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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?


Addendum

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.

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    In my experience, the department under the Dean of Students often has staff that receives reports about students with mental health concerns. The staff in that office would know how to proceed, and what university procedures should be initiated. Your university probably also has some sort of threat assessment team that assesses potential threats to campus. The Dean of Students office (or similar) may turn over the documents to that team. – Christopher Dec 11 '18 at 19:50
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    Serious question: are you a fan of horror/slasher films? – Alex Reinking Dec 11 '18 at 20:05
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    I want to commend you for your stance in the second-to-last paragraph (not wanting to punish someone for "thought crimes", and admitting to not being psychologists). Far too many people think "oh, I read the WebMD synopsis of this mental health condition, I am now qualified to diagnose it!" It's good that you're aware of what you don't know, and are taking it into account. – Nic Hartley Dec 11 '18 at 20:13
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    "The assigned project was to produce a project dealing with a historical figure/event covered in the time period" Can you identify a specific historical figure or event from the diary? It may be less disturbing if he is recreating something that happened rather than making it all up himself. The tricky thing is to figure out if you have a Steven King or a serial killer. Don't forget to have a written trail of who you inform. – J. Chris Compton Dec 11 '18 at 22:46
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    @pmf Historically, disturbing imagery has been associated with nascent hostile intentions and been a valid cause for concern, potentially saving lives. Are you sure you don't want to associate with that ideology? – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 12 '18 at 12:08

11 Answers 11

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The "administration" is probably the wrong place to look. Instead, see if you your institution has some mental health staff, whether just associated contacts, or counselors, or even a dedicated behavior concerns advice function, to get proper advice. If the university is well-organized enough to have one of the latter, chances are they've also established policies requiring you to pursue this. And such an advice line would be well suited to tell you how to go about it. If your university doesn't, figure out where to report it.

Note that, unless your institution is highly dysfunctional, reporting concerning behavior and having a professional talk to the student in question shouldn't be considered a punishment, but a safety net.

As Buffy points out in a comment, the law may further require you to do some things, and avoid doing other things. While one would hope that the mental health support staff are well-informed, contacting the legal staff (University Counsel) may be useful. That said, as a non-lawyer person, I imagine most legal pitfalls concern naming the student when you shouldn't. Your initial inquiries need not include the name of the student, until you're convinced that you should.

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    The "administration" is probably the wrong place to look. - That said, when in doubt about things like this, talking to your chair is often a good thing to do. I think my chair is considerably more knowledgable about various resources for faculty than I am. – Kimball Dec 11 '18 at 23:28
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    I'd add that Deans and Chairs can be approached to determine the proper mechanism, while still maintaining the anonymity of the student. – Scott Seidman Dec 12 '18 at 13:37
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    By alerting mental health staff the OP would be making some serious presuppositions. I don't think that the case is obviously a mental health thing (without seeing the actual diary). As a student, getting contacted by mental health services over an assignment would make me extremely uncomfortable in class. As a department head, I would not appreciate not being consulted before invoking such a dramatic step involving a student. – Spark Dec 12 '18 at 22:41
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    @Spark: I certainly agree that the OP should be very cautious about triggering any kind of action/intervention, and should consult their Dean/HoD before doing that. However, contacting mental health staff first doesn’t seem at all unreasonable: they, not the HoD, are the people most qualified to assess what level of concern (if any) the assignment really warrants. – PLL Dec 13 '18 at 12:19
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    It just goes to show that different institutions and departments are run very differently. I've had a former department head make it very clear that he was the wrong person to talk to for matters like these, and that he would not know what resources were available. As far as labeling goes, it's indeed unfortunate if reporting/discussing concerning behavior leads there automatically. That would not be the case at the institutions I'm familiar with, except if there's a immediate threat to the safety of others or of suicide. – Anyon Dec 13 '18 at 15:12
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Not to be dismissive of this, but to be honest he sounds like the average "edgy" teenager/young adult. Maybe he's a fan of horror/slasher movies/history or just interested in serial killers specifically. I'm very interested in this type of things myself, and I'm not violent in the slightest. I also did some questionable school projects when I was younger, not only because of my interest in these subjects but also partly for shock factor and to stand out from the other works (which seems to have happened here).

