Join 3,556 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Trigger warnings needed in classroom?
March 5, 2014 9:24 AM   Subscribe

Literature courses often examine works with grotesque, disturbing and gruesome imagery within their narratives. For instance ... “Mrs. Dalloway” paints a disturbing narrative that examines the suicidal inclinations and post-traumatic experiences of an English war veteran. By creating trigger warnings for their students, professors can help to create a safe space for their students

The "trigger warning" has spread from blogs to college classes. Can it be stopped?
posted by bhnyc (285 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't have a particular position on the issue, but I found this on the same topic an interesting read.
posted by figurant at 9:35 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


Obviously, there's some local culture stuff around trigger warnings - I definitely know people who feel that they should never, ever be uncomfortable reading or watching something, and that no work of art with "problematic" content can possibly be worth encountering whether because of its other virtues or its importance to a particular field. It's certainly possible to create a little bubble of silliness around this kind of stuff.

But then, I've also taught material that freaked people right the hell out and was very upsetting for them for personal reasons (well beyond the bounds of "this was upsetting" and "I feel really sad and my worldview is shaken"), and dealing with that in class is challenging for everyone. I think that while some of the cultural stuff around "triggers" is....counterproductive, it does not hurt teachers at all to think carefully through the content of their course material and consider their students, and then make the content known ahead of time. (In my own case, the stuff I had totally warned about was just a yawn for my classes and then something that I had not even considered proved very upsetting. This could all have been avoided by having a practice of some serious theme/content description on everything.) I am often in social settings where people are encouraged to practice "self care" by leaving/skipping material/etc, and it has not resulted in a bunch of sensitive flowers skipping out on anything difficult either.

I'd say I am qualifiedly pro-trigger-warning, although I think it might be helpful to call it something else if we're really talking about "detailed content description".
posted by Frowner at 9:36 AM on March 5 [36 favorites]


I think the easy way around this is probably just for English departments to develop a generic, boilerplate "trigger warning" that is either appended to every single syllabus or is given to all students when they enroll in the university. Effectively it would say that the study of literature is, inter alia, the study of human life in all its beauty and nobility as well as in all its ugliness and horror. The discussion even of apparently inoffensive works of literature can turn down any and all of the darkest byways imaginable ("should we be writing about this in the wake of the holocaust?", "is the known fact of the author's childhood rape relevant to our understanding of this work which does not mention it in any literal way?" etc.). If there is some topic relating to the interaction of humans with other humans which you are unable to bear discussing--even in an abstract and intellectual way--then the study of literature is not for you.
posted by yoink at 9:37 AM on March 5 [46 favorites]


The second link is pretty much knee-jerk "trigger warnings run amok!".

It's fairly obvious that one ought to be sensitive to the feelings of one's students, whether you call it a 'trigger warning' or not. Netflix is convinced I need to see Downfall and Sophie Scholl and I'm pretty much unwilling to watch either. Either of those films reasonably could appear on the syllabus of a German class (one of my classes picked something else over Sophie Scholl, but not explicitly for reasons of content). I would pretty much expect a reasonable person showing Downfall to advise their students that some people find it quite upsetting.*

*That I know I'd find Sophie Scholl upsetting is more personal to me than a general trend, I think.
posted by hoyland at 9:42 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Somehow I thought one of the points of a liberal arts education was to challenge assumptions with difficult readings. Had they done warnings then, the litany for the Slave Narrative class I took my junior year would have dwarfed the rest of the syllabus.

Then you get idiot students who sue because a textbook says a mean thing about Reagan, and that way lies madness.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:44 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


God forbid people trying to be considerate. Grr argh, political correctness run amok, back in my day, slippery slope, etc.

And no, trigger warnings are not perfect, but the perfect is the enemy of the good.
posted by kmz at 9:44 AM on March 5 [23 favorites]


Oberlin College has published an official document on triggers, advising faculty members to "be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression," to remove triggering material when it doesn't "directly" contribute to learning goals and "strongly consider" developing a policy to make "triggering material" optional.

So much for teaching any of the humanities! Oh well, there's a better job market for science anyway.
posted by zipadee at 9:44 AM on March 5 [12 favorites]


I am also interested in the trigger warning as a cultural pattern, though, both in the ways that it oversimplifies and fetishizes consent and the ways that it figures the individual as always-ill.

