Monthly Archives: March 2014

My thoughts on “trigger warnings” for academic course content

Today a friend posted a link to this New Republic article Trigger Happy.   Both the title (Trigger Happy) and the subtitle of the article (The Trigger Warning has spread from blogs to college classes.  Can it be stopped?) drew me in.

In my college classes I teach about social inequality in schools.   I teach about and shine a light on the deep dark violence inherent in social inequality.  I teach those taboo topics that we tell people to leave at home, in therapy, in the closet, behind closed doors etc.

In my curriculum the content is often the very topics that we as a culture silence in peoples experiences.  The sorts of  life experiences that my students have come to believe were personal and private, individual and shameful, even though we know statistically that the violence of gender inequality, racism, poverty etc. are pandemics in our society.

And I can tell you that when you shine a light on all that violence and silence in a classroom or elsewhere you are always in the company of survivors.  Always.  Do the math.  You or someone sitting beside you has had first hand experience with the dehumanizing violence of living on the down side of social inequality.

So when I saw this article seeming to suggest that Trigger Warnings ought to be dismissed wholesale, the gross oversimplification of the larger topic of triggering content in academic settings frustrated me.  I know through both research and personal experience that the content in many of the courses I teach can “trigger” very real p.t.s.d. trauma in students in my classes.

The first thought I had was in reading this then was, Does this author even know the rates of unchecked violence against women, children, people of color, marginalized men, people who are differently-able?  Can she estimate how many survivors of violent assault and relational abuse exist just in her work place?

And that is just a start on where this oversimplification went off the rails for me.  The false construction of an academic setting or really any learning space as necessarily void of personal experience or emotion seems to me to be explicitly sexist.  Presenting materials on interpersonal and intrapersonal violence as depersonalized knowledge buys into a silly binary of academic knowledge as objective and impersonal.

And the suggestion that academic settings are not always censoring what can be considered knowledge and what can be considered an “authentic curriculum” to cater to particular sensibilities and political ends (personal sensativities) also strikes me as woefully naive.

“Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration.” 

The fundamental assumptions here are flawed.  Public life is structure around an array of fragile sensitives already.  These are simply dominant sensitivities that are triggered by ideas like the notion that white supremacy is genocidal, the idea that wide-scale rapes exist because there are a lot of men raping women.  These ideas exist in literature, but they are often not brought to light in academic settings I would argue because of who and what they might “trigger.”   I would argue that what can and can’t be said and taught are deeply informed by what might trigger “white guilt” or a mocking round of claims of political correctness and discrediting of a scholars academic authority.  We are all well groomed around who we should not “trigger” to take on profound intellectual and emotional risks.

Yet having an authentic academic conversation about how content may be personally triggering “the most fragile personal sensitives” somehow undermines intellectual exploration.   Rather the 1 in 4 or perhaps 1 in 3 (fragile personal sensitivity) survivors should keep that personal and just think about the principles of intellectual exploration.

So no, in my opinion a simple “trigger warning” is not adequate to address the conversations necessary if we expect all of our students to bring their personal lives to new ideas and new ways of thinking about social and interpersonal inequality.  Teaching and learning are to me are the most intensely personal engagements we can ask of ourselves and our students.  Yes! we should be talking to them about how they EXPERIENCE our materials and our classes.  Yes! we should be thinking about how they bring their own lives and experiences to the materials.  Not as censors or as instructors with  “an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole…” but rather as academics interested in the expansion of ideas in the lives of people.

I believe in our teaching we should be thinking about and developing a pedagogy which takes into account the diverse array of experiences, including the “triggering” experiences, of every student as a fundamental element of the learning and growing that can take place in our classrooms.

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