Do you have a plan to harm yourself or anyone else?

In the New York Times, yesterday, Julie Schumacher, a professor of Creative Writing at University of Minnesota, wrote a powerful piece about talking to a student who had been expressing violent fantasies.

The undergraduate who had been writing poems about killing people showed up for his appointment in my office carrying a black canvas backpack. He was slim and dark-haired, his mouth torqued into an uneasy smile. I had spoken several times about his violent ramblings to the campus police and to the university’s office of mental health, and this was what they came up with: I should invite the student to my office and calmly begin a conversation with the following question: “Do you have a plan to harm yourself or anyone else?”

I hadn’t really thought about the way that creative writing functions as a potential site for encounter with the innermost thoughts of students, but of course it does. Also, of course, fiction is not reality, and just because someone writes of terrible things doesn’t mean that they intend to do anything. Terrible deeds and thoughts is a way to create drama and tension. And yet, in the wake of so many other shootings, here are these poems and what is a professor to do?

I’ve had a student write a kind of mad exam once, including one answer space filled with the repeated phrase, “I don’t sleep, I don’t sleep, I don’t sleep, I don’t sleep, I don’t sleep,” perhaps 30 times in large block capital letters. In the end, she was a very bright student having trouble adjusting to college, experiencing anxiety and insomnia, who wasn’t doing any of the reading (I’m not sure she ever had to read a word of assigned material in highschool to get As, so read pleasant fiction instead. She was quite a reader. I liked her a lot). I got counseling, residential life, and the Dean of Students got involved, they took it seriously from the first email, and I felt supported by my colleagues from the first moment of worry.

I cannot summarize this piece and you need to go and read it. The instructor (TA) and professor sat alone with the student with a plan to run if things got dangerous, they talked, he wept. Schumacher finishes:

Our meeting lasted for almost an hour, and though it wasn’t yet noon when it was over, I needed to go home; I had sweated through my clothes. I never got an answer to The Question. And because the student’s written expressions of mayhem didn’t pose a specific threat, there was no recourse, despite consultations with mental health professionals, the student’s adviser, the campus police and a faculty committee on student conduct.

Eventually the student dropped out, but before he did so I sat sentry outside his instructor’s classroom while she taught. Her class was at night, at an hour when the building was mostly empty. If violence had erupted, I doubt I would have been useful. Still, I sat outside her classroom, reading, waiting, because it seemed there was nothing else to do.

Again, it’s hard to parse the line between reality and fiction. Here’s what I do believe, though – NO PROFESSOR OR TA SHOULD HAVE TO SIT ALONE IN A ROOM TO ASK THESE QUESTIONS. This is NOT what we are trained to do. We are not counselors. We are not psychologists. We are not law enforcement. We are teachers and yes, the teacher-student relationship, especially in creative fields, sometimes mirrors elements of the counselor-client relationship. But that’s not by design and we should not choose to play therapist and especially we should not be forced by our institutions to do so.

I’ll be eager to hear what the University of Minnesota admin has to say for itself in the wake of this piece. Stay tuned.

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