Like, it's totally okay to show/post/discuss/work with whatever as long as you cover it in trigger warnings so that everyone "consents"...It's very easy to avoid looking at the cultural pressures behind "consent", and to avoid looking at the appropriateness of using the material, because it's all been discussed in terms of "as long as everyone was warned and said okay, that's the limit of the moral problem here".

It also interests me because I've noticed lately that in my social circles, the individual is basically imagined as a collection of traumas and illnesses - we are all mentally ill, we all have triggers, we all have dietary sensitivities (everyone is 'avoiding' this and that for vague reasons, for instance, in a way that seems to follow subcultural norms rather than medical concerns), we all focus on our identities as marginalized people (with maybe sometimes a handwave toward any marginalization we may actually cause to others, but not much)...it's like the subject is constituted by having illnesses and triggers, by having a grievance and a marginalization. It's really weird. I feel like if we're all being victimized/we're all ill/we're all special cases....well, that's fine, everyone is unique, but we always position ourselves against an unspecified source of wrong done to us and an unspecified norm of health/non-trauma/etc, but because everyone is sick and traumatized by their very nature, there's no villain there, no politics there. It's really strange.
posted by Frowner at 9:44 AM on March 5 [153 favorites]


When I teach "Intro to Ethics" I start the semester by saying something like this: "As you can see from the syllabus we will be covering some controversial topics this semester. If at any point you feel unable to continue participating in a discussion you are welcome to quietly leave the room. You do not have to explain to me why you are leaving, or what caused you to be overcome, but do please send me an e-mail to let me know that you are alright. You are, however, still required to do all assignments for that topic."

I don't know whether that counts as a trigger warning or not, but it seems like the right thing to do, since we'll be spending weeks talking about things, like rape, abortion and euthanasia.

In any case, if required to itemize all the possible triggers (a large task indeed in such a class). I would be sorely tempted to issue blanket warnings for all assigned essays. Which I suspect would defeat the point of the exercise. Administrators (and students) should beware the unintended consequence.

Side note: I teach many evangelical Christians for whom conversations about things like the possible non-literalness of the Bible is really offensive. Should they get trigger warnings when i teach metaphysics?
posted by oddman at 9:44 AM on March 5 [58 favorites]


I think the easy way around this is probably just for English departments to develop a generic, boilerplate "trigger warning" that is either appended to every single syllabus or is given to all students when they enroll in the university.

We can do better than patronizing people who struggle with PTSD. It might not be "the easy way", though.
posted by mhoye at 9:44 AM on March 5 [11 favorites]


Umm, how about we put one of the black and white parental advisory stickers on everything in college?
posted by hal_c_on at 9:45 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


the number of metas we have had on trigger warnings, lack thereof, etc. Much better reading than TFA.
posted by k5.user at 9:46 AM on March 5


Life does not come with a trigger warning. Life is difficult, and frequently unpleasant.

People need to grow up and accept that no one is entitled to a life without offense, or emotional hurt.
posted by gsh at 9:48 AM on March 5 [61 favorites]


Yeah, I think that it's easy to assume that people who get really upset about something are faking/oversensitive/etc, even if you yourself also have "triggers". But they are not, in general! And I think most people actually just push on through if the material is relevant or interesting - it's just easier for them to be prepared.

I have, for instance, a weird thing. It's a total surprise to me and not something that I control or want: when I look at any kind of modern footage or movie of police and rioters/protesters I start to cry and shake. I have been in some moderately violent protests; several friends have experienced dramatic scary police violence, but I have never witnessed anything worse than people getting, like, punched and dragged, and I have never had anything worse than a few whacks with a baton. I do not consider myself a delicate flower who was traumatized by those experiences and I don't get upset when I recall them. But the footage just freaks me the hell out. It's something I can usually push through, but it is an effect that I cannot help or completely control, and in certain classroom settings I would prefer to have some warning even though I don't feel like I want to avoid this material.
posted by Frowner at 9:49 AM on March 5 [14 favorites]


It's right there in the term: trigger warning. Not trigger removefromcurriculum, not trigger neverchallengefragileminds. Just warning. What exactly is wrong with giving people a heads-up?
posted by Etrigan at 9:50 AM on March 5 [50 favorites]


I actually do issue a blanket "content advisory" at the start of some courses or works that I know from experience may be startling. It's not about avoiding X or hiding from Y, just that if you know in advance what to expect during Huck Finn, you're not blindsided by it.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:53 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


My view is that we should stop getting so het up about spoilers.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:53 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


We can do better than patronizing people who struggle with PTSD. It might not be "the easy way", though.

