This is a guest post by Willa Hammitt Brown, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, where she is finishing her dissertation, “Gentlemen of the Woods: Manhood, Myth and the American Lumberjack, 1860-1920″. She is a teaching assistant in the Department of History and the Women’s and Gender Studies program
Let us all now sigh together.
Upon signing onto Facebook I discovered a news rant – a rant from a smart, sensible, sensitive friend – about trigger warnings. This time it was in conjunction with a report from the American Association of University Professors [http://www.aaup.org/report/trigger-warnings] that declaims trigger warnings as (not to be alarmist or anything) a serious threat to academic freedom.
Hold up. What?
Yes, absurd as it seems, the AAUP would like us to understand that by applying trigger warnings we are relegating discussions of difficult topics, such as rape, to the sidelines. The report claims that trigger warnings and their ilk are signs of a presumption that “students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom” and are therefore “infantilizing and anti-intellectual.” To demonstrate their point they throw in a number of extreme examples to discredit the entire concept of trigger warnings. I myself take issue with some of the instances of trigger-warnings run amok that they cite. (I also take issue with arguments based on reductio ad absurdum, but that’s a point for another day.) I question the more extreme cases as demonstrations of the limits of the trigger warnings usefulness, or perhaps a critique of the overwhelming impulse of white feminists like myself to take causes past their logical extremes. But whatever they may be, they should not be used as a means to undermine the entire concept.
Trigger warnings are a signpost. In an academic setting they are, as much as anything, an plea to those in charge of a classroom take trauma and marginalized viewpoints seriously. And it is this – the insistence that faculty thoughtfully consider experience that conflicts with their own understanding of the world – that I feel is at the base of the resistance. For all the high-minded ideals of the report, I have trouble reading it as anything but a conservative defense of territory callously cloaked in a spurious appeal to to liberalism and academic freedom.
The report has three central points. Firstly, it claims, trigger warnings will cause students to think that the classroom is about “protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging education.” Secondly, it makes the point that faculty who fear repercussions will simply stop teaching possibly controversial material. Finally, it makes the point that “the classroom is not an appropriate venue to treat PTSD.”
All of these arguments read as whiney, defensive cowardice. It is a cowardice based on what may be the most fundamental fear of academics: the fear of admitting that we just don’t know. It is the fear of standing in front of a classroom of our students and admitting our own limits, and therefore admitting our own vulnerability. It is an act that is undoubtedly terrifying. But it is an act that is necessary if we are going to create truly vibrant classrooms.
The case against trigger warnings is based on this fear. It is the pained outcry of those who fear the loss of authority that would inevitably come from a sincere attempt to grapple with the realities of a modern culture that many of us have been too privileged to experience. This is not to say that trigger warnings are an adequate answer to the problems of a diverse classroom – I’ll get to that later – but the coddling here seems to me not to be of the students but of the faculty who seem to be unable to fully process one central fact: their students may have a different experience of the world than they do. They might know more about some things. Rather than thinking through the complete consequences of that, faculty run from controversial subjects at the first hint that they might get a complaint from a student. Then they turn around and shamelessly blame their cowardice on their students.
This is not to say that faculty are not sometimes demonized by vengeful students or that students are always right about these things. But universities already have measures in place to handle extreme cases. What faculty are complaining about here is not the idea that a student might get them fired out of sheer malice, but rather the idea that we may have to rethink their understanding of rape, sexism, and racism from the point of view of victims. That for all our degrees and careful study, we may be wrong. That we have to consider the reality of someone else’s experience. Faculty are being told by our students, in no uncertain terms, that we don’t get it. And it’s got our back up.
I have taught texts with graphic rape, violent racism, domestic abuse and a thousand other potential triggers. But I was extremely lucky: all my early experiences teaching sensitive material were done under the supervision and guidance of a Professor who displayed not just empathy for victims, but an intellectual curiosity about their experiences and input. She taught me how to navigate these subjects by beginning with the assumption that someone in your classroom has experienced trauma. She has taught me to learn, better each time, how to broach these subjects intelligently and sensitively in a way that does not silence their victims – who, after all, have some of the most interesting and valuable input. She taught me to be vulnerable without sacrificing my authority.
