Student safety, creative rights clash



By Jonathan Jacobson

In poems published this month by American Poetry Review, Bob Hicok, a creative writing teacher at Virginia Tech University, reflects on his time teaching the student who killed 32 people in last April’s school shooting tragedy.

“You did not/Do enough about the kid who took your class/A few buildings from where he killed,” Hicok wrote in one of five deeply confessional poems titled “So I Know,” about Seung-Hui Cho.

Hicok’s writings bring a question that has been worrying undergraduate creative writing programs throughout the country into focus: What can be done to prevent this sort of tragedy from happening again?

Mike Madonick, director of the University’s creative writing program, said that he and his staff are on the front lines of the battle between student safety and creative freedom everyday.

“The workshop” – the format creative writing classes take to allow everyone in the class to assess one student’s work – “is an atmosphere that is substantially more intimate or personal than some other classes,” Madonick said.

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Cutting into that intimacy or violating it is something that students and teachers alike are concerned about, he said.

As a result, the program has no step-by-step written guidelines in place to instruct teachers on how to deal with potentially dangerous situations.

Instead, it has opted for a more informal regulation process. A teacher worried about a student will generally show the student’s work to another teacher. If that teacher believes the work is a cause for alarm, the director of the program will be notified.

At that point, Madonick said, “we would pass it along to the appropriate next step: A dean or McKinley, but we don’t sit on it. We demand a kind of action.”

Tyehimba Jess, who teaches introductory and advanced poetry, said that these procedures are nothing new for teachers of poetry and writing.

“We’ve had to deal with this forever,” Jess said. “I think the end result is that you can make a code, but it’s just going to be up to the individual instructor’s discretion.”

To prevent problems before they start, at least one instructor at the University has opted to restrict what students can write for his class. In an introductory narrative writing class taught by Aaron Madrigal, there are nine rules about what students cannot write listed on the syllabus, though he also specifies that if students “feel the need to break these rules in order to accomplish what (they) are trying to do,” they can meet him during office hours.

Three of the rules prevent students from writing about suicide, eating disorders or graphic sex.

Virginia Tech has instituted a series of guidelines for its writing instructors to follow when they are worried for the well-being of a student or their peers.

The Virginia Tech guidelines ask professors to consider several questions when evaluating creative works: “Is this creative work excessively violent?,” “Are the characters’ thoughts as well as actions violent or threatening?,” and “Is this the student’s first piece of violent writing?”

But some students in the program said they believe department-wide written policies about what to look for in a student’s writing could be disastrous to their freedom in the classroom, noting that they believed their teachers were equipped to make the difficult judgment calls necessary to keep students safe.

“The best solution is proactivity on behalf of the teachers,” said Mark Jensen, a junior in LAS studying creative writing and English. “They know their students the best … and can somewhat be a judge of if there’s a cause for concern or not.”

Madonick echoed this sentiment and expressed confidence in his teachers. But he also said there is a certain “hypersensitivity” in the department as a result of Virginia Tech.

“We are all much more vigilant right now,” he said. “I have seen two or three instances that came forward that might not have come forward (before).”

Tyler Roeger, a senior in LAS studying creative writing and english, said that although he feels comfortable in the classroom expressing his ideas, he is worried about increasing self-censorship.

“I think that every creative writing student is probably going to have (Virginia Tech) in the back of their mind,” he said. “Probably even consciously think about that while they’re writing.”

But Jess said that students don’t have anything to worry about, unless they are showing an alarming pattern of behavior or work that has threatening tones.

“My personal experience is that you have to look at the flow of writing they bring in over a period of time,” he said.

Madonick said that instructors are taught to err on the side of maintaining safety in the classroom.

“Art is a place to express,” he said. “It has form, but it also deals with a certain degree of chaos which makes these judgment calls somewhat difficult and confusing.”