and being a mass murderer.

If I had a dime for every story written (usually by guys) about chain-saw massacres and cannibals in my intro-to-fiction classes over the years, I'd be a very rich man.

I suspect those stories reflect the genre in the general pop culture with which the students are most familiar rather than any killer instincts.

But such media weirdnesses are great reminders of how wary and reductionistic our culture tends to be when confronted by a written text.

Trevor Dodge said...

Thanks for posting this, Christina. I've been blogging a bit about this myself over the past week, and making sure to address these issues with my creative writing and literature students.

You're right that Stephen King can't help himself but TO BE himself, and in doing so becomes just another media teeth-chatterer (puhhlease already: his piece is, after all, published in Entertainment Weekly for chrissakes). This isn't surprising in the slightest, but it is disappointing to see him piss away a golden opportunity to start an intelligent conversation. As I posted here, I'm most dismayed by his own meanness. What possible good does it do to pile on the obviously mentally distressed student who committed these awful acts? King comes off braying like the donkey he is, and it's most unfortunate.

More important, though, is that chilling effect you described of your student who labeled the workshop piece "pre-Virginia Tech." I had a long discussion with my fiction writing class last week about a lot of these concerns you brought up, and one student voiced a similar fear about his work being clouded by the rush to judgment. He said that he had a piece he wanted to workshop last week, but decided not to bring it because of the hullabaloo. This is a student who isn't prone to exaggeration or blame-shifting, either; he clearly demonstrated that he felt a chill go through the culture last week and he didn't feel adequately prepared to respond.

We should, of course, express our deep sorrow over the tragic loss of life (that *includes Cho*, btw...) and the fact that this happened on a college campus. And for right now, I think the best we can do as teachers (and writers ourselves...) is to air these concerns and allow our students to enter the conversations if they feel comfortable doing so.

Davis Schneiderman said...

Today's Chicago Tribune, front page, stripped down the left:

EXCERPT from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-070426essay,1,1089899.story?coll=chi-news-hed...

"Massacre fallout: Charges for essay
High school teacher 'disturbed' by violent content of assignment

By Jeff Long and Carolyn Starks
Tribune staff reporters
Published April 26, 2007

Told to express emotion for a creative-writing class, high school senior Allen Lee penned an essay so disturbing to his teacher, school administrators and police that he was charged with disorderly conduct, officials said Wednesday.

Lee, 18, a straight-A student at Cary-Grove High School, was arrested Tuesday near his home and charged with the misdemeanor for an essay police described as violently disturbing but not directed toward any specific person or location...."

And so it goes.


Dimitri said...

Thanks for the link Davis.

Effectively, that teacher said to the student: "Don't censor your thoughts. That's my job."

christina milletti said...

Wow. I used the word "insidious" in my initial post, thinking that the consequences I was pointing to would be far more subtle. Please follow up on this Davis: I'd like to know what happens to this kid.

Ted Pelton said...

An accident that the kid in Chicago is Asian-American?

Asians I guess are now potential killers the way all Muslims are potential terrorists. Here's a recent experience related by writer and PP/FF contributor Kazim Ali of something that happened on his campus:

Culture of Fear: Poetry Professor Becomes Terror Suspect

Davis Schneiderman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Davis Schneiderman said...

Here's the most recent update:

The student was following the assignment to write what he wanted, uncensored and unedited, for a free writing assignment.


The Tribune, a few days ago, also posted the essay:

From: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0704271261apr28,1,278196.story

The problematic sections--at the start and close--seem to be taken wildly out of context in an essay that appears to critique the class and instructor.

I believe the Marines have rescined their acceptance of Lee, but will reconsider down the road. Meanwhile, Lee is trying to finish the year and graduate...


Danny from NJ said...

As much as I agree that the media and other outlets need to stop blaming every creative intuition for mass murders, there is no need to call the foremost author of contemporary American Literature a donkey. Mr. King knows what it's like to be shunned and looked at as a fearsome individual based on the writings he publishes and has never fully been given credit for the immense creative talent that he possesses.