A post from The Volokh Conspiracy discusses an article about a college student who was sent home (it’s not clear whether he was suspended or expelled) for writing a short story from the first-person perspective of a serial killer. When his parents complained, the teacher was fired for assigning a disturbing, unapproved story in class, specifically "Girl with Curious Hair," by David Foster Wallace, the author of the critically acclaimed Infinite Jest.
I've read Infinite Jest. Although it’s hard to get into, it is worth reading, with an interesting philosophical basis and a subtle humor which I didn’t always get. It was also very disturbing. Disturbing is not the same as graphic, or shockinig, although this book was occasionally those things as well. Disturbing is when a book makes you nervous, less certain that the world is as you thought it was. Good writers can write disturbing stories, while amateurs have to settle for shocking.
Most student writers are amateurs. I’ve taken a creative writing class in college--as a Grad student, I was nearly a decade older than some of the students--and I read the works of my fellow classmates. Some of them were very good. A lot of their works tended towards fantasy and magic realism, but as an avid reader, and sometimes writer, of fantasy, I’m not one to complain. But when they tried for horrific or disturbing stories, sometimes it amounted to piling on the graphic and shocking in the hopes that something disturbing resulted. One story was focused on sadomasochism, and I found it mildly disgusting rather than disturbing. The point is that student writers don’t usually have much appreciation of the limits of graphic and shocking writing, neither the limits of what it can accomplish nor the limits of what other people can tolerate.
Lest I sound too patronizing here, I’ll note that while I often try for disturbing with my stories, I’m not at all sure that I succeed. When I do succeed, I think it’s where I’m less graphic, leaving things out and letting the readers fill in the blank spaces. On the other hand, maybe I’m just not very good at the graphic stuff.
Anyway, it doesn’t surprise me to read that a student would write a graphic story from a serial killer’s point of view. It must have been seriously graphic, and perhaps even truly disturbing, for an experienced creative writing teacher to feel nervous about it. Thus I can understand the motivations of both the student and the teacher. As for the administration, that’s another matter. The fact that they called the police homicide division because a student wrote a disturbing short story in a creative writing class, now that’s disturbing. And while it’s certainly in the college’s authority to supervise what its instructors teach, firing a teacher for assigning outside reading material in a creative writing class is a little bit overboard. I think the best avenue for the teacher would have been a one-on-one with the student, with another person there if she were really nervous about this. The fact that her attempt to get advice about the situation turned into this mess will only make the situation worse for more teachers.
Update: Fixed the link to the Volokh Conspiracy, and added one to my writings.