Professors and Troubled Students

At least five of the people who lost their lives in yesterday's tragic shooting at Virginia Tech were faculty. G.V. Loganathan came to the U.S. from India in 1977; Abhi has a post on him at Sepia Mutiny. Liviu Librescu was, as has been widely reported, a survivor of the Holocaust, and is also reported to have placed himself in the way of the gunman -- saving student lives. Three other faculty members who were killed include Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, Kevin Granata, and Christopher James Bishop.

It's been widely mentioned that the shooter responsible for yesterday's deaths was an English major. In fact, members of the English department at Virginia Tech are being mentioned in some recent media reports. Cho Seung-Hui took creative writings classes at the university, and what he wrote apparently was found to be quite disturbing to his professors. Here's the New York Times:

Caroyln Rude, the chair of the English Department, said that she had spoken to a professor who taught Mr. Cho and was told that the general impression of him was that he was “troubled.”

“There were signs that he was troubled,” she said. “And the English Department at one point did intervene.”

She said that it related to something he wrote in a creative writing class but did not give details about what was written or what kind of intervention was taken, only that it was some time ago, before she was made chair of the department.

“Sometimes some creative writing class students will say something that unnerves us,” she said. “I know that there was some intervention and I don’t know the particulars.”

She said she had not seen what he wrote and said that she could not make public such personal information about a student.

Without going into the specifics of this case, she said that often when there is an intervention the incident is reported to either the counseling center or the dean of students.

“We are not psychologists,” she said. (link)

There are also articles to this effect at The Chronicle of Higher Education (via Gwynn Dujardin), and Inside Higher Ed.

Professor Rude makes a good point: it's not really a professor's job to take responsibility if and when it appears that a student may be disturbed. Since academia has been thoroughly professionalized, there is the presumption of a strict line between a professor and the lives of his or her students outside the classroom. And in this case, it appears that the English department did make an attempt to contact the administration, encouraging counseling for Cho Seung-Hui.

But the nature of creative writing classes in particular -- where the personal lives and psychic dispositions of students are often in the foreground -- makes that line a little blurrier, does it not? Shouldn't the rules be different for teachers whose students are engaged in creative activity?

More generally, I wonder if this recent shooting might suggest a rethinking of the current "hands off" academic culture, especially if a tendency to commit acts of violence is suggested. I'm not suggesting that professors be asked to play the role of substitute parents, but rather that greater emphasis could be placed on building community belonging and a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others. What that means in practice is difficult to say. There's a fair potential for abuse; young men in particular tend to experiment with representations of violence when they first start out as writers, and we certainly don't need "interventions" every time that happens. But it's also hard to simply conclude that nothing can be done, even with students who show signs of extreme, anti-social behaviour like Mr. Cho.

Any suggestions from readers?