Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Scary students

The story behind the events at Virginia Tech continues to unfold, and now includes the fact the the gunman was an English major who penned disturbing works of fiction in his creative writing classes.

For those of us who have been teaching for quite some time, it's hard not to compare stories about who among the many seated in your classroom might have had it in them to commit an act of annihilation. When your career spans more than a decade, it's almost inevitable that you will have had the chance to get to know students who struggle with mental illness, anger, addiction. Sometimes, on a good day, you are able to help such a student: urging them into counseling, lending them the first sympathetic ear they've encountered, letting them know that they are far from the first young person to carry whatever albatross they find corded around their neck, giving them some compassion, some hope. At other times you come up against your human limits: the student is unreachable, inhabiting some dark place that they have no insight into how to flee, no desire to be helped into that flight.

Of all the troubles I've seen my own students struggle against, schizophrenia has been the darkest. How do you convince a student who has decided otherwise that you didn't strategically place certain posters in the hallway, that you didn't send emails to all the class but him, that you haven't been secretly sabotaging her progress towards her degree at every step? How do you know when the rage that failing a student can trigger is going to lead to some violent reaction, some act of hatred aimed not at you or your colleagues or your institution but at some intractable fantasy of those people and places?


Eileen Joy said...

Your thoughts, JJC, capture much of what I have been thinking, too, since finding out the Va. Tech. shooter was an English major who wrote scary stories in his creative writing class. As a teacher, I've read many of those in creative writing classes, and I have, somewhat joikingly, made lists for my students of banned plot elements: love & death, dismemberment, rape, drinking, etc. For me, though, the most memorable [troubling] case was a fellow MFA student [a peer, in other words] who thought I was placing thoughts into her brain. The more I tried to engage with her, with sympathy and compassion, the more she hallucinated about my intentions to harm her. As a teacher, the hardest case of all for me was the anoxeric student [also in a creative writing class] who committed suicide.

But more largely, I had an interesting discussion with my first-year writing students yesterday about how, very likely over the coming weeks, there will be a lot of discussion about who and what should be "blamed" in this tragedy, with some arguing it's the creative writing professor's fault, and others arguing it's the fault of the campus police, the campus administrators, the university counseling service, the parents of the shooter, etc. etc. Everyone will want to believe that there must be some locatable point or moment at which this event could have been anticipated and deferred, or once in motion, better handled. But some events have no readily discernible cause, and if I were to alert some university authority every time I encountered a student who was expressing disturbing thoughts and/or opinions, well, let's just say it might look a little ridiculous. Having said that, though, the extremely disturbed student who expresses extremely disturbing thoughts--whether in a creative writing course or elsewhere--is a special case: he or she usually does stand out quite distinctly, but when you consider all the different sub-cultures that students are tuned into that seemingly celebrate anarchism, death, violence, violent sex, etc., and all of this often under the aegis of a deeply sarcastic-cynical and ludic sensibility, well, spearating fact from fiction from "performance" is awfully difficult.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Difficult indeed. But there will always be that group of people whose personal realities -- strange and scary -- cannot be penetrated.

To go back to my "those posters are intended for me" reference, that particular student personalized everything as a message intended for her. So if she saw posters near the department that advertised a local bar with "Ladies drink free on Friday!" she would think it was a command placed there for her, to try to compel her to a debauched life (i.e., she would read it is "Lady, YOU must drink this Friday").

In a way she was an astute reader of the sexism in the text ... but she believed professors of English were hanging the things up for her, not bartenders.

Karma said...

One of the things that struck me in an article I read on the shooting was that he, by all reports, was unreachable. One former teacher described him as a "hole." He was removed from Nikki Giovanni's class and privately tutored by another professor who couldn't get through to him even one on one. His roommates didn't know him, and he wouldn't speak when spoken to. He signed his name with a question mark at the start of one semester.

I spent a few years in the Army, and one of the least fun things to do among many un-fun things was making judgment calls like this about soldiers' behavior. When they weren't "holes" (I don't know why I keep returning to that description -- it's appalling) and managed to tread some kind of functional line, it was difficult to learn when to speak up, to get other people involved. The difference was that as a sergeant it was my job to interfere, finally; those lines are much less clear in my classrooms and I still have trouble drawing them sometimes. I tend to err on the side of minding my own business. Clearly, that isn't always a good thing.

Eileen Joy said...

Kdegruy's comments are really apropos, I think, to one of the central issues in this case--how do you relate [and help] someone who may, at their very core, be "missing"? One of the problems inherent in a university is that it is supposed to be the very picture of liberal community [yeah, yeah, I know it usually isn't] and there's a kind of subtle pressure on professors to always maintain a posture of complete and generous openness to students' various expressions of self and identity formations/attachments, even when those "expressions" might strike us as objectionable, distasteful, scary, what-have-you. Cho is an interesting case, because he clearly wanted to be in this environment while he was also challenging it and everyone in it. He was Va. Tech.'s murderous Bartleby and every university has one [hell, has several or more].

