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Teachers and Students and Killers

at sign AROBAZE

Yesterday, a colleague of mine received a disturbing email from a man who had been urgently interested in enrolling in UCF’s MFA program. In her role as advisor to our current MFA students, she’d been providing him information about our program and advice about applying to it. I had also exchanged a few emails with him, as he was determined to enroll in a course I’m teaching in the spring semester.

The issue is that this fellow wanted to take a graduate course in creative nonfiction this spring. We do sometimes allow “nondegree” students to take our grad courses when there is space in them and they can demonstrate sufficient knowledge and background to work at the graduate level.

However, this person had the odd idea that if he took one such course, he would somehow qualify to get a tenure-earning job in creative nonfiction writing that is currently open at an area college. Now, I’m not at that college, but I know a bit about how these things go, and, of course, that’s probably not going to happen no matter how brilliant this man might be. In fact, over at that college, a pile probably two feet high is already accumulating with applications from across the country—from people who already have MFAs and PhDs, publications in the field, even books, and time spent teaching writing at the college level. In spite of clearly being an intelligent man with two advanced degrees already, this guy has none of that. I told him that one graduate course would not likely qualify him for this job.

He also didn’t seem to fully understand what creative nonfiction is, needless to say a serious deterrent to gaining a job in the area. My colleague had given him a few copies of The Florida Review so he could read some examples, and when he emailed me to request entry into my course, he sent me a manuscript that seemed entirely fictional, though perhaps heavily autobiographical. When I noted this to him, he argued, and told me that if Tim O’Brien is considered to be writing creative nonfiction, then so is he. I responded that most of O’Brien’s work is considered fiction. Perhaps I should have added, “as is noted on the ISBN page of each of his recent books.”

Eventually, after numerous emails where he was told that a) a committee has to meet to make admissions decisions, b) we only consider applications in the spring term for admission in the fall, c) my course is full and we won’t crowd a class for a nondegree student, and d) we can’t make exceptions, even for him, he became enraged.

In the email he sent my colleague, he noted that he had made it “crystal clear” that he “needed to begin in Spring. … I told you that this was the passage to the teaching job at [x college]. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be caught dead in the creative writing program at UCF.” He went on to add, among other insults (“inconceivable lack of competence”) and threats (“letter for your permanent file”), that “I have had the benefit of more and better education than you or anyone in your department and I was treated like an ugly stepchild. So,” he added, “take your stupid MFA and shove it up your ass.”

Amish schoolhouse, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Amish schoolhouse, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

In the wake of the Connecticut shooting just a few days before, this man’s email gave me a gooey knot in the pit of my stomach. After I read it and tried to comfort my upset colleague via email, I went back into the living room where my husband was watching the latest Batman movie, and said, “Maybe you should give me a bullet-proof vest for Christmas.”

I don’t mean to accuse this particular man of murderous intentions. Perhaps, in fact, those who take advantage of language to vent their spleen are less likely to do it with weapons.

Maybe it made me queasy because I regularly teach Jo Ann Beard’s powerful essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” which chronicles the 1991 mass murder of five at the University of Iowa by a graduate student who felt he hadn’t been properly honored for his work. Perhaps it is because the shooter at Virginia Tech in 2007 was a creative writing student. Or that in 1996, while I was a graduate student at Penn State, a rare female shooter (and not a student) set out to massacre as many as she could on campus; fortunately, she didn’t have an automatic weapon, and her having to pause to reload allowed a young man to disarm her before she could kill more than 1 and injure another.

There’s also the fact that in 1989 when Marc Lépine singled out and killed 14 women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, just because they were women who dared to study engineering, I was beginning to contemplate a teaching career. And that, although I had never driven past the particular Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County where in 2006 a truck driver went in and lined up the girls (not the boys), shooting 11, killing 5, and leaving 1 severely disabled, I had frequently driven past several such schoolhouses on my trips back and forth between State College and Lewisburg in the couple of years before I moved to Florida.

