Safety & the Imagination

There is a very good article by Elizabeth Redden at Inside Higher Ed yesterday on the threat of violence in creative writing classrooms. At about the same time as the Virginia Tech massacre, there was an incident (that did not eventuate in violence) at San Jose State. An instructor there, after reading a disturbing story in which he was portrayed (and murdered), asked to be relieved of teaching duties. I would never second-guess his decision, nor the university's to grant it; but there is a wider danger here. The danger that a combination of fear, corporatism, & conformity will kill the pursuit of the imagination in the classroom. The discussion thread after the article was interesting -- & more coherent than is often the case with such things -- with some commenters calling for restrictions on students' behavior & rules about the content of writing while others took the view that the loss of intellectual freedom was not worth the cost of "protecting" ourselves & out students against a minuscule threat. I also found it amusing that several of those commenting had distinctly strange ideas about what actually goes on in a creative writing classroom. Some kind of therapy session in which correct grammar is forbidden, apparently. But I digress. I'm posting this because I wanted to note the good sense of San Jose State's director of creative writing, Alan Soldofsky:
Alan Soldofsky, director of creative writing at San Jose State, declined to comment on the particulars of the incident, but said via e-mail that the university’s creative writing faculty have had informal discussions about the issues at stake, and pointed out that the Academic Senate has conducted a more formal review of campus procedures in the case of a student emergency. In general, Soldofsky wrote he would be inclined to err on the side of caution in light of the Virginia Tech shootings. “However, by taking student writing seriously when it contains threats of violence — direct or implied — to another member of the university community (student, faculty, or staff member), does give an individual student the power to intimidate instructors with whom he or she may have disagreements or to seek attention from the instructor or from class members in disruptive and negative ways,” he said. “As for my own point of view, I see creative writing not so much as a form of self-expression (or in the case of problem students, acting out), but of learning to express one’s ‘otherness,’ in the sense of being able to use one’s imagination to devise stories or poems out of, as Keats called it, one’s ‘negative capability.’ That is the ability not to be yourself and not to put your own limited self-interested point of view into one’s creative writing. And to hold contradictory emotions and ideas together in your mind at once without judgment. To be as Emily Dickinson called it ‘a nobody.’” “In that sense, a threat of violence directed specifically toward a member of the university community in a creative writing class represents a student’s failure of imagination, and should be seen as cry for help or cry for attention,” Soldofsky said, describing the need of the instructor in that case to judge the correct course of action to protect him/herself and the students (with the guidance and support, he added, of the institution). “But of course,” Soldofsky said, “the individual student’s rights must also be considered and be protected, up to the point when that individual student’s story or poem violates the rights of others.” [from IHE, linked at beginning of post.]

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.