Yesterday (for me, but a week and a bit later as you read), I was part of a very interesting FB conversation. It started with a question from Creston Davis, professor and co-founder of the Graduate School my son is affiliated with. Which by the way, is a seriously kickass school that is breaking paradigms left and right. I had the chance to meet both founders earlier this year and I am thoroughly impressed with what they’re doing. Also, serendipity at its best. They are based in Grand Rapids, MI which is only 1.5 hrs from Lansingland and Dandelion Soup. Um, Squirrel….. Ah yes, the question:
Are the so-called “Trigger Warnings” yet another way to censor professors? Could they be considered the equivalent of cultural censorship controlled by a privileged demographic only looking to received a non-challenging education? What say you?
Professor Davis included a link to this article from The New York Times: Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm in the status. I was most interested in reading -and pitching in, the discussion because I figured it would be very intellectually rewarding. Which it was. But also a bit saddening.
As someone else posted before I had the chance to comment, there was a very distinct lack of compassion and empathy from a number of commentators. Such luck of compassion is especially frightening considering that those people there are scholars. PhD candidates, PhDs and Post Docs in Social Sciences. Philosophers, sociologists and the likes*.
As you can imagine, the discussion was mostly polarized with a lot of absolutely-no Trigger-warning-policy-should-ever-be-in-place” on one side and a few yes-we-absolutely-need-a-Trigger-Warning-policy on the other. I say mostly because some people – me included, were more of the middle of the road kind of approach.
Also, it was good to see some comments from either people with PTSD – like me, or people who have friends/loved ones with PTSD and have seen what being triggered can do to you. It is always good to have the insight of people who actually know what it is to be triggered. It brings balance to the discussion as it makes real instead of merely academic.
My first comment was as follows:
I can in no way be considered part of the privilege group. So for what it’s worth I think it is a fine line. As with pretty much everything else in life, extremes are unhealthy and the solution must be somewhere in the middle. The lack of compassion and empathy-as mentioned before by someone else, for people in general but especially for those of us with PTSD is appalling.
John Doe, you say and I quote “the call for trigger warnings seem to be totally out of proportion to the problems people actually suffer. It underpins an ideology where everyone is a delicate flower whose needs must be catered to any cost.”
I would respectfully like to ask you, what do you know about the problems we actually suffer? I am not a delicate flower. I have been to hell and back and I stand strong. I’ve seen many terrible things. I moved to another country leaving everything I knew and loved behind managing to reimagine my life. And I tell you, the problems I actually suffer when I am triggered, are no small thing. So no, I don’t think that the call for trigger warnings are out of proportion to the problems I suffered when I’m triggered. It is not about babying us. Stories must be told. History must be learned. But a little compassion and a little common sense goes a long way in making the lives of those who have suffer a bit easier to bear.
Then, Rachel Cyr chipped in with this:
There is also a way in which we tend to conflate agonism with trauma–which I know is not what you are talking about Claudia. I realize you are citing very serious cases that should never be taken lightly. I cannot help add that agonism is painful, difficult, but productive. I have had debates as an undergrad that left me literally wondering who I was–I kind of felt ‘traumatized’ at the time to the extent that I was preoccupied with my own woundedness–but they challenged me and forced me to grow beyond my preconceptions some of which, I came to realize, were steeped in a colonial mindset. That agonism is good, and I am glad I was “triggered”. Speech, ideas, are agonistic. Take out of the agonism, you take out the politics and change the content and function of certain pedagogical interventions. Of course, we should always be mindful of trauma but I am not sure these trigger warnings actually respond to the research on dealing with traumatized individuals as they do administrative bodies that would avoid agonism by telling us “this coffee you are about to enjoy may be extremely hot”
I definitely see the benefits of that process even if – or maybe precisely because, it is painful and/or difficult. Challenging one’s thinking and letting go of unhelpful beliefs is not easy, of course. But still, it is, or should be in any case, a welcome challenge.
In summary, I do see the dangers of such policies. They could lead to censorship. And I do agree that censorship is detrimental and must be avoided at all costs. I also understand and agree, that implementing a policy where professors are required to add trigger warnings to their syllabuses can easily become a way to control what they teach. Then there is the risk of giving too much power to university administrators over the faculty, making it easy to potentially fire a professor based solely in complains from a disgruntled student. As professor Davies puts it, “Trigger Warnings could easily be used to disempower faculty and compromise learning about differences, race, sexuality, trans-gender, war, rape-culture etc.”
Furthermore, the demand for Trigger Warnings can also serve to open the proverbial can of worms in regards the potential for some students to refuse to participate in lectures/classes/courses based on the idea that what is taught conflicts with their personal views and therefore avoiding to ever have said views challenged.
Unfortunately, we have to admit there is always the risk that some people will make use of well intended ideas for their personal agendas. It is part of the human condition.
I think Scholar Rachel Renée makes a powerful point here:
I feel like “desires with endless comfort” are being conflated with “desires to not be so uncomfortable you want to go home and cry after class because you feel so alienated by an instructor/class.” This near obsession with erasing rhetoric/politics from academics – somehow conceived of as “freedom” – is beyond me. Also, a student being uncomfortable with talk about racism for instance is different than being triggered by talk about, for instance, police brutality after having been inflicted by it. I’m happy to have frank discussions about very difficult subjects – more so than most. Pretty sure bringing up my own experiences with rape in class would leave many experienced instructors baffled. I still can’t tell if the exigence is more about admin using this against teachers or teachers who somehow think giving a nod of respect to victims of rape, violence, war, humiliation, dehumanizing, racism, sexism, and the like is inappropriate. Tipping your hat to those in your syllabi who actually have experienced that shit legitimizes such voices right from the start. It says: “I know you’re here among us.” I think it can help students with such legitimate emotional issues (e.g. PTSD) understand their liability to be triggered as not a scholarly deficit. It’s just a nice gesture.
It also looks like what scholars are uncomfortable the most, other than the restriction on what they teach, is the use of the words trigger and warning. Some admit that they do give students a heads up about a difficult subject, only that they don’t use “trigger warning” when they do.
To which I say, it is all about empathy and compassion. To me, it really doesn’t matter if you don’t use the phrase “trigger warning” as long as you find a way to help those students that do need the heads up, brace themselves.
And as I mentioned before, I think there seem to be two very different demographics to keep in mind. One is that of people with PTSD and another, of people who can’t be bothered to think. For the former, trigger warnings could be considered a blessing. For the latter, well, all sort of problematic scenarios can arise from implementing a trigger warning policy.
So, since this is Mental Health Awareness month, I am bringing this issue for discussion here at Canvas. I know that as people who deal with triggers and what they do to us on daily basis, we have a different outlook than people who have never had to deal with them. What do you think about adding trigger warnings to college/university syllabi?
Finally, please let me say it again. I do see the other side of the argument, that is, higher education should be all about making all that young grey matter question the status quo and breaking paradigms. I strongly believe that minds must be stimulated and even forced (for lack of a better word) to think by themselves. To question everything. To challenge old beliefs. TFSM knows there is a lot that needs changing.
Living in a happy little naive bubble doesn’t benefit anyone. We cannot ignore there is an ugly world out there. That people do terrible things to each other. We need to talk about those things. Younger minds need to be educated. But at what cost? Should one of those costs be perhaps the eventual triggering of a PTSD episode every now and then? Is that collateral damage an acceptable price to pay for higher learning? Is there a good compromise for the issue at hand?
I honestly don’t know.
* Or perhaps it is because I liken philosophers with humanists, which in turn I equate to kindness and benevolence toward one’s fellow man. Which is faulty. Hmmm
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