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.
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 what is disturbing reflects creative exploration or something more idiosyncratic.
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.
Once you have decided you are concerned about a piece of writing, please consider the following steps.
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.