I'm not trying to patronize anyway, mhoye. I'm making the point that there is just no way to predict, ahead of time, where the discussion might go in any literature class.

There are, of course, classes that will very predictably go into some very tough material (if you're teaching Sade, say) and, no doubt, it's good to make sure students are aware of that. But then, I'm struggling to imagine what kind of class it would be that would devote a large chunk of the syllabus to Sade where that would come entirely out of the blue to the student several weeks into the course. Was there no course description? Was there no syllabus? Did the professor not talk about the scope of the course at the beginning of the class? All of these things seem to fulfill the needs of the "trigger warning" already when it comes to the issue of specific content in the course.
posted by yoink at 9:54 AM on March 5 [5 favorites]


Ideally, I think, this would be a job for the disabilities/accomodations office to mediate--as in, a student would submit a request to have x, y, and z triggers identified in this class, and OSD would forward that to the professor at the beginning of the semester, and then the professor, student, and accomodations office would be able to work out what kind of accomodation would allow the student to complete the relevant class requirements (as the first article touches on, "trigger" ≠ "opt-out"--something as simple as just giving the student some advance warning might be enough.) Of course, there's all kinds of problems people already face with unhelpful/hostile/clueless OSD offices, professors refusing to comply or being resentful of accomodation requests, students not being aware of the resources for disabilities/not wanting to use them, etc., but I don't think that's any less true when you put the responsibility for trigger warnings directly on professors.
posted by kagredon at 9:54 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


It's something I can usually push through, but it is an effect that I cannot help or completely control, and in certain classroom settings I would prefer to have some warning even though I don't feel like I want to avoid this material.

I don't mean to be rude, but this sounds like something that a psych could help with. Would it not be better to seek assistance with that, than be caught up in the effects everytime you hear or see certain stuff?
posted by hal_c_on at 9:54 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


People need to grow up and accept that no one is entitled to a life without offense, or emotional hurt.

That's a bunch of macho bullshit.

Nobody is entitled to a life without pain, but trying to make a world with a little less pain in it is a noble goal worth pursuing. Seatbelts are worth it. Safety labels are worth it. Basic human kindness is worth it. None of it is perfect and none of it's free, and that doesn't make any of it worthless.
posted by mhoye at 9:54 AM on March 5 [92 favorites]


hal_c_on: what do you propose people do while they're in psych treatment, then, given that it may or may not have "taken effect" yet and may or may not be able to actually fully resolve the issue?
posted by dorque at 9:56 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


I don't mean to be rude, but this sounds like something that a psych could help with. Would it not be better to seek assistance with that, than be caught up in the effects everytime you hear or see certain stuff?

You know that therapy actually takes time, right, like you don't go to the psychiatrist and they give you a script for Brain Antibiotics and you take those for 30 days and you're cured and never worry about it again?
posted by kagredon at 9:57 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]


I think a lot of the controversy with trigger warnings is how little people actually understand what it's like for people to actually be triggered. The lack of understanding applies equally to the people who think that any time something makes them feel a little sad that's them being triggered and they should have been warned in advance and to people who think that the whole concept is a bunch of hokem and nobody has the right to avoid ever being made sad by anything.

It's like the allergy/sensitivity debate in food, where the number of people who claim allergies they don't actually have creates a backlash of non-accommodation even against people who actually have those allergies.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:58 AM on March 5 [22 favorites]


Here's an example from last summer:
Warning: Grown-Up or Uncomfortable Stuff Ahead

One final introductory note -- because the course covers contemporary and older American popular fiction, some assigned readings this term may contain:
--violent content, including graphic depictions of violent acts
--sexual content, including graphic depictions of sexual activity, sometimes involving participants from orientations other than your own
--references to or depictions of mind-altering substance use, smoking, gambling, criminal acts, etc.
--adult-appropriate language, swearing/profanity
--offensive ethnic, gender identity, religious, age-group, sexual orientation, national origin, or other stereotypes and slurs

Those content elements may also come up in discussion, but you're not required to comment on them if you prefer not to. You do need to complete assigned readings and read discussion posts.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:58 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


It's a facile understanding of trauma that even internet dipshits can handle, thus, it's gone viral. People actually process trauma in all sorts of ways, among them directly confronting or recreating the conditions of their trauma, and privileging one approach over all others probably does not help a lot of victims. And even with PTSD the triggers one may suffer are not necessarily rationally related to the trauma! But trigger warnings are very easy to talk about. You just make a list. Everything's a list these days. It's easy to consume!
posted by furiousthought at 10:01 AM on March 5 [13 favorites]


a student would submit a request to have x, y, and z triggers identified in this class, and OSD would forward that to the professor at the beginning of the semester, and then the professor, student, and accomodations office would be able to work out what kind of accomodation would allow the student to complete the relevant class requirements (as the first article touches on, "trigger" ≠ "opt-out"--something as simple as just giving the student some advance warning might be enough.)

