How Writing Can Help Parents and Students Connect

When students arrive on campus with their parents, both parties often assume that the school will function in loco parentis, watching over its young charges, providing assistance when needed. Colleges and universities present themselves as supportive learning communities—as extended families, in a way. And indeed, for many students they become a home away from home. This is why graduates often use another Latin term, alma mater, meaning "nourishing mother." Ideally, the school nurtures its students, guiding them toward adulthood. Lifelong friendships are formed, teachers become mentors, and the academic experience is complemented by rich social interaction. For some students, however, the picture is less rosy. For a significant number, the challenges can become overwhelming.

In reality, administrators at American colleges and universities are often obliged to focus as much on the generation of revenue as on the new generation of students. A troubled or even severely disturbed student can easily fall through the cracks. Public institutions in particular are often faced with tough choices about which student support services to fund, and how to manage such things as soaring health-care costs for faculty and staff. Private schools are feeling the pinch as well. Ironically, although tuition and fees can increase as much as 6.6 percent in a single year, as they did in 2007, the high cost of doing business at public and private institutions means that students are not necessarily receiving more support in return for increased tuition and fees. To compound the problem, students may be reluctant to seek help even when they desperately need it.

Just as colleges are sometimes ill equipped to respond to the challenges being posed by today's students, so students themselves are sometimes ill equipped to respond to the challenges posed by college life. Although they arrive on campus with high expectations, some students struggle with chronic shyness or perfectionism, learning disabilities, addiction, or eating disorders. Still others may have an unreliable moral compass, and some go wild when they realize that the only real prohibition against things like alcohol, drugs, and sex is their own willpower. Most experience failed relationships; some suffer from acute loneliness, mental illness, or even rage.

Unfortunately, higher education is sometimes more of an information delivery system than a responsive, collaborative process. We have created cities of youth in which students can pass through unnoticed, their voices rarely heard, their faces rarely seen. As class size grows in response to budget cuts, it becomes even less likely that troubled students, or even severely disturbed students, will be noticed. When they're not, the results can be tragic.

In the fall of 2005, in my role as chair of Virginia Tech's Department of English, I worked with student Seung-Hui Cho after he wrote an angry poem in a creative-writing class. Unable to require him to go to counseling—a policy that has since been modified at Virginia Tech—I tried to persuade him to seek help. That semester, he did indeed seek counseling on several occasions. For reasons that are still unclear—partly because some of the records of his contact with Virginia Tech's counseling center have been lost—he was only triaged and never received a complete diagnosis or comprehensive evaluation. In April 2007, Cho killed 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech. I am not suggesting that most troubled students are like Seung-Hui Cho. In fact, almost all the troubled students with whom I have worked over the past three decades have been sensitive, compassionate people. Though some have been suicidal, the last thing they would do is deliberately injure someone else. But my experience with Cho has lent a new urgency to my efforts to reach students who may need help.

As a teacher of creative writing who has worked with many overwhelmed students, I have found that there are ways to communicate more effectively. Most students have stories they want to share, and students in distress can be desperate to find someone who will listen to them. Parents, as their children's primary listeners, have a key role to play. Some young people are unable to find their own way out of the dark, and meaningful dialogue can become a light for them to see by. Which is not to say that writing can be used to diagnose mental illness, or as a substitute for counseling; rather, I think some of the approaches writing teachers use to enter into a reflective dialogue with students can be adapted by parents and students who want to learn more about each other. Having witnessed what can happen when a student communicates almost exclusively with himself, I believe this kind of responsive, one-on-one communication is more important than ever. Teachers of writing are sometimes granted special access to students; we are able to learn things about them that even their parents and close friends may not know. Students in creative-writing classes may have no idea that they have revealed so much about themselves because, for them, writing is like speaking inside the pages of a journal. In fact, all of us who write reveal more than we imagine. This is one of the reasons why writing, even more than speaking, can provide us with important insights into ourselves and others. Many of us don't know our children (or our students) as well as we should, yet it can be easier than we imagine to begin these necessary dialogues.

If students in writing classes are eager to share their hopes and dreams with teachers, imagine how eager they are to share them with those they love. Many students do just that, sharing what they've written for class with their parents or mentors, who are often encouraging and supportive. Using a few simple approaches, parents—who are, after all, their children's first and most significant teachers—can encourage their children to enter into a "written dialogue" with them similar to the one they share with their teachers.

Below are just a few examples of the kinds of exercises that elicit illuminating responses from students. They work best if parents and students both attempt to do them, and if participants are encouraged not to worry too much about spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Other exercises can involve writing collaborative biographies of each other, or writing reviews of each other's favorite movies. For a parent, these written dialogues offer a way to become better acquainted with a son's or daughter's unique voice and vision—a way of knowing who they are. However much it may cost us, we must make every effort to communicate with young people. We have so much to lose if we don't.