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Disturbing Content in a Student's Academic Work

Faculty members sometimes encounter written, spoken, or artistically presented aspects of a student's academic work that raise serious concerns about that student's psychological state and safety risks to themself or others. Examples of disturbing content:

  • Incoherent or bizarre writing or language
  • Overuse of profanity
  • Self-disclosure of previous abuse and trauma
  • Artwork depicting real or imagined traumatic events or violence
  • Explicit sexual violence
  • Violent ideation towards self or others
  • Actual threats of violence to be perpetrated against self or others

The presence of such content in an academic assignment may be an effort on the part of the student to communicate something of significant personal importance. You may feel a need to address the issue or seek consultation from others to better evaluate the situation. 

Balancing Freedom of Expression with Public Safety

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, violent themes in the killer's writings highlighted the challenge of fostering an atmosphere of free academic expression while simultaneously addressing content in a student's communications or work that might suggest safety concerns. While protecting these liberties for our students, faculty members also have a concurrent responsibility to maintain a safe environment that is conducive to learning. It is important to have guidelines to help determine the point at which protections for creativity and freedom of expression should yield to concerns about the safety of an individual and/or the campus community.

When Might Disturbing Content Require a Response?

It is impossible to provide specific criteria to definitively categorize an instance of disturbing content as either benign or indicative of risk. However, consider the following guidelines to determine whether additional steps are appropriate. Answering "Yes" to one or more of the following questions suggest that an assessment of the student's situation may be warranted:

  • Does the disturbing content occur in an assignment in which it is particularly inappropriate (e.g. biology exam essay response instead of a creative writing assignment)?
  • Does the organization exhibit an incoherent, tangential, or bizarre quality that is an inappropriate departure from the assignment parameters?
  • Is there a preponderance of dark, negative, and/or jarring images and themes?
  • Are themes of rejection, entitlement, grandiosity, attention seeking, and/or revenge predominant in the work?
  • Are characters created by the student related to real individuals (e.g., a professor, classmates) and do these characters experience threatened or actual violence?
  • Are there direct threats to a reasonably identifiable individual(s)?
  • Are the actions or responses of characters depicted by a level of violence that seems disproportionate to the events in the narrative?
  • Are the actions and responses of characters motivated by anger and rage that is unmediated by empathic and moral considerations?
  • Is the disturbing content so extreme or profane that it does not serve any reasonable thematic purpose in relation to the assignment?
  • Is the disturbing content present in the work a dramatic departure from the student's social demeanor or apparent affect?
  • Does the content of the student's work and/or their presence in class create in peers a significant concern for personal safety?

Use the judgment and wisdom that you have developed through interactions with the student to determine an accurate measure of the disturbing content. Follow your intuition and common sense. It is important to ask yourself, "Based on my experience, how deviant and troubling is the content of this work to me?"

Responding to Disturbing Content in Student's Work

If you encounter disturbing content in a student's work, the worst response is to ignore or avoid addressing it. Don't let concerns about overreacting, lacking knowledge about how to discuss it, or fears about the student's response prevent you from discussing it. Here are some guidelines for adresssing disturbing content directly and effectively.

Phase I: Consult with Other Faculty & Department Chair

  • Share the work containing the disturbing content with faculty colleagues (especially those who may have taught the student) and with your department chair. Provide your impressions of the student's behavior and any pertinent information regarding their performance on other assignments.
  • Ask for feedback regarding whether the content of the work is outside the expected range of academic behavior. Does it generate concern or alarm in those reviewing it?
  • Keep copies of all communication. These will assist developing effective intervention efforts, if needed.
  • If a consensus is reached that the content is disturbing, or if specific concerns about the student and/or the student's work persist, proceed to Phase II.

Phase II: Consult with Dean of Students Office

  • Share the disturbing content, student name, and your concerns with the Dean of Students Office. The DOS chairs the Behavioral Assessment Team (BAT), a coalition of campus offices and departments that assess concerning behavior.
  • We understand that you may be reluctant to share the identity of the student because of concerns for their privacy. However, without the name it is impossible for the DOS and BAT to consult with other offices and gather information to help determine context, as well as develop an effective response. 
  • The BAT will determine if the available information suggests immediate safety concerns, if another office needs to be involved, and if an intervention is appropriate. They will also assist you in determining the best way to address the situation and present the concerns to the student.

Phase III: Faculty Meeting with the Student

The following are general guidelines for faculty members to consider.

  • When a faculty member feels uncomfortable or threatened by a student, the meeting should occur in the presence of others (e.g., another faculty member, department chair) and in a common setting (e.g., after class, conference room with the meeting room door open).
  • Try to initiate the discussion in a relaxed, informal manner that will help the student feel open and comfortable in discussing the work. When possible, maintain a focus on the work itself rather than on the student. Listen carefully and try to be open to the student's motivations, perspectives, and explanations.
  • Questions to consider:
    • What inspired the student to complete the assignment in that manner (e.g., an original idea, an event reported in the media, a piece of literature or art)?
    • What was the intended purpose of the work and impact on others? The response of the student will provide some clue to their motivation during the creative process (e.g., to act sensationally, challenge social norms, induce fear).
    • Was the student aware that the content of their work might cause concern? Do they understand how the work might reasonably have this effect on others?
    • How might the student have achieved the purpose of the work and the desired impact on others in a different manner?
  • State your concerns about the disturbing content and your willingness to assist them in locating campus resources that may address underlying personal issues. If the student expresses a desire or need for professional assistance, suggest that the student contact the Counseling Center in your presence and request an intake appointment.
  • Document the date, time, and content of your meeting with the student.
  • Contact the Dean of Students to provide information about outcome of meeting and determine if additional action is warranted.

The content of this web page was influenced by materials developed at SUNY Binghamton and Virginia Tech.