It’s not that only teachers and professors or only females are targeted in these attacks, though often they are the focus of rage. Sometimes men and boys are killed, sometimes it is even disgruntled professors who do the killing, as in the cases of the University of Alabama in 2010 and Concordia University in 1992. It’s not even as though all such shootings happen at schools—they happen at movie theaters, at houses of worship, at other kinds of places of employment.


Still, teachers at all levels from elementary school to university graduate programs sustain irrational and unhinged attacks of all kinds. Usually, we take this verbal kind with a grain of salt because it happens so frequently.

We are seen as—and sometimes actually are—the keepers of the keys. We give grades and report cards, we evaluate other human beings, we determine who passes to the next level and who has to try again, we decide sometimes that a child or an adult doesn’t merit a degree or a certification or a diploma. There’s room for a lot of resentment about that, even though most of us go into our careers in order to foster learning and help people make the most of their lives.

Most of the time, we do help people make the most of their lives. This man’s email juxtaposes itself against the backdrop of physical violence in Connecticut, but also against the background of my own preparations this week as I produce a binder to apply for a teaching award. In front of me I have all the notes of thanks, all the end-of-term reflections and finished projects that show how much my students have indeed learned, the list of my undergrads who have gone on to prestigious graduate programs elsewhere. That is good and satisfying. I hang on to that.

Self-Esteem Shop photographed by Dave Hogg, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005.

Self-Esteem Shop photographed by Dave Hogg, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005.

The experts say that there has been no significant rise in the number of such rampage killings in the past decade.

Yet, I do sense changes, if not in the threat of death, then in the general demeanor and respect of my students and others I encounter in my work world. It’s not that I didn’t ever encounter over-demanding or angry students at the beginning of my career. Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting older and wish I got concomitantly more respect. Or maybe it’s just that behavioral paradigms are shifting to something more casual. Or that people all around are stressed by the struggling economy. Maybe it’s also that in the world of writing (and so many other realms), we are now all expected to be hucksters and self-promoters as much as contemplators and wordsmiths (or whatever work we do). All of this might be tending to make people more aggressive. There’s a sea of mud between healthy self-assertion and self-aggrandizing aggression.

Maybe it has to do with the self-esteem movement introduced into our schools and our society with great intentions back in the 1960s and reaching a peak in the 1980s. Like so many perfectly legitimate ideas—that it was important to encourage children and support their dreams—perhaps the self-esteem movement filtered down in an over-simplified way and got twisted. It got twisted into crap like The Secret and the whole idea that if you just want it bad enough you can have it.

This kind of attitude is often prevalent with my students, even some of the wonderful ones. They are certainly never afraid to ask for what they want, to demand it even. No matter that my syllabus states that 8 absences will earn an F for my course, students expect to pass. No matter that the assignment requires 12 to 15 pages, and they only turned in 6—if they “tried hard” and it was “difficult for me to write about this,” they think their grade should be fine. I had one student this semester who had missed numerous classes, had turned in 1 out of 9 smaller homework assignments, had failed to participate in most of the workshops, and whose own writing had earned her Cs… who came up to me the last week and told me she hoped she could still earn a B.

I won’t even bore you with the web of negotiations between myself and a stunningly talented young man who nonetheless earned a C in my class due to his inability to complete work or manage his time. Flattery? Manipulation? Sincere desperation? Promises of improvement? It was all there, just not the work.

More recently, a graduate student, reportedly a hard-working and lovely person (I have only met her once myself), informed me that she only checks email every few days so that if I want to reach her on short notice, I should use Facebook or Twitter. Since when is it up to a student to define the method of communication between herself and her professor? Since when is it part of my job to explain such basics? This kind of control-taking is noticeably more common among my students today than it was more than twenty years ago when I began teaching as a youthful 30-year-old.

Fortunately, none of these students is threatening. But, still, something is not adding up.


Unfortunately, I can’t get it out of my head that this all somehow correlates with the rise of fantasy genres and the amount of time people spend in fantasy worlds, whether they are in book, movie, video game, or Internet chat room variety, even the uber-cheerful Facebook presentations that people make of themselves. I have environmental concerns about this, which I plan to discuss in a later post, but I worry about human expectations these days, too. I worry that we are making a world that is in reality intolerable and so people turn more and more to fantasy.

