This week’s events at Virginia Tech have shaken me up badly. The whole thing is causing me to have flashbacks of a traumatic experience that my colleagues and I had with a sociopathic student.
In Spring of 2004, our fiction writing professor had this student in her class. She is a five foot woman in her 50s. He is a body builder who can bench approximately 350 pounds, a known steroid abuser who had written an essay for his composition class about the benefits of steroids, contending that the media had falsely propagated claims that steroids are harmful. The student terrified her. He was disruptive and hostile in class, using obscenities in every sentence. He turned in a story in which a man inserts a gun into his girlfriend’s vagina, which excites her sexually. My colleague was so intimidated that she had security guards posted after class at one point. She kicked him out of the class, only to be told by the department head that she had to re-instate him. I was sitting in the next room when he met with the department head, and I heard him say, of my colleague, “She’s proof that they’ll give anyone a Ph.D. She’s an idiot.”
The next semester, the student enrolled in my poetry writing class. His first poem contained the lines “She’s begging for a condom that never existed / but it isn’t rape, is it?” His second poem contained a racial slur. He used the class Blackboard page to engage in obscenity-laced flame wars with classmates. Several classmates complained that they felt intimidated by him.
At the end of the semester, he wanted to include a poem called “Fat Stripper” in the class book, and perform it at the class’s public reading. He printed it across a photo of a 300 pound African-American woman in a g-string, pole-dancing. The poem compared the woman to “the last piece of rotisserie chicken that nobody wants.” He read the poem at the class reading, after I asked him not to, and our creative nonfiction writing professor could be heard saying how distasteful he thought the poem was. The next day, outside the building where we work, the student yelled at the creative nonfiction professor, whom he had never met, “Hey [professor’s name]! You piece of s---. You got a f------ problem with me?” The creative nonfiction professor called the police, and the student was escorted off campus.
I failed the student because he hadn’t done any of the assigned reading for the class and because he had been tardy fifteen times. My reward for this was (a) relentless badgering from his parents, demanding that I change the grade; and (b) I had to have the student in class again two years later. In fact, in addition to re-taking the class with me, he enrolled in another of my class, the required capstone class for all creative writing majors. At this point, he had it in for me. He had posted vicious things about me all over the internet. He posted the following response to another student’s creative work, in a non class-affiliated online forum: “Hey! You suck! ________ is perhaps the worst short story I have ever read, and your fanfiction is no better. Please quit school. You will never succeed as a writer, and your major in English is truly ironic (meaning you are an imbecile). Or, better yet, just die. Yes, die please. I think that would suit us all.”
I was afraid for my own life. I met with the university attorney, the dean of students, the department head, the dean of my college, and the assistant dean of my college. They said there was nothing that I could do, besides flunking him again, in the absence of direct threats, e.g. “I’m going to do X to you.” The dean of students actually told me, "You may be in danger of physical harm here," but didn't offer any help. The bottom line is that they were more afraid of lawsuits from the student’s deranged parents than of what might happen to their faculty and their other students.
Again, I had several complaints from students who felt intimidated by his presence in workshop. He turned in hostile poems directed at me, with lines like “Your Ph.D. means s---, / something you masturbate with." In the capstone course, he wrote a senior thesis that was nothing but a hit job aimed at me. It was about an untalented Ph.D. in creative writing who could only get a job teaching second grade. He had a genius student who was already a published children’s author. The teacher’s wife was hairy and was having a lesbian affair. I had to listen to him workshop parts of this story every week. Administrators told me that it was fiction, that he could be writing about anybody. One student became offended because the lesbian character was named “Ivana Hole” and because the story included a gratuitous insult aimed at Italians: “If he had been Italian, he would have slugged her.” She told him that she found it offensive. His reaction was to write a blog entry on MySpace, personally insulting every member of the class, especially the one who had spoken up. He described her hair as “the ugliest haircut on a girl I have ever seen (besides a bowlcut on an Asian chick). It looks like pubic hair tangled up in a shower drain.”“Ivana Hole” and because the story included a gratuitous insult aimed at Italians: “If he had been Italian, he would have slugged her.” She told him that she found it offensive. His reaction was to write a blog entry on MySpace, personally insulting every member of the class, especially the one who had spoken up. He described her hair as “the ugliest haircut on a girl I have ever seen (besides a bowlcut on an Asian chick). It looks like pubic hair tangled up in a shower drain.”
There’s a lot more I could say about what my colleagues and I went through with this student. The dean, assistant dean, and department head have all contacted me over the last few days, saying they are looking into revising their policies and seeking my input. I just hope that now, after this horrible massacre at Virginia Tech, universities will do more to protect professors and students from this kind of harassment and to insure that it doesn’t escalate into something bigger.