That being said, there's always a chance he could become a serial killer or show signs of violence, etc., but anyone in your class could without explicitly demonstrating it. If anything, show it to your superiors or talk to him about it just to clear your conscience, and if you notice any other worrying signs maybe suggest an appointment with a mental health specialist.

Grade wise, I do think he deserves a high grade if he did a good/accurate and detailed work, independent of opinion or personal taste on the matter.

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    By far the best answer. There's no reason or need to do anything in this situation. Let the kid express himself. – only_pro Dec 13 '18 at 16:09
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    I'm not sure this sounds like an average "edgy" teenager/young adult. Are most young adults you know into fantasizing about women being murdered and raped? If so, might I suggest that you examine what type of young adults you hang out with? – DC 541 Dec 13 '18 at 19:27
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    I'm not sure that 200 pages of anything is "average" among students. Even the edgy ones. – David Richerby Dec 13 '18 at 21:49
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    @DC541 What about horror movies, slasher films, death metal, detailed serial killer documentaries etc.? These genres have popular appeal, perhaps not mainstream but certainly a significant following, that glorify such things. To me, working months on a gory movie, creating hundreds of prosthetic props of severed limbs, and writing characters that have a mind of serial killer is not altogether different from what the OP has described, just a different medium. It's hard to say without knowing more details but I don't see why it couldn't be either edgy or creative expression. – syntonicC Dec 14 '18 at 0:34
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    @DC541 "Fantasizing" is an incredible hyperbole. Obviously fantasizing about murder is atypical, but no one here has evidence that would suggest the student does so. If depicting a murderer is the same as fantasizing, then I suppose every horror book author, every movie director, writer, and perhaps every documentary creator is also into fantasizing about murder and rape. Someone better call up George RR. Martin to tell him how disturbed he is. – Clay07g Dec 14 '18 at 4:58
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[A student wrote] a diary for a famous American serial killer... graphically detail[ing] the killings this man performed, including hand sketches of female genetilia... [The student will likely receive] a fairly high grade on the project.

It seems like the student should be commended for their account of historic events.

It is a horrifically disturbing piece of work.

That seems like an excellent portrayal of a serial killer.

(as far as we can tell) splatters of real blood

You've acknowledged that it might not be real....

I'm left thinking: The student should be commended. That said, I don't have the full picture and you certainly "do not want to become part of history ourselves by being 'that one professor.'"

The OP has been commended (in comments, e.g., by Nic) for acknowledging that they feel somewhat out of their depth. So, this seemingly isn't an issue that the OP should deal with alone: I recommend delegating responsibility to your department head. This isn't shirking; it is the right thing to do. (At least in my opinion.)

There are also ramifications to consider: As commented below, "[I]f it all blows up, you can point fingers. If you don't, and it all blows up, fingers will be pointed at you."

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    Dumping the whole thing on a more senior member of staff sounds like a wonderful idea. That way, if it all blows up, you can point fingers. If you don't, and it all blows up, fingers will be pointed at you. – Valorum Dec 12 '18 at 16:44
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    If I was the student and this project was entirely a creative exercise, I would consider being offered psych council for the disturbing content of the journal to be the highest form of praise. – Abion47 Dec 12 '18 at 22:24
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    It's within OP's (colleague's) responsibilities as a teacher and as a human being. – einpoklum Dec 14 '18 at 9:21
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    @einpoklum If you lack the necessary expertise (especially, as in this case, in health-related matter), passing the buck is the only responsible thing to do. – Konrad Rudolph Dec 14 '18 at 10:17
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    @einpoklum "passing the buck" is compatible with "ensuring the student...receives attention" and it doesn't exclude the OP from providing valuable input, it merely passes responsibility. In this instance, to someone more able to help. – user2768 Dec 14 '18 at 10:36
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Should my colleague show this project to university administrators?

Yes. It's lunacy for the instructor to try to handle this alone as a purely academic issue. The student should know a priori that submitting what sounds like hundreds of pictures of mutilated women and what appears to be real blood is out-of-bounds for a college class. The fact that this is not the case suggests very deep problems.

