Disturbing Student Writing

Occasionally student writing may raise concerns for an instructor about the student’s psychological well-being. Of special concern is writing that seems to suggest deep despair or serious thoughts of harming self or others. This guide offers ways to identify disturbing elements in student writing and outlines strategies, resources, and procedures for taking appropriate actions.

Please note that this document deals with disturbing writing only. For problems with behavior, please refer to Violence Prevention of the Counseling Service web pages. Disturbing writing in combination with disturbing behavior will heighten concern.

Identifying Disturbing Writing

Creative Writing

The following material on assessing creative writing was drawn from Responding to Disturbing Creative Writing: A Guide for Faculty and GTAs, developed by the Virginia Tech Department of English, 2007.

Everyone’s sense of what is disturbing will differ. We recommend that instructors follow their own instincts and common sense when determining what constitutes disturbing writing. Probably at the core, we are concerned about writing that seems to warn of potential harm to self or others, or writing that reflects a deep desperation. Themes of violence and gruesome details might be markers, but they do not in themselves establish a problem. Outright threats are more problematic. The following questions may help you assess the student’s situation and whether the disturbance reflects creative exploration or something more idiosyncratic.

  • 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? If one set of characters demonstrate 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? 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? If yes, what is the nature of his or her other work? 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? Do they seem to be the point of the piece, or a component? Does the nature of the violence—or the nature of the writing overall—suggest extreme depression or suicidal inclinations?
  • Does the writing express 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?

Other Student Writing

An instructor may also encounter concerning or disturbing writing in other forms, such as student journals, responses to literature that includes traumatic experiences, personal essays, or papers that focus on psychological or social issues. Again, writing that suggests serious thoughts of harm to self or others, desperation, or intense anger and hostility is of primary concern. Also of concern is writing that suggests the presence of significant emotional struggles or discloses experiences of victimization or other trauma.

Responding to Disturbing Writing

Once you have decided you are concerned about a piece of writing, please consider the following steps.

  1. If you think the writing clearly suggests imminent danger of self harm or harm to others, contact the Luther College Student Life Office immediately at (563) 387-1020 for help. At night or on a weekend, contact Campus Security at (563) 387-2111.
  2. If the writing does not appear to reflect immediate danger of harm to anyone, consider talking with the student about his/her writing. If you feel any hint of threat to yourself or other students, however, please do not try to meet with the student alone. Contact the Student Life Office at (563) 387-1020 or Counseling Service at (563) 387-1375 to consult about the situation first.
  3. At any point in the process of assessing or responding to disturbing writing, you may consult with the Student Life Office or Counseling Service about the situation.
  4. If you feel comfortable talking with the student about the writing, arrange to do so. Try to open up the conversation in a way that makes the writer feel comfortable.
  5. If you are discussing creative writing with the student, consider these recommendations from the Virginia Tech Department of English:
    • One way to increase the writer’s comfort is to focus on the text itself, not on the writer.
    • You might consider asking about the inspiration for the piece. Was it inspired by an image or idea, some event in the news or some bit of history, or was it inspired by another piece of writing?
    • Allow the student to contextualize what he or she has written. Most writers will be able to give you some sense of how their writing began and evolved.
    • Ask the student to discuss the motivation of the characters, and their sense of how different imagery or actions will function in relation to the overall effect of the work.
    • Try to touch on any published works the student feels are relevant. If students have read authors such as Stephen King or Anne Rice or Chuck Palahniuk, these influences may give insight into the disturbing material in the writing.
    • Note whether the student is willing and able to discuss the piece in literary terms.
    • In this discussion, try to get a fuller sense of the person behind the writing.
  6. If the writing is a journal entry, personal essay, or other paper in which the student has alluded to or directly disclosed emotional struggles or traumatic experiences, consider these responses:
    • Describe to the student the elements or disclosures in his or her writing that concern you.
    • Allow the student time to respond.
    • If the student affirms the painful feelings or experiences mentioned in the writing, acknowledge that these things must be hard for the student.
    • Ask what the student seeks from you. Ask “How would you like me to respond?” or “What would you like me to do?” Sometimes the student is not seeking any particular response from you, but just felt a need to verbalize his/her experience. Sometimes the student wants your assistance in getting help.
  7. If the student offers personal information suggesting a need or wish for help, or seems unable or unwilling to discuss creative writing in literary terms, express your continued concern.
  8. Inquire whether the student is involved in counseling. If not, ask if the student will consider counseling. If so, make a referral to the Counseling Service (Larsen Hall, lower level; 563-387-1375). See the Helping Others Section of the web page for information about referral. Call the Counseling Service before the student comes and share what you know about the situation.
  9. If the student refuses counseling, consult promptly with the Student Life Office or Counseling Service. Tell the student you feel a need to do this because of your continued concern for his or her well-being.
  10. Even if the student is already involved in counseling or agrees to a referral, if the student seems to be having significant mental health problems, call the Student Life Office and make them aware of the situation.
  11. Your role as an instructor is simply to:
    • Pay attention to disturbing writing
    • Talk to the student if you feel comfortable doing so, listen, and, if warranted, refer the student to others with the expertise, experience, and resources to help.
    • Consult with Student Life or Counseling if the student seems to be having significant mental health problems.

Additional Resources

Responding to Disturbing Creative Writing: A Guide for Faculty and GTAs, Virginia Tech Department of English, 2007.

Responding When a Life Depends on It: What to Write in the Margins When Students Self-Disclose, Marilyn J. Valentino, Lorain County Community College, Ohio.