Yesterday, a colleague from my school's history department brought me a student's final project from her history class. The assigned project was to produce a "creative" project dealing with a historical figure/event covered in the time period of the class (20th century United States). One student wrote a short play about the Great Depression. Another student designed a simple computer game that he ran on a Macintosh Classic II from the 1990s.
However, the student in question here (whose project I was shown) wrote a diary for a famous American serial killer. The diary graphically details the killings this man performed, including hand sketches of female genitalia, clippings from some porn magazines, and (as far as we can tell) splatters of real blood. It is a horrifically disturbing piece of work.
The student did technically fulfill the parameters of the assignment. He produced a (seemingly) historically accurate project on a historical figure from the 20th century in the United States. (Neither my colleague nor I really wanted to fact check every detail of a 200 page diary written in scrawled handwriting and splattered with blood and sketches of vivisected women). The writing is decent, albeit rather repetitive and somewhat simple. My colleague is likely going to give the student a fairly high grade on the project.
However, the graphic and disturbing subject matter, alongside the frighteningly realistic psychopathy, have brought my colleague to wonder if she should show the project to department or university administration. We were not sure if this student just had a distinct (and disturbing) gift for creative writing or if he was actually writing from personal experience (or something?). Is it a cry for help? Is the student a serial killer (unlikely)? Does he enjoy fantasizing about vicious crimes?
We are not psychologists, so we are not going to try to psychoanalyze this student from a professional standpoint. We also want to tread lightly around punishing and censoring a student for "thought crimes." However we also do not want to become part of history ourselves by being "that one professor" who saw potential signs of a violent criminal and opted to just give the kid an A- and be done with it.
Should my colleague show this project to university administrators?
There have been a few questions about the structure and reasoning behind this class. This is a class that emphasizes history through the lens of "creativity." The thesis of the class is essentially that historical figures were highly creative and that we can learn a fair amount about history by examining "creativity." The class is usually taken by STEM majors as a general ed requirement. I took the class (years ago) and it actually was very interesting and I learned a lot about history.
There have been questions about the grading on the assignment. I do not know the specific metrics for grading the project. I said that my colleague may give an A- on the project as just a hypothetical filler grade. I do not know what she will grade the student on specifically. I guess it comes down to how creative we think writing the F-word 200+ times in a pornographic notebook splattered with a bloody substance is. Let's not act as if all violent porn is to be elevated to the pedestal of artistic acclaim just for the sake of radical liberality. I'm not the grader of the assignment and I ultimately cannot answer how it will be graded.