There’s been some discussion on the other thread of the fact that Cho Seung-Hui was a creative writing student. Let’s dispose of the claim made by some wingnuts, desparate to throw up a smokescreen to obscure the fact that gun control is the only way to prevent such killing sprees or just deranged, that being an English major is some sign of degeneration and potential madness. The other issue raised, and it’s been raised very prominently by Cho’s English professor, Lucinda Roy, is whether action should have been taken resulting from his violent creative writing term papers. There’s an interesting article about this from Sarah Elizabeth Richards at Salon.
But I’m not sure all the issues are properly separated out. There really are a number of issues that arise for analysis and discussion.
The first point to make is that, as one of “America’s most dangerous professors”, Michael Bérubé argues at Pandagon:
The critical thing to remember is this. It is all but impossible to prevent shooting sprees before they happen. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported yesterday, college counselors don’t have any reliable way of identifying students like Cho Seung-Hui or restraining them once they’ve been identified. Sure, it would be nice if we made it a bit more difficult for people with a documented history of mental illness to purchase guns, even as we assure everyone that we have no intention of infringing on anyone’s Second Amendment rights. But you can’t lock up people on the grounds that they have written disturbing things in their creative writing classes. You can’t profile anomalous people for preventative detention: East Asian English major — OK, boys, let’s bring him downtown for deconstructive questioning. And you can’t simply “lock down�? a campus once there’s been a shooting.
I’ve seen some commentary suggesting that the College should have informed his parents, or suspended or expelled him. But Universities are not High Schools and students are adults with rights.
Some are arguing that university instructors should be turned into thought police, ever alert to detect the signs of a “loner” and a “potential crazed killer”:
“Traditionally, [instructors] have thought of themselves as nurturing academic or creative faculties. They don’t think of themselves as counselor or being warning systems for spotting mental health problems,” says Rob Jones, senior vice president and general counsel for claims management and risk research for United Educators, an insurance company for more than 1,000 educational institutions. “We’d like them to think of whether they could be gatekeepers for identifying students at risk.”
There are overtones here of the displacement of responsibility for all sorts of childhood issues and problems onto schools and teachers, but university staff do not stand in loco parentis.
And issues about free speech and freedom of expression arise. As Guy Rundle pointed out in yesterday’s Crikey:
Take, Seung-hui’s play (parts of which were reproduced on Crikey yesterday) submitted for his class, and which led his tutor to wonder if she should call the police. The violent plot concerns a sexually overcharged family in which the family friend has killed the father in order to possess the mother, and the son is fuming with the thwarted desire to murder him.
Shocking really — for Seung-hui has clearly plagiarised Hamlet, which follows this plot pretty much to the letter. The violent discourse echoes an earlier, funnier Shakespeare work Titus Andronicus in which the heroine has to write her murderer’s name in the sand with a stick held between her arms because the hero has cut out her tongue, eyes and hands.
Titus Andronicus is an incredibly confronting and shocking play, particularly the rape and maiming of Lavinia. Its power to revolt, to challenge, to subvert and disturb is powerfully at work in Julie Taymor’s excellent film adaptation. So, it’s not just Tarantino, or violent games, or whatever. Great art – including the cherished and lauded masterpieces of the canon – can be profoundly unsettling when it deals with the violence that people are moved to do to one another.
Similarly, some of the extremely sadistic violence reported in some of the students’ work that Richards’ interviewees discuss in the Salon piece has its parallel in things that are part of the culture – whether some varieties of Manga/Anime, where torture is a common leitmotif, or De Sade for that matter.
In terms of the responsibility of teachers, clearly there’s a distinction between actual behaviour that may threaten or target other students and the instructor, and what is actually or potentially part of the coursework (remembering that quality isn’t necessarily guarenteed from students who are, after all, learning creative writing and have various ability levels). For instance, this seems to me to be the right action from one of Cho’s professors:
In October 2005, one professor, poet Nikki Giovanni, kicked him out of her class because his work was “intimidating” and scared students. Her female students stopped coming to class after they said Cho was photographing their legs with his cellphone.
If a student’s behaviour is intimidating or disturbing to other students, then clearly the teacher has a responsibility to deal with it.
But this point remains:
“Lots of great literary works are deep and dark and disturbing — that would be Kafka,” says Deborah Landau, director of the creative writing program at New York University, who plans to discuss university protocol with her staff in the wake of Monday’s massacre. Yet teachers increasingly are being expected to distinguish between students’ pushing their creative boundaries or showing frightening warning signs. That’s a tall task, especially when students routinely hand in twisted texts dripping with bloodshed, cruelty, perversion and extreme sex scenes, say teachers.
Creative writing teachers point out that they’re not trained therapists and not equipped to determine when a student is potentially unstable. That’s why instructors aren’t held to the same liability standard as psychological counselors, explains Sheldon Steinbach, a higher education attorney with Dow Lohnes, in Washington, D.C.
I think that there would be, as the article argues, a duty to consider what action to take in the case of the submission of violent work, but in the absence of corroborating behavioural problems which interfere with the educational and pedagogical process, I’m not sure that the suggested search for a correlation with “strange” behaviour or appearance is appropriate. The aftermath of the Columbine shooting saw lots of kids targetted, and in many cases arrested, for all sorts of things, including being Goths when their parents didn’t like that. There are some very troubling issues to contend with, and I’m sure many of Cho’s teachers were prospectively and are retrospectively contending with them. But I’m not sure that displacing the responsibility for such actions and their prevention onto professors and universities is the most appropriate judgement. As Gus Van Zandt perceived, guns are the elephant in the room.
Laura Fraser playing Lavinia in Titus, after she has been raped and her hands cut off and tongue cut out.
Picture courtesy of Xah’s movie stills page.