Disturbing Content in Students Work

Occasionally, students may include disturbing comments or revelations in their writings or artwork. Such content often includes self-disclosure about abuse or trauma, bizarre content in e-mail messages, dangerous threats or pronouncements, or art work reflective of traumatic events or violence. Students in question may or may not also exhibit bizarre or disruptive classroom behaviour.
Common questions are:

  • How do we address the students work from an academic standpoint?
  • Should a student be required to see a counsellor before a mark is given?
  • Should anything be done at all?
  • Are students just being dramatic or artistic?

Indications of disturbed content

  • The organisation of written material may exhibit a bizarre, incoherent, or dreamy quality. Often the written content moves from item to item in an associative rather than a linear fashion, exhibiting more of a symbolic rather than a logical thought process.
  • There may be a preponderance of dark, negative, or jarring themes and images. Sexual themes, violence and death may be eerily but unskilfully portrayed.
  • Frequent use of profanity.
  • The work is a dramatic departure from the student’s social demeanour or apparent affect.

There are many ways in which students may express themselves, however, the presence of such features in student work may indicate an effort, albeit distorted and unconscious, to communicate something of deep personal importance. 

How to respond

There are many ways in which students may express themselves, however, the presence of such features in student work may indicate an effort, albeit distorted and unconscious, to communicate something of deep personal importance. 

The central question will be to determine if the student's expressions are evidence of severe mental illness, if the student is a danger to self or others, or if some type of treatment or intervention is warranted. Whenever appropriate, the Counselling Centre would work closely with Security and other relevant groups on campus. In the past, consultation and/or assessment in such cases have revealed the existence of an emotional problem. At other times, however, we have found that some students were unaware that they had created a problem for others, or were unintentionally violating cultural or social norms. Irrespective of the student's understanding of the impact their work on others, it is important and appropriate to evaluate aberrant or potentially dangerous student expression and, if necessary, intervene.

The worst response is no response. However, you do not need to respond immediately to e-mail, notes, or calls from the student if you do not feel comfortable doing so. It is suggested that you consult with available supports before responding to the student. It is recommended that you refrain from making promises, commitments or personal comments in your response to the student.
If the appropriate opportunity presents itself, you should express your concern about the content of the work to the student. You might suggest to the student that you would like to delay grading the assignment until you and the student can discuss things further - this also provides you with time to consult as necessary. The reaction of the
student to this form of intervention may elucidate the nature of the student's motivation and increase their awareness of the behaviour. It will also help you determine if the student was merely acting sensationally, immaturely, or was merely unaware or insensitive to appropriate socio-cultural or university norms.

Keep copies of all communication with the student. Factual feedback to the student will depend on having an accurate record of agreements, comments, e-mails, etc.