My students tell me this repeatedly. They are bored and stressed at the same time. They prefer escape to self-examination. They prefer to spend some time in a world, no matter how evanescent, where they can be heroic and romantic and good-looking and successful, often things they don’t feel like they are in daily life. But I can’t help but believe that we are all affected by where and how and in what modes we spend our time. We come back from these virtual worlds, but I’m not sure our expectations come back with us. And the virtual worlds grow more and more convincing.

In the past week, there has been plenty of talk about “evil.” Even President Obama evoked evil when speaking of the shooting in Connecticut. Yet, I don’t believe that shooter was evil, even if his act was. He suffered from some deep mental illness and desperation, the likes of which we see over and over in these cases.

Plenty of others have already written about the need for better gun control laws—assault weapons simply have no rationale for being readily available except for crime and gun-industry profits. While it is true that we will never prevent people from rampaging if they are determined to do so, the difference between a knife or a manually loaded rifle, on the one hand, and, on the other, an automatic assault weapon is huge in terms of the amount of death someone can inflict.

Plenty of others have written about the need for a better armed and better prepared set of first responders. We certainly have that, increasingly, and it has had little effect. It’s too late by the time they arrive. Here in Orlando, the nightly news has been filled with discussion of appointing an armed security guard at each and every school. I consider that a terrible idea for many reasons—the atmosphere for students, the inculcation of constant fear, the dangerous presence of potentially misused weapons, the need for that money to be spent on instruction, and pure ineffectuality.

Plenty of others have argued passionately that we need to care for our mentally ill better—we need to remove stigmas for early care, be watchful for early signs, provide the financial resources for such care, and provide facilities other than prisons for the mentally ill. Here, here. This is a massively complex issue, of course—de-institutionalization began as part of the Civil Rights era when it was recognized that this broad category of people didn’t always deserve to be locked up out of sight, that we might need to learn to deal with some kinds of mental difference. But support services for the mentally ill certainly need more attention, and families living with those who are showing signs of violence and major disturbance need better options.

Some have even written that we need to work against the culture of violence we have in the United States. How to do that is the question. Do we ban violence in our books, TV shows, movies, video games? Do we try to educate children about the consequences? Do we try to change our own behaviors when we speak with others? There’s a lot of blame that goes around for the culture of violence.

But this is what I have to add: It is violence in the context of fantasy that is the problem (maybe even only certain kinds of disconnected fantasy). I’m not even saying that we should ban these video games, absolutely not—I am not offering prescriptions or proscriptions—but when children and adults spend so much time shooting others, massacring others, without the consequences, and when they spend time communicating at so much further than arm’s length even with the real people they know or sorta know, then I believe something comes loose in the minds of those people. Some depictions of violence actually sensitize people to its effects. But not if those depictions exist in a fairyland where dead people return to life, where humans are monsters and monsters are human, where we spend the bulk of our time with characters and in scenarios that are designed to fulfill our most childish egotistical desires. Too often, when that is the frame of reference, disappointments in the real world then become a devastating source of rage.

I question myself on this—after all, I would never say that reading Alice in Wonderland or The Hundred and One Dalmatians or Tolkien ruined my sense of reality. And plenty of perfectly peaceable people have been fantasizing for a long, long time. In fact, I’m a great supporter of the imagination and love it in all its many varied forms. I believe that humans can work out significant issues in the realm of fantasy. Also, I have no evidence that any of the killers mentioned here deeply embedded themselves in fantasy worlds, and their type has been around since long before the electronic versions of such fantasies.

So, what the heck do I mean? Maybe it has to do with the fact that reality and fantasy are merging. I’m not really sure. I always hope that you, my readers, can help me reflect on such things. It’s just that I have a creeping sensation that a whole host of unrealistic expectations contribute to a culture in which psychic violence and aggression seem to me to be on the rise even if physical massacre is not. And I believe strongly that this is about culture as much as it is about mentally ill individuals.