But what if the Professor/Instructor says, "nope, I can't see that we'll be talking about x, y, or z in this class" and it turns out that several of the students in the class are really, really interested in x, y and z and keep bringing the discussion around to how the material intersects with those interests? And I don't mean that they're being assholes or saying "I don't want to talk about the topic of the course, but something else." I mean, what if they quite legitimately and with genuine intellectual integrity bring a perspective to bear on the material that I, as instructor, had not foreseen would arise? Is the university now liable to legal action for foisting this disagreeable material on the student in violation of the agreement? Do I have to shut down a real, intellectually motivated and student-initiated line of inquiry (the most precious thing to emerge from any class discussion)?

The problem with saying "we need to provide specific warnings" is that you then start getting into the problem of liability in the case of failure to provide warning. Which is why, as I said at the start, the only real way out is some kind of generic, boilerplate warning.
posted by yoink at 10:01 AM on March 5 [17 favorites]


It's right there in the term: trigger warning. Not trigger removefromcurriculum, not trigger neverchallengefragileminds. Just warning. What exactly is wrong with giving people a heads-up?

If you allow people to opt out of material they find offensive in a course, then it becomes a practical impossibility to teach the course -- you are teaching a group of people who have not all covered or discussed the same material. People really need to decide up front whether they want to take the course or not. It's totally reasonable for the professor to describe any issues at the beginning of the semester, but forcing the professor to accept people going in and out of the course all year long is just unworkable. To say nothing of the effect this would have at the high school level, where it would probably lead to banning material altogether (what would the optics be of 'triggering' a 14 or 15 year old?).
posted by zipadee at 10:01 AM on March 5 [22 favorites]


Etrigan: It's right there in the term: trigger warning. Not trigger removefromcurriculum, not trigger neverchallengefragileminds. Just warning. What exactly is wrong with giving people a heads-up?

The issue is, usually there is a heads-up. A college class typically has a syllabus that lists all of the major class topics, and what is going to be done during certain parts of the semester, etc. Many other triggers can be inferred to be present (a class on world history will include content on wars, criminal justice classes might involve discussion of sexual assault, biology classes might involve blood or dissections, etc). Any literature class that involves reading will include a list of books which you can look up to figure out the content of. So, generally speaking, content warnings should rarely be necessary unless classes are not properly planned out, or contain drastically unexpected material.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:02 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Was there no course description? Was there no syllabus? Did the professor not talk about the scope of the course at the beginning of the class? All of these things seem to fulfill the needs of the "trigger warning" already when it comes to the issue of specific content in the course.

In my experience, the extent to which these are present for any given class are wildly inconsistent, since it's basically up to the professor whether and how to provide them.
posted by kagredon at 10:02 AM on March 5


You just make a list. Everything's a list these days.
triggerlisticles ?
posted by k5.user at 10:02 AM on March 5


Please, your use of the word "bullshit" hurts me. Could you give me a trigger warning before you use such offensive language next time?

I know this is supposed to be hi-larious but it actually helps reveal the straw person that often gets targeted by the 'trigger warnings run amok!' argument. Nobody reasonable is acting like everybody, always, has a right to never have their feelings hurt. The idea is that there are some particularly potent images/descriptions/themes that can be particularly upsetting to people with particular experiences; these things can be predicted easily; and it doesn't cost anybody anything to flag a syllabus or article as containing such stuff.
posted by Beardman at 10:03 AM on March 5 [27 favorites]


If you allow people to opt out of material they find offensive in a course, then it becomes a practical impossibility to teach the course

Who's talking about allowing people to opt out? Do people who object to trigger warnings really think that such a thing is equivalent to excising the entire existence of the topic from people's minds and experiences? If that's the case, then I both understand why they object so vehemently and also wonder why they have never taken the time to more thoroughly educate themselves on the topic.
posted by KathrynT at 10:04 AM on March 5 [7 favorites]


It's right there in the term: trigger warning. Not trigger removefromcurriculum, not trigger neverchallengefragileminds. Just warning.

