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Trigger Warnings: Are We Asking Too Much of Faculty and Too Little of Students?

Professors say college students need to keep an open mind about disturbing or unfamiliar academic material.

by Joseph Williams

Proponents say they’re creating safe spaces for sexual assault victims, combat veterans, or other college students who have experienced trauma or violence. Experts say they’re well intentioned but doing more harm than good, working against the very idea of higher education: acquiring knowledge and learning how to think critically.

In the latest part of a fast-growing trend, the student body president at American University in Washington, D.C., is demanding that faculty issue trigger warnings to students ahead of disturbing lessons, readings, or classroom discussions.

“The fact of the matter is, trigger warnings are necessary in order to make our academic spaces accessible to all students, especially those who have experienced trauma,” Devontae Torriente argued on a YouTube video released in September. His demand, in turn, inspired a supportive Twitter thread under the hashtag #LetUsLearn.

But AU’s Faculty Senate rejected the demand, and an increasing number of academics at colleges nationwide are following suit, including one University of Chicago dean who warned students in August that they wouldn’t be warned at all. At the same time, free speech proponents arguing against the practice say well-meaning students are taking a commonsense advisory used in online rape-survivor forums to block literary classics such as The Great Gatsby, classroom discussions about the everyday brutality of slavery, and law school lessons on how to prosecute a rapist.

“Students generally think this is helpful to their fellow students, [but] students are misusing the language of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Greg Lukianoff, an attorney and the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an academic-freedom advocacy group, told TakePart. “They are not recognizing the fact that if you are actually someone who is in such a bad position that you will actually be triggered—that is, have an episode in class—you need serious [psychological] help well beyond” a warning.

Others argue the warnings are having a chilling effect on professors, stifling experienced educators who want to challenge students in a marketplace of ideas but don’t want to get fired for teaching a lesson that might make some students uncomfortable.

“History can be ugly. A lot of the great literature of the world is filled with things that might be shocking, offensive, or upset people, but that’s part of the reason why that literature is so great,” Jesse Saffron, managing editor at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a North Carolina–based think tank, told TakePart. “It helps increase our ability to understand our fellow human beings.”

“More importantly, and where the big divide comes from is, some students think they’re [being] perfectly reasonable, whereas professors are worried because they feel [the warnings create] a large number of reasons you can punish provocative professors.”

“More importantly, and where the big divide comes from is, some students think they’re [being] perfectly reasonable, whereas professors are worried because they feel [the warnings create] a large number of reasons you can punish provocative professors.”

Most analysts agree that the trend of trigger warnings likely sprang from attempts to moderate internet forums for rape victims and the mentally ill. Schools from Oberlin College in Ohio to the University of California, Berkeley, are grappling over whether to give students a heads up before launching into material some may find disturbing.

A recent NPR survey of more than 800 academics found roughly half the professors had warned students before introducing difficult material, “and most said they did so by choice, not policy or student request.”

Ismail Muhammad, a professor at UC Berkeley, told NPR his ambivalence about trigger warnings changed after he screened the Academy Award–winning 1974 filmChinatown for a film and literature class last fall and noticed an Asian American student in the class “was very uncomfortable and genuinely hurt.”

“I was like, ‘If I can prevent that kind of pain from happening in the classroom by simply alerting students to that kind of language before it gets sprung on them, why wouldn’t I do that?’ ” Muhammad said.

At the University of Chicago, however, Dean of Students John Ellison wrote a letter in August to incoming students vowing the school won’t cancel controversial speakers, won’t provide “safe spaces” for sensitive students, and doesn’t condone any attempts by some on campus to “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Lukianoff applauds Ellison’s letter. Academics, he said, believe they’re walking on eggshells and can get fired if someone takes offense for nearly any infraction, real or imagined.

“It becomes very difficult to teach some of the most important things adults need to learn,” and trigger warnings don’t protect the people they’re intended to help by creating student aversion to a topic or subject where it didn’t exist, Lukianoff said. “More importantly, and where the big divide comes from is, some students think they’re [being] perfectly reasonable, whereas professors are worried because they feel [the warnings create] a large number of reasons you can punish provocative professors.”

The Pope Center’s Saffron said the trigger warnings are coming from “a sort of ideological progressive mind-set” in which young people “don’t know what they don’t know.”

The professor “is supposed to be the expert. [Students are] supposed to defer to the professor’s knowledge and the professor’s scholarship,” Saffron said. “What we’re seeing is the students saying, ‘We know what’s best for us—we know what we should learn and not learn.’ ”

Short URL: http://www.adjunctnation.com/?p=7850

10 Comments for “Trigger Warnings: Are We Asking Too Much of Faculty and Too Little of Students?”

  1. Students will be faced with reality once they leave college. The kindness Prof. Muhammad feels he should show by warning students should be sufficient.

  2. There seems to be some confusion as to what a trigger warning is. It is not censorship. It does not prevent teaching any material. It only asks professors to let those who are presented with the material know that it may be painful for some, and allows them to protect themselves from the pain in any way they need to.

    Those who request and need trigger warnings have already experienced the pain a trigger can re-awaken. It is only those who haven’t experienced the pain first hand who need to learn about it and possibly feel the discomfort of the new knowledge. Trigger warnings are common courtesy. Why would you want to intentionally inflict pain on another person, when a trigger warning has no effect on your learning experience?

