Crisis of Conscience

In the aftermath of Virginia Tech, how should teachers handle disturbing writing?

by Maria Hummel


On August 16, the seven professors of the creative writing department at Virginia Tech became possibly the first in American history to draft and approve specific sets of questions to diagnose creative writing for potential danger. They did so in an unprecedented maelstrom of media attention surrounding their profession after the April shooting spree by Seung-Hui Cho, a student whom several of them had taught. And they did so because they feared that someone else would do it for them.

The most problematic set of questions focuses on how authors handle right and wrong in their writing:

Are the characters’ thoughts as well as actions violent or threatening?

Do characters think about or question their violent actions?

If one set of characters demonstrates no self-awareness or moral consciousness, are other characters aware of or disturbed by what has taken place?

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?

These subtle distinctions expose a critical concept in the world of letters: the literary conscience. Our moral conscience tells us to be kind to our neighbors. The literary conscience tells us to be truthful to our subjects. How truthful, however, is a matter of interpretation and, in societies from communist Russia to contemporary Iran, it has often been regulated for the so-called “protection” of the people.

In the case of American universities, the potential area for censorship is not religion or politics, but depictions of violence. Cho’s former playwriting professor, Ed Falco, spearheaded the effort to develop the guidelines as a preemptive measure to safeguard teacher and student rights.

“What’s at stake is a robust academic environment for creative writers where we have a sense of freedom of expression, freedom for creativity,” he told the Roanoke Times. Instead of hard rules, the carefully worded document is a “good-faith attempt” to help teachers navigate their responses to “disturbing” student writing.

As has become apparent since the shootings, most poetry professors have long faced this minefield in their classrooms. Every school year, they read hundreds of student poems that deal with childhood abuse, war, and dysfunctional families. What protocol do they follow?

Central Missouri State University professor Kevin Prufer shared two incidents in which he had to evaluate student writing for danger signals. These were not works about rape or racial discrimination. They were actual campus-killer fantasies.

In the early days of his teaching career, Prufer had a brooding student who wrote about serial killers to troubling effect. “While the serial killer always got his comeuppance in the end, the relish with which the student wrote of gunning down schoolchildren was disturbing,” he says.

Unsure how to respond, Prufer let a few things go by before he called the writer into his office and suggested that he focus on other themes. “Which he did. Poorly.” Prufer says he deeply regrets not suggesting counseling, especially because the student dropped the class soon after their talk. The next time Prufer encountered campus violence in student writing, the writer was killing off his actual classmates in his stories as a "prank." Prufer spoke in private to the student, who was surprised and embarrassed that he had worried his classmates. This had not been his intention. Unbidden by Prufer, he immediately wrote a contrite letter to his peers and was welcomed back.

Prufer says that if he had had guidelines like Virginia Tech’s to consult, he might have dealt with the first case as well as he did the second. “What I appreciate most about [the guidelines] is that they make a careful attempt to contextualize the violence,” he says. “I remember being an inexperienced, overwhelmed new professor and really not knowing how to handle my own very disturbing student, whom to turn to, or how to try to distinguish between mere bad, offensive writing and possibly dangerous intentions.”

In addition to explaining how to diagnose potentially threatening writing, the Virginia Tech guidelines also function as useful advice for a more common concern among teaching poets: how to address disturbing poetry from students who have turned to verse as an outlet for deep personal pain.

University of Vermont professor Major Jackson says he commonly encounters poems about incest, rape, and racial profiling from the perspective of the victim. “My tendency in discussing the poem during its allotted fifteen minutes is to stick to the questions of aesthetics and vision, but nearly every time I will check in with the student after class,” he says. “I like to verify that they have the necessary resources beyond the classroom as a place where they can voice their trauma.”


In light of the Virginia Tech tragedy, but before the guidelines became available, I asked a dozen poets how they approached teaching writing about evil, defining “evil” in this case as that which causes great harm to the self or others. My question had been prompted by reading some remarks that the Berkeley poet Robert Duncan had made in a letter to Denise Levertov. It was the fall of 1971, and their friendship would soon shipwreck over how to exercise a literary conscience. As Vietnam War protests heated up, Duncan sent Levertov a letter attacking her involvement in antiwar rallies. He feared that politics were spoiling her poetry.