Really, I’m on tenuous ground here, and I admit it. I’m only at the stage of associations crisscrossing my mind. What do you think? What images, memories, associations, and seemingly free-floating concerns have been on your mind since December 14?

L'ange de mort, 1919, by Carlos Schwabe.

L’ange de mort, 1919, by Carlos Schwabe.

14 responses »

  1. “And I believe strongly that this is about culture as much as it is about mentally ill individuals.”

    I’d tend to agree. I hear a lot about attitudes of kids from various teachers and how there’s almost an entitlement to things. Perhaps this is partially aided through the ‘fantasy lives’ of online communities …whether that be gaming or social media or chatrooms/forums etc. It’s just easier to have and/or see things your way when you’re able to surround yourself with that like-mindedness.

    I too don’t have answers, but as with anything in life there’s ‘good and bad’ found in it all ….and I suppose it’s our job as society to nudge and shift things into appropriate directions. How’s that for vague -ha.

    • Yes, Troy, I think that’s the difficulty. When a phenomenon–or set of possibly related phenomena–are created by such complex factors, how do we ever sort it out? I suppose that’s what science is for, but we are so far from clear on these things that it leaves us all mulling. But we obviously need to do more than mulling.

  2. Sharifa (former student of Bruce) Riddett

    Lisa I just love your writing. You write about important topics that I often try to avoid. But I find I can kind of work through them a bit when I read your stuff. It’s a great process for me 🙂

  3. Genevieve Tyrrell


    First off: I think Tolkien, One Hundred and One Dalmations, and Alice in Wonderland are far from the type of fantasy we’ve been dealing with in the last few years, and that is part of the problem. We’re talking virtual reality based video games in 3-D animation that place players in the role of gunman. We’re talking “reality” TV shows depicting bizarre marriage contest, on-island games, international races, parenting tactics (“Wife Swap” and “The Nanny” to name a couple). Everything done pseudo-documentary style yet very much scripted, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality significantly so over the reading materials previously mentioned.

    And what I have found the year I taught was that often students are left on their own growing up. Their parents usually don’t seem interested in spending time with them or taking them to museums or cultural events, discussing politics, or even literature—making the only “reality” they know being School, video games, and TV/ Film (because rarely do they read on their own, other than usually starting in their teen years: Seventeen Magazine, Cosmo, and Playboy). They give their kids video games and plop them in front of the TV set all too often.

    TV pseudo-documentary style started with The Real World on MTV, and actually the first season wasn’t terrible. In fact, it even depicted one of the cast members spending time with and helping the homeless. There were actual scenes that demonstrated learning about other cultures, religions, and social classes. However, over time The Real World devolved into night-vision cameras installed in bedrooms to capture roommate sex acts and ensuing drama over who slept with whom.

    For me—I feel like there’s a lack of parenting going on that should take place in the face of a culture that is fantasy-driven/ virtual reality-driven more than ever before. Add some mental illness that’s not properly treated due to a culture that stigmatizes the ill and relies on insurance companies pushing 15 minute psychiatric evaluations, along with drug companies pressuring doctors to hand out prescriptions like candy, and then throw some guns into the mix and voila! Chaos.

    I think Barbara Ehrenreich tends to bring some of this back to positivism in America with her book Bright-sided, showing that all too often our country likes to emphasize the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” mentality as a cop-out to confronting problems and issues head on.

    But I mean, really this all goes back to a society that doesn’t look out for each other as much as it should. People are expected to think positive thoughts on their own, fix their health on their own, fix bullying situations on their own, and grow up on their own, without a sense of community necessary to have a healthy community that doesn’t shoot each other up.


    • Gen,

      Good point about the different kinds of fantasy–and it’s certainly not all online. It’s paintball games, as well as reality shows, that blur the lines.

      What I see in my creative nonfiction students is a bifurcation in the parenting they receive. It seems to be either the absent or dysfunctional parenting, on the one hand, and the over-involved helicopter parenting on the other. In the worst cases, they seem to produce sociopathy vs. utter helplessness, and depression either way. But, of course, we can’t blame it all on parents….

