On This Long-Running Discussion of Trigger Warnings in the University Classroom

It’s my first term teaching, so, in addition to being way too busy to write, I’ve been more interested in questions of pedagogy than I’ve been in the past. It seems that every couple of weeks, I read a think piece in a major publication about how trigger warnings are invading the university classrooms, and how this is necessarily a bad thing, either because it infringes on academic freedom or because it coddles people who should just get over themselves already. There have, of course, been dissenting voices on this subject, notably the Shakesville blog, and a fair-number of feminist and social justice activists on Twitter, but, to my (admittedly limited-by-not-having-the-time-to-follow-much-of-anything-in-obsessive-detail) knowledge, major national and international publications have published any op-eds in favour of trigger warnings in the classroom. (If there have been, let me know. Also, if you happen to know an editor who might be receptive to publishing such an article, please let me know.)

The latest of these pieces was published today in the Globe and Mail. Geoff Smith gets it wrong in both of the above ways. Trigger warnings are neither an infringement of the thought-police on academic freedom, and trigger warnings are not merely coddling those too weak to face so-called real life.

What Smith’s line of thought highlights is a general lack of mainstream awareness of what a trigger warning is, a misunderstanding that is encouraged by Oberlin College’s policy (which started this whole discussion).

Ohio’s Oberlin College now has a policy asking faculty members to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression,” and to make so-called triggering material optional if it does not contribute directly to learning goals, or even to excise it. As The New Republic pointed out, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s brilliant novel about the great harms of colonialism, Things Fall Apart, now carries the warning that it “may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, and religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.”

Last week, the student senate at UC-Santa Barbara (my alma mater) passed a similar motion, advisory at this time, asking professors to add trigger warnings to their course syllabi. In February, a Rutgers sophomore writing in the New Jersey university’s student newspaper called for a trigger warning on, among other works, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, because the book contains “suicide, domestic abuse, and graphic violence.”

One cannot deny the existence of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination on campuses. Protecting Charter rights, as well as shielding students against physical assault and hate speech, are clear grounds for limitations on academic freedom.

Yet when trigger alerts are poised to affect the everyday conduct of postsecondary education, one recoils. Proponents of trigger warnings say they are not demanding censorship; they just want to give students the right to opt out of material that might upset them, even if the material is required (a conundrum they don’t explain). But it seems more ominous than that.

What Smith says is that a trigger warning impedes the everyday conduct of learning in postsecondary institutions, that a trigger warning shields students from material that is merely upsetting. In this way he is firmly in line with the other think pieces I’ve read over the last few months, and this mischaracterization of a trigger warning as a warning against offence or upset frames the debate in such a way that no reasonable person would be in favour of their use, much less in a university classroom where we aim to challenge entrenched thinking patterns (among other things).

Here’s my point: Being triggered is not the same thing as being upset or offended. Being upset or offended can be a reasonable response to all sorts of material for all sorts of reasons. Being upset or offended does’t result in flashbacks or blackouts or panic attacks or uncontrollable crying. Being triggered — having one’s PTSD symptoms activated — can do all these things and more.

PTSD is a response to traumatic events. Judith Herman claims that it’s a reasonable response to extreme experiences. PTSD symptoms last long after the causal experience has finished.

It muzzles no one to say, for example, that Julie Taymore’s Titus contains a graphic depiction of rape and its aftermath as well as cannibalism. We’re mostly concerned with other aspects of the film (or we’re concerned with these aspects of the film for x, y, and z reasons). If you’ll be triggered by this please encounter whatever aspects of the film you can in whatever way you can, and prepare yourself accordingly for the class discussion.

Even if prepare yourself accordingly means skip those classes (I’ve had many students skip many classes this term for all sorts of reasons that I would consider suspect including assignments in other classes, so it’s not precisely unprecedented for a student to not do some of the work assigned for a class) or watch the movie in whatever safe environment works for you, or bring your partner to those classes so you have a supportive person with you, or….

My point, again: PTSD does not mean being easily offended or upset, being triggered does not mean being easily offended or upset or insisting on being treated like a special flower.

I’ve been triggered by the depiction of rape in Titus, but I’ve also been triggered by the smell of certain food (I had to excuse a student from my class because the smell of his lunch was causing me to shake uncontrollably and I was supposed to be teaching) or by particular sounds. Not all of these things are predictable, and a trigger warning is not intended to predict but to advise in the broadest of senses. This is the content. Prepare yourself accordingly.

It doesn’t make weaklings of our students to acknowledge the repercussions of the past on the present, rather it empowers them to learn that their traumatic pasts can be acknowledged humanely, and it empowers them to take on the past on their own terms.

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