restricted access Virginia Tech
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Like so many writers of my generation, I have spent a lot of time in classrooms, teaching creative writing – in my case, over thirty years. I don’t have many rules, being a child of the sixties, but I do have one, at least for undergraduates. In my fiction writing classes, the first day, I tell them my one and only rule: I don’t want them to write about anyone they wouldn’t spend five minutes alone with in a room. That would spare me from chainsaw-wielding stories, tales starringpsychoticsofthepopularculturesort .HearingProfessorLucinda Roy talk about Cho Seung Hui, her creative writing student who carried out the Virginia Tech massacre, those of us in the academic creative writing community, I’m sure, were particularly and personally affected. I certainly was. Cho was an English major, a student of creative writing, one of ours. Roy, the co-director of Virginia Tech’s creative writing program, and her colleagues, have appeared to have, at least, taken some appropriatemeasures .Unfortunately,forherandthem,thosestepsarelikely to become the stuff of lawsuits, dissected and detailed. OneofCho’sclassmatesfromaplaywritingclasshaspostedCho’s work in that class online and recalled speculation amongst his fellow students that one day Cho could turn into a “school shooter.” In one play, a chainsaw makes an appearance. Virginia Tech 133 134 There are very few teachers, over the last two decades, who have not joked about students showing up with Uzis and taking revenge over some imagined, or real, grievance. “Going postal” has become a too familiar cliché. Unlike Columbine, school shootings at the college level seemed to be workplace incidents. In California, Arkansas, Virginia, graduate students, in 1996, 2000, and 2002, killed professors who supervised them. Suchincidentslaunchedcynicalcommentsovertheyears,protective humor. But undergraduates weren’t, until now, lethal: suicides, yes, killers, no. Semi-automatics have been weapons of choice for most of these workplace shootings. Universities are workplaces. Disgruntled employees shoot their coworkers or bosses across the country. But Cho’s number of victims has never been reached before. Classrooms are the barrels you can shoot the fish in. “Locking down” a campus as large as Virginia Tech may be futile, but nothing is easier than canceling classes.Thatkindofnewstravelsfast,sinceitpleasesboththeteachers, as well as the students. Cho is America’s version of a suicide bomber. Americans remain individuals to the end – even our killers like to kill one at a time – but the result is the same. The suicide bombers of the Middle East we hear about so often these days take similar numbers with them, but it is collective, impersonal . Cho looked at everyone he killed. Creative writing is unlike other courses universities offer. It isn’t just the writing, but the writer, who is judged. What I also tell my undergraduates on the first day of class is that, counter to what they are often told, most people write badly on purpose, because writing is revealing of who they are. I ask for a writing sample that they have already written to read, because as soon as I read it, I will know some- 135 thing about them, in fact, quite a bit. Out in the world, away from the island culture of a university, a lot of people decide they don’t want to reveal themselves that way, and bad writing is often the mask they choose. Others, like Cho, want to reveal who they are. But it is difficult for a teacher to think a young person is a monster. It wasn’t so much Cho’s writing that has been exposed that showed that, but his lack of contact,hisabsenceofspeech,hissigninghisnameasaquestionmark, his aloneness. It would have been difficult for Cho to make himself any clearer to one and all, but it is the nature of an institution of higher learning to think that the job of a university is to educate the young, make them better,improved.WhyChohadn’tfailedthecreativewritingclasseshe took that have been described remains a mystery. But any explanation of that, too, will be saved for another time. The thirty-two individuals whodiedwillhaunttheconsciencesofalluniversityteachers,perhaps, most of all, creative writing professors. It is a hard blow to be taught this terrible way just how serious what we do is. First appeared “Creative Writing and the Virginia Tech Massacre,” in Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. LIII, no. 36, May 11, 2007; © 2007 The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc. ...


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