If you allow people to opt out of material they find offensive in a course,

Did you even read the comment you directly quoted?
posted by kmz at 10:04 AM on March 5 [8 favorites]


From a professional criminal-justice perspective, I have encountered university professors who hadn't given any thought to the possibility that a victim (or perpetrator) might be sitting in their classroom, especially in the context of the more extreme, straight-out-of-SVU crimes that we typically associate with PTSD. And they were wrong. Accordingly, I have worked with students who were very, very triggered.

It's been my experience that people whose opinion on this issue boils down to "Life is tough, grow up" fall into one of two categories. Either they have led fortunate, sheltered lives and truly believe that the stories they see on crime shows exist only on TV, or else they are victims themselves whose advocation that other victims should "grow up" is mostly about projection and needing help.

And I'm not being flippant about television shows. I think they're a part of this landscape. On one hand, a show like SVU can be tremendously helpful at creating some basis for understanding what victims endure. On the other hand, there is often a consequent "But that's just television..." attitude. It is not just television. Sometimes it's not even exaggerated for television although you'd assume it was.

If I can accomplish one thing with this comment, it would be great if just one college professor reading this thread would find the most horrid and far-fetched example from his or her (relevant) curriculum and give a moment's thought to the possibility that someone sitting in the classroom might have that exact incident in their past. Because that's what I have seen happen.
posted by cribcage at 10:05 AM on March 5 [53 favorites]


these things can be predicted easily

That is not my experience at all. The people I know who have found themselves "triggered" (that is, suddenly flooded with obtrusive and unwanted memories of a traumatic experience as the result of some identifiable external stimulus) have often remarked on how absurdly tangential the "trigger" seemed to be to the original event.
posted by yoink at 10:05 AM on March 5 [7 favorites]


In my experience, the extent to which these are present for any given class are wildly inconsistent, since it's basically up to the professor whether and how to provide them.

At my institution and at all the institutions I have taught at or attended as a student, instructors were strictly required to provide a syllabus at the beginning of the class. I think your experience may be an outlier.
posted by yoink at 10:07 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


The general thesis of the reactionary flap around this seems to be that if something can possibly be over- or misapplied, that invalidates it completely. I'm sure the coming extension of that standard to every sphere will leave all our familiar structures and customs intact!

Acknowledging students who are vastly more likely to have been subjected to trauma of a kind vanishingly rare or simply impossible among the assumed default demographic must inevitably involve change of a kind the mainstream won't understand the need for. All I'm seeing in the article(s) is huffing and puffing from the sort of person who long ago convinced themselves that they were strong rather than lucky because this was all ignorable for them, and that demands for acknowledgement of triggers are evidence of weakness rather than realms of experience they simply cannot access.

The challenge is in identifying on a per-situation basis which triggers are common and/or severe enough to warrant a warning without going down an endless rabbit hole. That requires thought, inquiry, open-mindedness and ultimately responsibility for and a willingness to defend one's decisions. All things which the strong, brave and (purely coincidentally) safe folks bleating about how this will limit freedom of thought or, god forbid, open them up to criticism are typically terrified of.
posted by emmtee at 10:07 AM on March 5 [11 favorites]


I actually used to be ambivalent about trigger warnings; unexpected content involving transphobia has a tendency to ruin my day, but you know, in the end, it's just a crummy day. Whatevs.

Then I spent a couple occasions sitting up all night with someone having active body flashbacks to her rape. Sure, as yoink points out, triggers can be pretty random for any individual person; but if I can prevent even some of her flashbacks by giving her a heads-up about rape topics in general, you bet your ass I'm going to do it.
posted by dorque at 10:08 AM on March 5 [17 favorites]


I referred to allowing people to opt out of classes because those are the campus policies described at the second link. The proposed UCSB policy would require professors to allow students to skip classes which contained triggering material, the actual Oberlin policy strongly recommends that professors make any material involving classism, racism, sexism, ableism, etc. etc. 'optional'. So I say again: those policies make it very difficult to teach a humanities class. They are quite different from a warning on the first day of class to allow people to choose whether or not to take the class.
posted by zipadee at 10:09 AM on March 5 [11 favorites]


The people I know who have found themselves "triggered" (that is, suddenly flooded with obtrusive and unwanted memories of a traumatic experience as the result of some identifiable external stimulus) have often remarked on how absurdly tangential the "trigger" seemed to be to the original event.