“The poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it,” he told her. “[It is] a disease of our generation to offer symptoms and diagnoses of what we are instead of imaginations and creations of what we are.”

For Duncan, the literary conscience was paramount—to imagine evil, to give it life and depth, was a worthier task than campaigning against it. In contrast, Levertov’s internal moral compass circumscribed her literary conscience.

“I’ve always had a strong preference for works of art in which the artist was driven by a need to speak of what deeply stirred him—whether in praise or blame,” she said. She wrote about the horrors of war because they struck her as terribly wrong, and expressing that wrong could make great art.

Most of the poets who responded to my interview first defined their own notion of “evil,” and, like Levertov and Duncan, they differed on the question of their moral and literary responsibilities. On one end of the spectrum is Bucknell University professor G.C. Waldrep, whose theological beliefs inform his work and life.

“Evil is a given. It is part of our human condition, whether one perceives its origin in the putative ‘Fall’ or not,” he says. “The most we can do, perhaps, is recognize it for what it is, in ourselves and in others. And behave accordingly: which includes writing about it with honesty and passion.”

On the opposite end is Florida State University professor Julianna Baggott. “I don’t think in these terms and I don’t think I ever will,” she says. “Are you asking if it’s my role to teach the difference between good and evil, or the evils of evil? No, that's not my job. I teach people how to write—I believe my duties are more of an artful mechanic than a preacher. . . . I’m not a psychologist and have no understanding of psychosis, but I see Seung-Hui Cho’s actions as those that stem from a deep mental illness.”

The rest of the poets fell somewhere between Waldrep and Baggott. “As writers, our job is to enter into those places that the rest of the culture is unable or unwilling to articulate,” writes Nick Flynn, who teaches at the University of Houston. Troubled by the passage of the Military Detainee Act of 2006, he recently focused on the issue of torture in his workshop. “I brought in ‘political’ poems—Rachel Zucker, Matthea Harvey, some of the great postwar Polish poets, as well as texts both pro and con on torture.”

Although the students’ reactions to the assignments were varied, Flynn felt that reading these writers’ expressions of their personal bewilderment in the face of grave moral wrongs had a positive effect on their poetry. “It just seemed to make everyone’s work deeper, more fluid, more risky.”

Is part of a professor’s job to show students how to oppose hatred and oppression? Sandy Tseng, who has taught at Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh, says she feels that teaching, particularly at the undergraduate level, has to involve a moral education. “I make an effort to choose books by authors of various races, gender, and sexual orientation because I, as an authority figure in their eyes, am making a stand against racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. . . . . After Virginia Tech, I had no qualms about addressing moral issues in the classroom when the opportunity allowed,” she says. “The fact is, most racist students are not Seung-Hui Cho—their racism hasn’t progressed to violent hatred, but is the result of ignorance. I think there’s a real possibility that students like these can change.”

Alicia Ostriker also tried to expose ignorance and intolerance when she encountered the fantasy of violence against women in her workshops at Rutgers University. She reminded the class and the writer that such fantasies are very common-in this country and in the world. “[That] they are encouraged by the culture, and that they are in fact enacted all too often,” says Ostriker. “I try not to condemn the poem but to see it, and help the class and the writer see it, as a cultural and psychological phenomenon.”

While Tseng and Ostriker spoke to the teacher’s role as a moral authority, other poets stressed their artistic responsibility to protect students’ freedom of expression.
Judging a poem’s merit by its content can create misinterpretations, cautions James Hoch of Ramapo College. Instead of condemning a poem’s subject matter, professors should allow “for the broadest levels of tolerance and offense and allow for indignity in art to lead us toward human dignity in our lives.”

Ironically, the Virginia Tech guidelines do uphold unsettling literature for the very reason that it is unsettling: “One role of creative writing is to disturb and disrupt comfortable, uncritiqued assumptions.” Although the document gives a step-by-step protocol for interviewing the potentially dangerous student, involving the program director, and contacting counseling staff, it also concludes by saying that intervention with students is recommended “only when there is genuine and deep concern upon the part of all involved that the writing in question is more of a call for help or a screamed threat than it is in any sense a literary creation.” Falco also stresses that even the guidelines’ tentative efforts to define threatening writing are a work in progress and “open to revision.”