And this brings me to something else I've been thinking about, and being bothered about, in relation to Cho, especially because he was an English major and creative writer. I don't think the humanities "humanize" anyone--they don't really inculcate humaneness. Rather, they attract those persons to them who are already sensitive and "open" to certain emotional currents and ideas, and further, they attract the misfits--the ones who can't imagine fitting in elsewhere and who, sometimes, bear various grudges. Don't get me wrong--I recognize that Cho's problems were such that, likely, no one but the best therapists could have helped him and maybe not even they could have helped him--he is not the "fault" of an inattentive humanities faculty. I just don't think the humanities change anyone's life who wasn't already ripe for that change. And they can't "save" anyone who's not already "attached" in some fashion to not only the subjects of our discipline, but to other persons.

I guess I'm just being cynical this week.

RaeRae said...

one thing I have noticed in my half a decade in college (has it been that long already?) is that it is easy to get lost. A student who is facing problems can easily find themselves feeling isolated and even sometimes under attack without everyone around them realizing that that is what is happening. Universities claim to be there to help the students and have counseling services and things like that available to help with 'adjustment' and other problems when first sometimes its not so simple as adjustment problems and second we as a society place such an stigma on those who do seek help because they are depressed or schizophrenic or some other mental illness that they feel pressured not to get help rather then to do so. The pressure becomes to be normal to exist as everyone else exists.
Are there signs that someone is close to breaking? Sure there are, but unless a person invades every aspect of someone else's life it's often hard to see. Especially for teachers, you only see students a one to three times a week for a few minutes to a few hours at best... surrounded by other students it does not make things conducive to figuring out who is in most need of help. Especially when they are withdrawing from society as a whole in an attempt to deal with or face whatever it is they are faced with.
Schizophrenia is easier to see then things like depression and bi-polar disorder... but all are hard to help. So instead of trying to find someone to blame, when in fact no one but the shooter really is to blame, why not come up with ways to increase awareness of the problems that caused the incident in the first place? Why not prevent people who are at risk from isolating themselves by preventing our departments from isolating from each other.
Students and faculty should not feel alone when surrounded by people who may one day very well be their collegues. There should be a relationship developed a community, some kind of closeness outside of the classroom. Maybe then we can prevent things like Virginia from happening again... maybe then we can identify who is in need of help quicker and convince them to get that help sooner.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Raerae: a good point, but very often those most in need of help are those who will not accept it. As several people have mentioned, there is an unfortunate, untrue stigma that surrounds seeking help from a professional. When I have a student who is experiencing depression or anxiety or profound grief and declares "I can handle this myself!" I always ask: so if you broke your arm, you'd take care of that yourself too? That's one line that actually works, at least sometimes.

Glauk├┤pis said...

Eileen, I think this is the most interesting description I've heard of him all week: "He was Va. Tech.'s murderous Bartleby and every university has one [hell, has several or more]."

Have any of you read the plays? I've read some disturbing stuff in my lifetime, but I thought this was disturbng on another level.

Karl Steel said...

Have any of you read the plays? I've read some disturbing stuff in my lifetime, but I thought this was disturbng on another level.

It is nasty stuff, but I'd join others in cautioning against--not that I'm accusing you of this--drawing any direct links between his art and his murders. I think of someone like Mike Diana (you'll note that I've linked to the wikipedia rather than his website: the website's pretty unnerving): Diana's stuff is horrifying, and if he killed someone, the link between the art and the deed would be pretty easy to make. But he hasn't killed anyone.

Glauk├┤pis said...

Karl, I agree that it's not the best correlation to make in that you certainly can't say anybody whose "art" is "disturbing" is automatically going to be a killer. But I don't think it's necessarily unrelated either (but I don't you're not saying that)--not that I can even pretend to know how it's related.

And maybe it's because most people are reading with hindsight, but it seems like even his classmates originally reading them found his plays more disturbing then than art/entertainment. Mike Diana seems, at least, to be accepted by others as entertainment.

And, no, I'm not even pretending to know where that line is (I doubt it even exists), but I do think it brings up a lot of food for thought.

Anonymous said...

As a mental health professional following this case, I'll just say that it is best to exercise a little caution before drawing conclusions about Cho's mental state, about its relation to his writing, and about his treatability. E.g., the media and other non-professionals' portrayal of him as "unreachable" or a "hole" has little diagnostic value. The evidence suggests his delusional thinking shored up a core that was built around a fiction, e.g., Ishmael. I'm not sure I would be quick to label that hollow.

I think of the last ten times I've been called to do emergency room psych consults, 8 of those involved a psychotic patient. After interviewing and assessing them, I committed all to the state hospital as "threats to themselves." These involve either having a peace officer (i.e., a cop) get involved, if in the middle of the night, or having a judge (if during the day) sign an order similar to the one signed in Cho's case. The important thing to understand here is that the legal (public) document is not a medical assessment. It has no value as a diagnostic statement. The only documents that are of value are those that the public, the media, will (presumably) never have access to, given privacy (HIPAA) laws.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for the professional insight, MU. Valuable.

Glau: good point on remarking on what other students thought. Also worth considering.

