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Creative writing courses and murder: I don't like Mondays

By Malcolm King - posted Thursday, 19 April 2007


The deadliest shooting in American history was carried out by Cho Seung-Hu, a young 23-year-old Creative Writing major.

This should send shivers down the spines of university and TAFE teachers in Australia. In 2002 a Monash University IT student gunned two students and injured five others at the Clayton Campus.

Those at the front line of teaching and especially those teaching in the arts, get a “gut feeling” about some students. It's not always easy to articulate but it usually manifests itself in fear and anxiety. A primal sense that something's not right.

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The director of creative writing at Virginia Tech's English department, Professor Lucinda Roy, had Cho Seung-Hu in one of her classes and she described him as "troubled".

Two of the Cho's plays, Richard McBeef and Mr Brownstone, deal with bizarre and disturbing subject matter such as murder, pedophilia and a fragmented family life. In one particularly violent passage in Richard McBeef, a boy muses aloud about murdering his father-in-law:

"'I hate him. Must kill Dick. Must kill Dick. Dick must die … kill Dick.'"

The play ends with the boy ramming a cereal bar into his father-in-law's mouth, who responds by killing the boy.

"There was some concern about him," said Professor Carolyn Rude, Chairwoman of the English Department and as was reported by MSN online.

"Sometimes, in creative writing, people reveal things and you never know if it's creative or if they're describing things, if they're imagining things or just how real it might be. But we're all alert to not ignore things like this," Professor Rude said.

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As a former leader of a group of creative writing and media programs at a Victorian university, only twice in nine years did I have cause for concern that a student's writing and actions warranted investigation by the authorities. For two years a student had allegedly been verbally abusing a staff member, but he always did it when they were alone.

I discussed the matter with the university solicitor and he said it was an academic management problem. I discussed it with a councillor and she said if there was violence and intimidation involved, it was a legal matter. Universities are like a federation of states. If something goes wrong the senior executive's finger of blame is pointed at the schools and the school blames the senior executive. It's a formula for disaster.

The student failed the second year of the program and we thought we'd seen the end of him. Unfortunately, even though our Dean and myself pleaded with the university authorities not to re-admit him, it was to no avail. He'd seen a psychologist who said that socialising with students and keeping to a regular routine may help his therapy.

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About the Author

Malcolm King works in generational workforce change. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University. He also runs a professional writing business called Republic.

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