At any institution I've experienced, there is some well-defined path for reporting and getting students appropriate help. For example, at my college we have an Assessment and Care Team (ACT) whose mission statement includes "Initiating appropriate intervention without resorting to punitive measures", etc. Reportable behaviors include "Material, written or spoken, in coursework suggesting possibly self-harm or harm to others", etc. Among the members of this team are the Dean of Students, Public Safety, Counseling and Health Services, etc.

The fact that you and your colleague don't know what the recognized process is at your institution indicates that you're pretty far out of your depth. Ask your manager/chair immediately what the correct contact is. I'll close with one more quote from our college's ACT document for faculty, which I think is top-notch advice:

Know your limits: Only go as far as your expertise, training, and resources allow and trust your feelings when you think an individual's problem is more than you can handle. If you are unsure how to respond to a specific student, consult with Counseling Services or a member of ACT.

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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).

What a strange university level type of history assignment ! Why would you want a student of history to get creative ?

(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)

200 pages with drawings ? That seems overzealous, way too much work for an assignment, doesnt it ?

Although it's not your job to put a diagnostic on the student, it is possible that you dont find in the institution anyone whose job it is. In that case, you still gotta do something as a citizen.

The teacher can interview the student about the essay under the guise of finding it interesting and unusual, but with the real intent of probing the student. A paranoid/guilty student wouldnt submit such paper. I suggest the interview focuses on discerning the fantasy part in it and possibly concludes with a counselling offer if suitable.

The interviewer should ask questions as an amazed reader wanting to know more about the genesis of the work, this is well within the scope of teacher student interaction

-is this real blood? Is it yours ?

-did you write the thing on a word processor before handwriting it ?

-what sources did you use ? Did you get creative ? Where ?

-how did the idea come to you ?

-how much time did you spend on it etc....

Now if the student says it's his blood (shows you the cuts), wrote all by hand without word processor, intertwined a lot of fantasy with few historical detail, and has always been fascinated with such things then it is certainly worthy of spending extra effort finding shrink help for the student.

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    "200 pages with drawings ? That seems overzealous, way too much work for an assignment, doesnt it ?" taking into account that another student made a computer game running on an ancient machine, I suspect that the assignment asked to spend at least gazillion hours on this project... – Džuris Dec 13 '18 at 14:58
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    u are right, regardless, I cant tell in which cursus all these assignments are supposed to fit together. – Manu de Hanoi Dec 14 '18 at 5:09
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TL;DR - if you're worried, contact the department head and recommend that they keep an eye out for further signs.

Let's start with the obvious: if you think that there is a clear and immediate threat to you, the student, or anyone else - contact the authorities.

I don't think that this is the case here though. The most reasonable explanation in my opinion is that this is a student who wants to be edgy/different, and has a thing for horror. Some of the things you point out do not sound too outlandish to me (at the risk of sounding crass, you can get a pretty good idea of what genitalia look like after 5 minutes on the web), but you are a better judge of that.

If you feel like this is unusually weird, and it raises red flags in your opinion, I would the department head. Your reaction needs to be measured when you present the case. The student committed no crime and took an unusual approach to an assignment. If you start a whole thing involving psychological services etc., it may turn out to be nothing, and may be construed as 'thought police-ey' (your department head may -rightly- think that you're overreacting). Just state that the work made you uncomfortable, and that its content may be indicative of some underlying issues. There is no ethical issue with showing students' work to colleagues (including department heads). Your department head will be in a better position to make a call - they'll be able to find out whether the student has been showing other disturbing signs in other classes, or on campus.

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There are several good answers here already, but I would still like to add a humble option: talk to him, without assuming he is disturbed.

"This is a dark topic, and you have obviously spent a lot of time with it. How do you feel, now you're done?"

If you think the work might be a "cry for help", such a discussion will probably help you assess whether there is any cause to worry.

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Talk with the author about his motive to write such a piece and whether he used real blood. If yes, ask why he used real blood. After this you can decide how to proceed. I mean, is it really necessary in such a forum to suggest to ask the most basic questions?

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    If the author used real blood, esp. if human, then there's a potential biohazard in handling the piece. – Wayne Conrad Dec 13 '18 at 18:32
  • So it would be an extra important first step to ask him, isn't it. – user75308 Dec 14 '18 at 8:44
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You should do nothing, for the following reasons:

(a) The student did an excellent project and should be rewarded for that.