      And I like your last paragraph. My mother mentioned to me earlier in response to the blog post that she remembers how in the small town where she grew up, the sense of community seemed to circumvent a lot of what we are talking about.

  4. Genevieve Tyrrell

    –side note: I had one student who was so excited she started asking her dad about politics because prior to that they had never really discussed those issues together. She was almost nineteen. I remember sitting in front of the world news every night for dinner at seven years old and discussing politics with my parents. I still watched a ton of TV, played video games (though back then they were timid compared to the ones now), and watched a lot of film growing up, and I was bullied relentlessly some years in school but my parents also discussed the world with me, had me help out at the local church food center, took me to a million museums, science centers, and cultural events, and when bullying got to be too much I got to see a therapist to help me learn behaviorial skills to cope with bullying situations (as opposed to simply medicating me).

  5. I’m having a hard time putting together coherent comments, let alone a blog post. I agree that there is a connection with fantasy lives (self-indulgence), as well as time spent looking at electronic gadgets (and using them to communicate). Despite how easily one can become and stay “connected,” it certainly seems to be the case that there are many people out there that believe they are alone. For a small subset, the response is violence.

  6. I remember after I had taken my first creative writing course. One of my classmates was organizing a writers group. He sent out invites to me and other students except for one. This one student had a website where he showed off his gun collection and wrote obsessively about them.

  7. Hi Lisa,

    I just wanted you to know you are not alone in sensing a sea-change of attitudes among our students. For the first time in my teaching life, I now require my students to sign a contract of civility that outlines appropriate class procedures, policies, and etiquette. I don’t know what the answer is either, but I can assure you that your thoughtful essay will stimulate discussion. Hope you are well. Gosh I miss those days in Burrowes.

    • Bob,

      Great to hear from you, though sorry we are exchanging laments or something like laments. I think your idea of a civility contract is a good one, though I fear my students wouldn’t read it! But it’s an idea to keep in mind–maybe I’ll give it a try.

      Anyway, I hope you have a good holiday season. Hope to hear from you again.

  8. Here is a constellation of impressions about your thought-provoking post:

    Ironically, on December 14th, I was at Walt Disney World, the epicenter of fantasy in Florida. The flags were at half-mast. Someone sane is in charge there.

    I am not sure what we mean when we say “the culture of violence.” The phrase presumes that our culture is violent, judged against some supposedly morally superior example that tends to go unmentioned. The amorphousness of the phrase invites us to judge those we think are wrong without specifying what exactly we mean by a culture of violence or what the ideal is. Chances are, if pressed on this, many of us would express different ideals. Of course, in light of the Newtown, trying to specify what we mean equates to blaming someone for actions that lead to the killings.

    I am not sure there is a connection between fantasy and psychotic mass-murderers. I am eager to look at data, but I am deeply suspicious of the sense that the data exists and is clear, when I have never heard bona fide data cited ever on this issue. I am reminded of the generally accepted truth that porn stars were abused as children, a claim that might feel right, but has never had, as far as I can tell, sociological data to back it up. The idea that there is too much fantasy, too much fake reality built in to the postmodern condition, is what Umberto Eco calls hyperrealism, and while Eco and Frederick Jameson and Jean Baudrillard hint at the cultural decay of this phenomenon, and in Baudrillard’s case, a sense of hysterical paranoia is the result, I am not sure the psychosis of killers is a result.

    I am more inclined to believe that the culture of stupidity in our nation is what makes it difficult to make anything better. Only a profoundly stupefied culture could produce someone with a suit and tie who would respond to the tragedy by saying, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The evidence of past shootings contradicts this claim by Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s sleazy executive vice president. But what is more alarming is that this shit-monger is using terms like “good guy” and “bad guy.” He lives in a John Wayne moral universe (and not The Searchers or even McLintlock). That LaPierre can only imagine a world in which everyone has guns might point to “a culture of violence.” We’ll have to see if the NRA has pushed stupid too far for even most thoughtless Americans to tolerate (like Sarah Palin’s incoherent summary of Paul Revere’s ride, or Rick Perry’s “Oops” moment).