Part of what strikes me about Cho's art is its apparent close mapping to his actual fantasy life, at least insofar as we can extrapolate from what it was he did. When art does that, when there's a kind of roman a clef quality to it, don't we tend to think of it as ludicrous or gauche? I'm thinking, for example, of Michael Crichton or Bill O'Reilly's Those Who Trespass. Not sure where to take this insight--or if it's even an insight.

Anonymous said...

Cohen asks:
How do you convince a student who has decided otherwise that you didn't strategically place certain posters in the hallway, that you didn't send emails to all the class but him, that you haven't been secretly sabotaging her progress towards her degree at every step? How do you know when the rage that failing a student can trigger is going to lead to some violent reaction, some act of hatred aimed not at you or your colleagues or your institution but at some intractable fantasy of those people and places?

Good questions. As for the first, there is no "convincing" that is possible if the student is truly in a paranoid schizophrenic state. The best things you could do are 1) ask the student many questions from a place of curiosity and acceptance about why she thinks it is the case that posters are placed in certain spots, or emails were sent to everyone but her, etc. In other words, really show an interest in her view of the world. Refrain from contradicting it or subjecting it to invalidation. The object is simply to connect. Also ask about if others know what she is feeling/thinking (e.g., parents, friends). If you go too far, however, in the direction of compassion, as Eileen's story about her MFA peer illustrates, you run the risk of becoming absorbed as part of the fantasy. I would say that is not typical, though.
2) Refer this person to counseling. If they voice any words that can be taken to mean they will hurt themselves or others, call 911. Also call 911 if the person shows evidence that her mental state is so deteriorated that she is a threat to herself.

As for the 2nd question: You will only have some glimmer of knowledge about rage & its possible sequelae due to a failing grade if you ask the student directly. In other words, if you have any doubt whatsoever about a student's instability and possible reaction to a grade, you should call the student in for a conference before handing out the grade and discuss it and the student's reaction. Then go with your intuition. If you intuit some risk, then call student mental health, and see what they advise. If the risk is obvious, then 911.

Unfortunately, the mental health care system in this country is appalling. Everyone in the field knows this, and everyone does the best they can. Among the list of "big" topics stirred up by the VT crisis (e.g., gun control, campus security, cracks in the mental health system, and so on), the one that will most assuredly get forgotten is mental health. It's a crying shame that we will look for a "solution" and find it at the wrong end of the problem--i.e., we'll improve the machinery of campus security and warning systems, but we will not think seriously about, or pour resources into, helping someone like Cho way before it happens. Cho is a victim as well, and that is no less true for being an unpopular sentiment right now. Watch the media: the language of victimization will emerge when talking about him--it's already started in the stories of him being picked on in school. My hunch is that he has a history of abuse.

Anonymous said...

Of course, there is much to consider, bearing in mind, for example, litigation.

Still, I would err on the side of reaching out (which is quite a bit different than kicking a student out--out of the dorms or off campus).

Anonymous said...

John Cloud (portentiously named) wrote here:

Police asked Cho to speak to a counselor from a local mental-health facility; afterward, a magistrate issued a temporary detention order committing Cho to a psychiatric hospital. It's very difficult to obtain such orders; patients must not only be deemed mentally ill but unfit to care for themselves or an immediate danger. Court records show that Cho was not deemed an imminent threat, but it should have been clear by then that he was deeply troubled.

A few points:

1. It is not "very difficult" to commit someone. Far from it--it's actually quite straightforward. Any peace officer can do it. Any mental health professional can do it, with either a peace officer or judge involved.

2. The criteria for commitment are straightforward: either the person is a threat to self or a threat to others or both.

3. The person does not in fact have to be deemed mentally ill. Often I have committed persons for whom I have no background information, no prior medical history. A person may be expressing suicidal ideation, or a plan to harm himself, for example, and I have no basis on which to judge that person anything other than "suicidal." I or any other MH prof. does not deem the person "mentally ill." We assess them for what I described in #2 above. There is nothing preventing me from diagnosing the person, say, "Major depressive disorder with psychotic features," but it has no bearing on the legal process to have the person committed.

4. A "deeply troubled" person has rights that a person who is a threat to others does not. Journalists appear to be clueless about this. An evaluation was made that Cho was a threat to himself, and thus he underwent evaluation/treatment involuntarily (as the law specifies). Unfortunately there is little or no follow up in these kinds of cases. If one is keen to hand out blame, then one might more productively go after the local, state, and federal defunding/nonfunding of mental health.

Take what you're hearing in the media with a grain of salt.

Anonymous said...

OK...just read the legal docs over at Looks like procedure is basically the same in VA as in TX, but with differences in the legal language. It appears that a judge ordered out-patient treatment rather than in-patient hospitalization. So, the record (contrary to Cloud) did deem Cho a threat to himself, but found that in-pt treatment was not warranted.

Hmmm...I wonder how many psych beds there are in Montgomery County, VA....

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Michael, for all that advice, insight and contextualization.

Michael O'Rourke said...

Yes, thanks Michael. Lets not forget teachers in this discussion either. Its often difficult for "us" to ask for help too.