When these subjects are approached crassly, or merely skated past, those who might give great insight are silenced. They do not see their professor as someone seeking insight, but rather as yet one more authority imposing a world view that erases their experience. As a result we continue to hear the same loud voices, again and again, shouting about how everyone is too sensitive these days. Yes, triggers and be unaccountably diverse. Yes, anything could be one. But it is not our job to decide what people are allowed or not allowed to be hurt by: it is our job to try to listen when we are told.
What the report fails to account for is the idea that teachers might learn from their students – and that we may not, in fact, be omnipotent. The report does allow that, “there may be instances in which a teacher judges it necessary to alert students to potentially difficult material and that is his or her right.” But this is not enough. Not only this proviso it not enough to build an open and vibrant classroom, it is not enough to have a meaningful intellectual experience.
I have no interest in controlling what material faculty choose to teach, nor in questioning their judgement about their subject matter. Is it really so onerous, though, to ask that that sense of judgement be put through a little sensitivity training? Most of the faculty at universities are not made up of those whose experiences are generally marginalized. For a teacher to judge it “necessary to alert students to potentially difficult material,” she would have to have a solid understanding of those difficulties might be. One of the most baffling continuing premises in the trigger warning argument seems to be that those who have not experienced trauma and marginalization have any real right to tell those who have what they do and do not have a right to feel. Are our egos so frail that we are not able to allow another’s psyche to be their own territory?
The teachers who are taking trigger warnings seriously – even if not by putting them on their syllabus, but by giving verbal warnings and a sympathetic ear – are rarely the ones staying away from touchy material. In fact, the serious study of rape or abuse and the use of trigger warnings often go hand in hand – perhaps because those who teach these subjects are forced daily to reconcile themselves to the fact that they cannot know the experience of victims. Those who teach these topics know that if they want that information they have to ask. And in order to ask, they have to make victims feel comfortable speaking. Nor are the programs where these topics are seriously dissected, mostly Women’s Studies and African American Studies departments, places that students avoid for fear of being triggered. These classes often fill up with people who know that, for once, their experience will be taken seriously. If there’s anything infantilizing and anti-intellectual here, it’s the suggestion that students will avoid something simply because it’s hard. All they are asking is to be prepared, not protected.
Those who seem to be backing away from serious intellectual rigor are those who refuse to take the time to consider the roots of their students’ complaints, and instead write whining reports about their curtailed freedoms. Most fundamentally, they refuse to look in the eye the bald-faced facts about the society these students live in. They blithely assume that like a student with dyslexia, a victim of abuse can just pop down to a well-resourced center where they will be earnestly dealt with by people who understand their problem. They assume that we live in a fair and just society, because for many of us who have been privileged enough to make our way to the front of a classroom, that is the only society of which we have any personal experience. This is not true of everyone – not even of everyone I disagree with. But its hard to deny that its true of most of us.
The committee behind the report seeks to protect professors from taking responsibility for themselves. It argues that “Instead of putting the onus for avoiding such responses on the teacher, cases of serious trauma should be referred to student health services. Faculty should, of course, be sensitive that such reactions may occur in their classrooms, but they should not be held responsible for them. Instead, as with other disabilities, a student diagnosed with PTSD should, in advance, agree on a plan for treatment with the relevant health advisors who, in some cases, may want to alert teachers to the presence of a trauma victim in their classroom.” To those who have experienced trauma, especially – and it is worth addressing the fact that this is what almost all of this boils down to – sexual trauma, this sentiment lies somewhere between quaint and darkly satirical. The solutions proposed would require a reporting culture that is vastly different from the one we live in, one in which victims feel able to search out these services, and expect to be taken seriously when they do. One friend who posted the article happens to be at Oxford, a university with an at best mediocre and, in my limited experience of working at a crisis hotline there, tragically bad support system.
Are trigger warnings the final answer? Absolutely not. Even someone who disagrees virulently with the report can pick apart trigger warnings. They are an extremely clunky mechanism. Trigger warnings cannot cover every trigger, and they do not distinguish between an intellectual discussion of a topic and a violent description of it. Nor do they even require the Professor utilizing them to learn what it would mean to solicit marginalized voices. But they do require her to at least consider it.
When it comes right down to it, are trigger warnings even an adequate stop gap? Absolutely not. I, too, have my misgivings. But are they the end of academic freedom? Or even a serious threat to it? If educators take their job seriously and, instead of blaming those traumatized for having experienced trauma beyond their professors’ limited scope of understanding, attempt to approach their work with an ear for criticism and an empathetic attitude, absolutely not