    In Strength to Love, Martin Luther King wrote, “Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

    What needs to happen is that the NRA must be forced to make its full argument—that average citizens need assault weapons just in case they need to overthrow the government as our nation’s founders intended, sort of—so that our institutional stupidity must be something we are conscious of. If we are going to be this stupid, we have to own stupid.

    I am, incidentally, appalled by the current vogue for first-person-shooter military video games, which are popular amongst suburban kids who would never dream of actually serving in the military. These hyper-real games seem to mock the service of actual servicemen and women. But I am not sure there is any connection to mass killings, unless it demonstrates that logical connections to reality in the real world are elusive to so many people, which again leads me back to the difficulty of passing legislation of any kind or having a meaningful public debate about anything.

    Like the self-esteem movement, the impulse to express one’s feelings (always to express, never to listen) abounds too easily in our culture.

    Both Snooki and Paris Hilton’s dog each has more books in print than I do.


    • This is now my third attempt to write a response to your comment… the others have been eaten by my clicking mistakes. If I were a superstitious person, I would think this had meaning beyond its stupid self.

      Anyway, I too am sorry that Snooki and Paris Hilton’s dogs have more books in print than you do. I am sure they are surpassing many of us in that regard, and I found the King quote poignant.

      I believe in science, and I agree that there is no good data proving a one-to-one correlation (much less causation) between fantasy and psychotic mass-killers. I think I said that in the original post. So, I agree that data should be the basis for much in the way of policy, law, and significant action, I also believe that science should not stop us from speculating about tenuous connections or commenting about the tenor of a culture.

      There’s a lot of “duh” science. I just found out that’s the common term for the time science spends proving the obvious ( I understand the need for this–here are a few justifications ( But it gets weary.

      And it gets weary also when the only legitimacy is given to this kind of proof. Not that I want to live in a world of superstition and bullshit. But I guess that my essayist’s soul hopes that if we understand that we are within a context of rumination, reflection, and speculation, we may say things that are not proven. I hope that’s where we might begin to find the less than obvious, though I suppose the danger is that in making it up we also bring it into being.

      I think we can say that Victorian England was characterized by a certain politesse and repression, though, of course, that applied primarily to certain classes of people and never existed without its dark side. But I think we can also say that American culture is more violent in its emotional orientation than some others, especially those within a similar framework in terms of economic development and in terms of systems of law and order. The Guardian notes that the U.S. rates first in gun ownership, though not in terms of gun deaths per capita ( So, obviously, there are other factors that influence the latter beyond purely gun ownership. Perhaps poverty, desperation, and political regimes where there are few other outlets for disagreements of various sorts.

      But we are the ones with the NRA, and it has more than 4 million members. The latest announcements from the NRA to the effect we should have armed officers in every school in the country, is indeed stupid. But it also reflects some strange sense that violence is the answer to violence. It’s a belief that goes beyond the stupid, at least I think so.

      Anyway, I was most interested in your saying that you are appalled by “first-person-shooter military video games.” If there is nothing objectionable in fantasy in general, then why is there something objectionable in that kind of fantasy? I ask this sincerely because I have the same kind of edges, and I’m not sure I understand them. If it’s a discredit to our “actual servicemen and women,” then is there a distinction to be made between fantasy based on magic vs. fantasy based on re-vamping some kind of reality?

      I.e., are vampires and goblins and flying men okay because they simply don’t really exist anywhere? Is it that once you create a world that looks like and acts like the real world but isn’t, then we have an issue?

      Or is it the heavy violence without consequences that makes this kind of military fantasy objectionable? Actual soldiers face actual consequences, and that’s different?

      Or both? Or something else?

      I guess that I’m trying to understand why it is that some fantasy seems harmless, even positive (as Gen and Jeffrey have pointed out in other comments), whereas some is objectionable.

      Too long. Apologies. But I like trying to work some of this out.


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