(b) Morality is attached to actions, not character. The act of killing someone is contrary to ethics, but character traits that allow one to not be grossed out by the idea of killing someone is not contrary to ethics.

(c) People are horrified by different things. For myself, I am very squeamish and discomforted by apparently "moderate" depictions of misuse of power. Yet to most people, these depictions are just harmless entertainment. See point (b).

(d) If the existence and availability of certain cultural materials is psychologically harmful, the responsibility falls on society to legislate appropriately. The responsibility does not fall on nonexperts to act on their highly fallible guesses about the empirical facts pertaining to the psychological effects of cultural materials.

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First thing's first: Handle potential immediate danger

Your colleague should contact the student - most preferable in person if she knows she will see him / pass him by somewhere; if not that, by phone; otherwise by email, but also possibly through known friends of his.

When first contacting, your colleague should not be overly alarmist - so as not to make him break contact. She should commend him for his effort; casually sneak in a question about whether he is on campus, taking his exams, or whatever it is he's supposed to be doing; and asking him to come in for a talk about the work, to explain some aspects of it (e.g. during reception hours).

If the student cannot be contacted, is incoherent, or suggests that he is in distress - then it's emergency mode. I'm not good at giving advice about interacting with people when they're potentially-suicidal or potentially-homicidal; I'd say Google it or maybe other answers here on the site are relevant.

I'm just saying - don't have your colleague mull this over, wondering what exactly to do, in case the guy is in danger of harming himself or others in the immediate future

  • This is pretty weasel-way to avoid YOUR actual ignorance on the problem. Perhaps you're unconfortable with vaginas vis. a student. – TheDoctor Dec 21 '18 at 22:49
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You're the doctor. Ultimately, medicine has been a complete disaster with dealing with psychological issues. Firstly, note that it disturbs YOU. Until you acknowledge that or discuss the issue with the student, you can't tell if YOU or the student are disturbed (or undisturbed) in a healthy way.

Secondly, the ONLY healthy way to address the issue is to tell them your feelings about it, not as an equal, but from the point of view of being the superior. This way you'll perhaps learn something, rather than get more confused through attempting to understand each other. Something like: "This is not really appropriate result for the assignment. While detailing the account of a serial killer was aligned with the objective, you went into a depth that concerns me." That opens up the arena for addressing whatever issue may be present.

This allows YOU to understand student psychology better, rather than hand it off to some unknown authority that isn't directly connected to the issue (as you are: you know what the assignment was and the context in which you asked it).

Every interaction with a student on difficult issues related to your mission is another chance to further your mastery of pedagogy and your curriculum. The more difficult it is, the more you have to gain -- whether you are right or wrong. You never want to give up those opportunities.

[Edit: after some comments, I see I made some assumptions about the gender relationship between student and professor. If they were the same gender, I'd have MORE reason to suspect a psychological issue -- but still well within the means of a doctor of philosophy to deal with.]

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    I strongly disagree with this - if the OP believes that a student has psychological issues, this is not a pedagogical challenge. We need to be aware of our own limitations as educators. – Spark Dec 12 '18 at 22:36
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    "You're the doctor." Of philosophy. Not psychiatry. – David Richerby Dec 13 '18 at 21:58
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    Perhaps you'd like to clarify what you mean by "You're the doctor." Talking about somebody being "a doctor" or "the doctor" usually suggests that they are a medical doctor, especially when your next sentence is about medicine. The asker is not a medical doctor. "Institutionalized thinking" has nothing to do with it. – David Richerby Dec 13 '18 at 23:33
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    Actually, you're @TheDoctor – Pharap Dec 15 '18 at 3:00
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    @DavidRicherby - I'm pretty sure this is the same user who got into a long discussion with me a while back about how "professor" is simply the wrong title for academic professionals, and that the correct term is "doctor." If they're the user I'm thinking of, they were very insistent about that. That's why their name is TheDoctor, and it might be the reason for the somewhat confusing use of the word here. – Obie 2.0 Dec 16 '18 at 5:16

protected by Massimo Ortolano Dec 13 '18 at 1:05

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