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Nov 4, 2015

Disturbing Content in a Student's Academic Work


Although freedom of expression is a central tenet of a liberal arts education, 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 related safety risks to the individual and/or others in the campus community.  Common examples of disturbing content that may unsettle faculty members include, but are not limited to:

  • 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 is often a conscious or unconscious effort on the part of the student to communicate something of significant personal importance. When confronted by such disturbing revelations and content, faculty may feel a need to address the issue and/or to seek consultation and support from others on campus who may be in a better position to evaluate the situation and the related level of risk. This web site is offered as a guide to help faculty better assess and conceptualize troubling content in a student's work and to provide effective intervention strategies and supportive campus resources.

Balancing Freedom of Expression with Public Safety

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, revelations regarding the violent themes in the killer's writings have highlighted the challenge of fostering an atmosphere of free academic expression while simultaneously addressing content in a student's communications or work that might portend a risk of danger to the student or others. Individualism, creativity, and the freedom to contest accepted social norms and mores are foundational values of higher education. Further, much of our most honored and popular literature and art contains deeply disturbing images and themes. Stephen King, for example, noted that his own college writings would now likely "raise red flags" and evoke concerns about his mental stability.

While protecting these liberties for our students, faculty members also have a concurrent responsibility to maintain a safe environment that is conducive to learning. The next section provides a series of guidelines to help faculty members better 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?

While it is impossible to provide specific criteria to definitively categorize an instance of disturbing content as either benign or indicative of risk, there are a number of more general issues that a faculty member might examine to determine whether additional steps or precautions are appropriate. For example, "yes" answers to one or more of the following questions suggest that a further assessment of the student's situation may be warranted:

  • Does the disturbing content occur in an assignment in which it is particularly inappropriate? For example, does it occur in response to an essay question in a biology exam rather than in a creative writing assignment?
  • Does the organization of the work exhibit an incoherent, tangential, or bizarre quality that suggests an inappropriate departure from the parameters of the assignment?
  • Is there a preponderance of dark, negative, and/or jarring images and themes in the student's work?
  • Are themes of rejection, entitlement, grandiosity, attention seeking, and/or revenge predominant in the student's 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 in the work?
  • Are there direct threats to a reasonably identifiable individual(s) in the student's work?
  • 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 larger narrative or artwork?
  • 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 (e.g., poetry reading, presentations) and/or his/her presence in class create in peers a significant concern for personal safety?

Applying the above questions to disturbing content in a student's work can help faculty determine when freedom of expression and creativity may need to give way to safety concerns. However, given the judgment and wisdom that faculty develop through interactions with students in various settings, the most accurate measure of disturbing content may come from faculty attending to and following their own intuition and common sense. Thus, the question of greatest importance may be: "Drawing on my experience, how deviant and troubling is the content of this work to me?"

Responding to Disturbing Content in a Student's Work

When faculty encounter disturbing content in a student's work, the worst response is to ignore and/or avoid addressing the issue. Concerns about overreacting, lacking knowledge about how to approach the student, and fears of the student's response may understandably encourage faculty to steer clear of such situations. The remainder of this document outlines a process that will help to allay these anxieties and provide faculty members with the support necessary to address disturbing content directly and effectively.

Phase I: Consult with Other Faculty and the Department Chair

  • Share the student's work containing the disturbing content with faculty colleagues (especially those who may have taught the student in past or current courses) and with your department chair. Provide your impressions of the student's behavior and any pertinent information regarding his/her performance on other academic assignments.
  • Ask for feedback from these individuals regarding whether the content of the student's work is outside the expected range of academic behavior and whether it generates a sense of concern or alarm in those reviewing it.
  • Keep copies of all communication (e.g., emails, voicemails), as these will help with developing effective intervention efforts which may later become necessary.
  • 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 Counseling Center

  • Share the student's work containing the disturbing content with the Counseling & Student Development Center (Counseling Center; 540-568-6552, Varner House). A Counseling Center clinician will review the work in question, inquire about your experiences with the student, and seek to develop a full and clear picture of the student and his/her behavior.
  • Provide the student's name to the Counseling Center clinician. Out of concern for a student's privacy, faculty are sometimes reluctant to identify the student. However, failure to provide the student's name makes it impossible for the Counseling Center to check internal records and external sources (e.g., Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices, Public Safety) which might provide a needed context from which to understand the student's behavior and to develop an effective response. Please remember that, while there are no laws prohibiting faculty from sharing the student's name and other information relevant to the situation with Counseling Center clinicians, confidentiality laws do prevent Counseling Center clinicians from sharing counseling information with faculty members.
  • The Counseling Center clinician will work to determine whether the available information suggests significant psychological issues, a risk of danger to the student or others, and/or if some type of intervention/treatment is appropriate. The Counseling Center clinician will provide his/her assessment and consult with the faculty member regarding the best way to address the situation. At times, the severity of the situation may warrant the involvement of others (e.g., Public Safety) to mitigate a threat of harm that seems imminent. More commonly, the Counseling Center clinician will help prepare the faculty member to meet with the student and to present effectively the concerns that have been evoked by the disturbing content.

Phase III: Faculty Meeting with the Student

While explicit recommendations for the meeting with the student are necessarily determined by the specifics of the situation, the following are general guidelines for faculty members to consider.

  • When a faculty member feels uncomfortable with 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 that prompted the meeting. 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 that may serve to illuminate the situation include:
    • What inspired the student to complete the assignment in the manner he/she did (e.g., an original idea, an event reported in the media, a piece of literature or art)?
    • What did the student intend regarding the purpose of the work and its impact on others? The response of the student will provide some clue to his/her motivation during the creative process (e.g., to act sensationally, challenge social norms, induce fear).
    • Was the student aware that the content of his/her work might cause concern? Does he/she now 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?
  • Articulate your concerns about the disturbing content in the student's work and your willingness to assist him or her in locating campus resources than can help the student to address any personal problems that might underlie the disturbing content. 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 Counseling Center clinician who provided the consultation in Phase II above. The faculty member and Counseling Center clinician will collaboratively review the meeting and its outcomes and determine if additional action is warranted.

A Final Comment

Mental health professionals in the Counseling Center are available to support and guide faculty who are concerned about any form of disturbing student behavior. Simply contact the Counseling Center (540-568-6552), and an available clinician will consult with faculty about the specifics of the situation and collaborate in the development of a plan to appropriately address it.

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