Tuesday, April 17, 2007

(Academic) Freedom and (Campus) Security

Circulating now in the miasma of the Blacksburg massacres is the writing of the student gunman, writing that was flagged by a creative writing professor as a potential warning sign. There are now a number of interviews with Lucinda Roy, head of the Creative Writing program at Tech, and now, The New York Times has a link to the text of two of the plays the gunman submitted to a workshop.

In the early days after such events, I hesitate to jump too quickly to crass questions of the "But how will this affect ME" variety. However, in the midst of and following the grieving process, I am worried about the kinds of classroom policing that this will engender. After Columbine came the scrutiny of shock rock, violent films, and first-person-shooter video games; it's not difficult, then, to imagine a scenario when "disturbing" student writing comes under the same scrutiny.

Particularly, I am concerned that student work (or indeed any artistic work) that seeks to represent violence and to explore human depravity is going to become first and foremost a signifier of pathology, and that we as readers of student writing will be asked to serve as student surveillance. Soon it will be harder and harder to say "This work comments on a sick world" and not, "This student is a sicko."

I recognize that there are any number of fine lines that will be drawn and redrawn in this discussion, but I imagine that we will need to be vigilant early and for a long time about the roles that we are asked to play in "ensuring security."

For the moment, I am trying hard to concentrate on supporting those who mourn. But I cannot help but think about the battles--about academic freedom, about secure campuses, about student creativity--whose lines are already being drawn.

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