“If you encourage students to explore their deepest feelings and urges in their writing, then you are going to encounter darkness. . . . You handle each case in turn,” says Waldrep. “These are difficult questions that go to the heart not only of creative writing pedagogy, but also to just how poetry functions in society—our society, any society.”

Originally Published: November 15, 2007


On November 16, 2007 at 3:26pm Rane Arroyo wrote:
This is a fascinating article and thank you for the thoughtful approach. I've had the recent experience of dealing with a former creative writing student who is considered a stalker by campus police and administration, a physical threat to me. It was his behavior, one on one, that was disturbing and has now escalated into quite the drama. When I asked for help one year ago, no one seemed especially alarmed. Now I train students what to do if there is an emergency situation. The students are brave and brilliant, returning my faith in the value of creative writing, why we gather to talk about words. One issue that your article doesn't deal with is the profound loneliness one faces in such situations. That this stalker is almost the opposite of me--white, straight, provincial--hasn't stopped me from offering students workshops that expand and question their world views, their views. Having a bodyguard has taught me to value poetry's freedoms. Rane Arroyo

On November 20, 2007 at 12:10pm Majid Naficy wrote:
Thank you for such an interesting piece. And these are my thoughts: 1. You don't have to be a preacher in order to have conscience. An artful mechanic also have conscience. 2. The problem with communism in Russia or theocracy in my homeland, Iran is not because there the authorities care about conscience, but rather because they officialize it. 3. I don't accept that teachers become the tools of law enforcement in class. Hence, guidelines and not rules. It is up to the individual conscience of each teacher to make a decision on each case. Otherwise Good Morning to Nazism!

On November 20, 2007 at 4:27pm Dan Vera wrote:

Interesting piece. I especially appreciated the Duncan/Levertov exchange. This seems to be a very current topic of discussion as poets attempt to deal with how to provoke and bear witness -- the Split This Rock Poetry conference in DC next March for example with folks like Doty and Kinnell -- and others attempting to keep that Duncanesque distance.

I am interested in why you didn't think to ask the poets at Virginia Tech? There are some pretty amazing poets who not only are dealing with this but had direct dealings with Cho. Nicki Giovanni is at VT and had to demand Cho be removed from one of her classes (she literally threatened to resign her post if they didn't do it) and also Jeff Mann teaches in the department. I would've been interested in their responses or reflections being at virtual ground zero of the "evil" you invoked in this piece.

On December 3, 2007 at 4:50pm Grahame Richards wrote:
This is an interesting and instructive piece, Maria, that I will forward to Elaine. Teachers have always had a moral responsibility to care about and even care for their students, especially the undergaduates. Even though most college students are "legal adults" these days, and speaking as a parent, there's still an overriding in loco parentis expectation for our colleges and universities. And that responsibility for safety and protection of the student and others falls to the school's faculty as well as its administration. Your article and the VT guidelines will help teachers better understand and deal with that responsibility. In short, don't look the other way so much. Rather, teach them, help them grow in discilpine and knowledge and maturity, but first, keep them alive and well. Congratulations!

On December 19, 2007 at 8:38pm rushmc wrote:
But if we don't teach students to write explicit violence and convincing revenge fantasies, how will they ever get work writing for tv and the movies?!?

On February 10, 2009 at 8:49pm DiDi wrote:
I don't think that college teachers should be expected to parent their students. You cannot teach an 18+ year old how to have a conscience. Since they are ADULTS, you should be able to expect a certain amount of decorum. If they want to act like children, make them leave. As for Cho, he should have been removed from campus after he was evaluated. There is no law in place that states that you have to educate any of these students.

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Maria Hummel is the author of the poetry collection House and Fire, winner of the 2013 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, and two novels: Motherland (Counterpoint, 2014) and Wilderness Run (St. Martin's, 2003). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in Poetry, New England Review, Narrative, the Sun, the New York Times, and the centenary anthology The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine.

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