  3. A common-sense warning is plenty. Students need to know what has happened and is happening in the world if they are to grow and think. Else, why bother to even go to university? What ever happened to wanting to learn?

  4. Catherine DeKorte

    No. if you’re sitting there claiming trigger warnings have “gone too far”, you do not understand what a trigger warning is for. Actual people with PTSD and trauma have explained why they would like such warnings so they can prepare to tackle the issue with as little harm to themselves as possible. That is not complete aversion (tho for some that can be a thing and that’s just as valid), it’s making sure you are able to protect yourself ahead of time.

    And before you say “but the real world!!!” Do you think these students don’t know that? Besides, what are content warnings for TV and movies if not another form of trigger warnings? Those are required for all shows on TV and Netflix and well as every movie. ESRB ratings are required to have video games sold basically anywhere that’s not a self-publishing website. Trigger warnings are no different than content ratings – they just get more specific than “parental advisory warning”.

    • Ms. DeKorye, Do you have PTSD? This is what syllabae are for. I am an assault victim and suffer from PTSD. Read the syllabus go to the therapist, which PTSD people should all have, discuss your private emotional issues at the therapist, not in class. We are raising a generation of entirely handicapped people by virtue of the labels we put on each other.

      No one wants to hear all of these sordid details and, when I’m in class paying the big bucks, I want my education. Not more bleeding heart bs and are you kidding? a trigger system. What a joke, anything within the 5 senses can be a trigger at any time. PTSD is a condition that will never heal entirely. It takes work on the part of the patient, for the rest of our lives. I’ve been battling it for over 25 years.

      This college stuff, is crap and a colossal waste of money. They could use that money for serious student counseling. A trigger system, laughable and sad.

    • Catherine deKorte You have a room full of students from all walks of life and you are supposed to know what might upset them? And if someone gets so hysterical and bent out of shape from hearing about a historical incident, or whatever, then they need help and maybe should be in a more protected environment and not at a university. Millions of kids have attended college without trigger warnings and being in college is about exposure to ideas, knowledge, and events and opinions which may be upsetting but they exist.

  5. Censorship is the opposite of inquiry, and the hallmark of dictatorship. As I remember, Chinatown, by one of the world’s greatest directors, is about a Caucasian woman whose Caucasian husband was murdered and the event was investigated by a Caucasian detective. I think they drove through Chinatown for 2 minutes, but Im not sure. George Carlin’s daughter has called “politically correct” a right wing attempt at censorship. Germany 1933.

  6. I can see an entire generation of these kids growing up and never learning to swim because “I don’t want to get wet” or “The water’s cold”.

    When I was thirteen I took a book from my grandmother’s bookshelf. It was “Uncle Tom’s Children” by Richard Wright. In it four black boys are pursued by white racists. Several are murdered, tortured and burned. It was horrific but it introduced me to racism.

    When I was fifteen I began reading books about the Holocaust. Millions were starved, tortured, gassed and burned. It was horrific but it introduced me to anti-Semitism.

    When I was in college I read “Hiroshima” by John Hershey. In it he describes the atomic bombing of the city and the after effects on its people. Skin burned off, eyes melted by the heat of the blast, death from radiation sickness. It was horrific but after reading it I finally understood what my father meant when he told me that sometimes wars are necessary but there is no such thing as a good war.

    Lee Kuan Yew was the prime minister of Singapore for thirty-one years. He recognized that the world was a dangerous place. He said something that is, I think, important to remember. “If you do not have calluses on your heart you will bleed to death.”

    While I fully support protecting truly injured people suffering from the effects of their experience I also believe college is a place for learning and for growing up. The world is not always pretty. History can be ugly. Your education will include the good and the bad. Young people have to realize they will have to toughen up because they will experience far worse once they enter the wider world.

    Seriously, Chinatown?

  7. Hey bleeding heart. No, the students don’t know that the real world is different. A student is still naive and stupid when it comes to reality. They go in thinking that they can change the world. They don’t realize that changing it to fashion what they want may not be what others want. All the universities have to do is issue a blanket warning saying that anything you may be exposed to may offend you. If you are this fragile, don’t attend the school. The way to learn is to be exposed to all different aspects of subjects and if it makes you uncomfortable you shouldn’t be in the class at all. You go to the class to learn not to have the school tailor-make it for your comfort. It’s time these students shut up and realize there are people out there who don’t care about them or their whiny little sensitivities. If you have mental disorders so severe that a class with ideas being thrown around will cause you to become a crumpled mass on the floor then you are in the wrong place. You should be in a mental institution or at least under constant care of a mental-health professional until you can go into society. Have you ever wondered how people made it through university up until now? If you can’t take it, you won’t be able to get through life. Go to kindergarten if you want nothing but safe spaces and all that other nonsense. Don’t ruin everyone else’s education.

  8. Censorship is the opposite of inquiry, and the hallmark of dictatorship. As I remember, Chinatown, by one of the world’s greatest directors, is about a Caucasian woman whose Caucasian husband was murdered and the event was investigated by a Caucasian detective. I think they drove through Chinatown for 2 minutes, but Im not sure. George Carlin’s daughter has called “politically correct” a right wing attempt at censorship. Germany 1933.

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