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.