I don't see how the fact that lots of triggers will evade the net of the trigger warning is a reason to believe that trigger warnings shouldn't be given.

Unless, of course, your claim is the more broad one that it's actually very unusual for someone with experience x to be triggered by a depiction of experience x. That seems unlikely, but it's worth noting that even if that were true, the worst that happened was that a professor spent two minutes writing something unnecessary on a syllabus.
posted by Beardman at 10:11 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


At my institution and at all the institutions I have taught at or attended as a student, instructors were strictly required to provide a syllabus at the beginning of the class.

How strict were the requirements of content on the syllabus? Because that's been true for every institution I've attended or taught at too, except that "here's my name and email, here's my office hours, here's the university boilerplates about plagiarism and nondiscrimination, okay bye" were considered acceptable at every one of them. As far as I know, weekly schedules, reading lists, etc. were not required at any of them, so the premise that "trigger warnings" are built into the system is faulty. Good departments would build in and enforce additional requirements, but again, that wasn't university policy, it was someone in the department saying "hey we need to have a better standard for these things."
posted by kagredon at 10:14 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


Of course, the essence of control is fear. The fnords produced a whole population walking around in chronic low-grade emergency, tormented by ulcers, dizzy spells, nightmares, heart palpitations and all the other symptoms of too much adrenalin. - Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, Illuminatus! Trilogy
posted by b1tr0t at 10:14 AM on March 5 [7 favorites]


I am often in social settings where people are encouraged to practice "self care" by leaving/skipping material/etc, and it has not resulted in a bunch of sensitive flowers skipping out on anything difficult either.

I think this is the key here, and hand-wringing about trigger warnings run amok is pure strawman stuff. Warning people generally just prepares them to deal with something rather than being blindsided by it.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:18 AM on March 5 [14 favorites]


It's been my experience that people whose opinion on this issue boils down to "Life is tough, grow up" fall into one of two categories. Either they have led fortunate, sheltered lives and truly believe that the stories they see on crime shows exist only on TV, or else they are victims themselves whose advocation that other victims should "grow up" is mostly about projection and needing help.

That either/or distinction is a fairly sheltered attitude. Just because someone is well-adjusted doesn't mean they haven't experienced trauma, or that they believe in some magical tv-world. It means that person has done the work to become well-adjusted.
posted by GrapeApiary at 10:19 AM on March 5 [7 favorites]


A lot of y'all are being assholes about a serious subject, which is PTSD.

If certain works of art and literature are liable set off somebody's PTSD (that's what "triggering" means), and they would like a warning if that is likely to happen, the response ought not to be "well you better MAN UP if you're going to study LITERATURE. The HUMANITIES aren't a place for WIMPS!"

Seriously. Just because some people don't take the "trigger warning" thing very seriously, doesn't mean it's laughable or trivial.
posted by edheil at 10:21 AM on March 5 [30 favorites]



That either/or distinction is a fairly sheltered attitude.


The commenter who has actually dealt with this issue in a professional capacity: SHELTERED ATTITUDE
posted by kagredon at 10:21 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


I actually don't think (m)any people have any problem at all with the the idea of adding broad warnings up front on the syllabus about the topics upcoming. But the campus policies described in the second link go well beyond that.
posted by zipadee at 10:21 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's usually possible for the professor to anticipate what will need trigger warnings and what not. Maybe they can, to a certain extent, if they teach a very specific student population -- but in that case, I would think that the potentially triggering material would be handled very differently (than it would be in a class with another student population) altogether.

I also don't know how much a trigger warning would actually be useful if you (the student) are going to have to engage with the material regardless. Who cares if you get a warning if you're still going to have to be triggered? (Though maybe someone knows an actual answer to this, and trigger warnings *are* still useful in that case, I don't really know).

If material is so likely to trigger PTSD episodes that the professor can anticipate the problem and give trigger warnings ahead of time, then maybe that particular material *isn't* useful or appropriate for that particular class. I'm sorry, but as someone who doesn't suffer from PTSD or who needs trigger warnings, personally, I don't want to be sitting there in class and trying to discuss something that is meanwhile triggering PTSD episodes for my classmates. That seems cruel. I doubt that any material would be so worth covering that my classmates should have to suffer to that extent so we can engage with it.
posted by rue72 at 10:23 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


The challenge is in identifying on a per-situation basis which triggers are common and/or severe enough to warrant a warning without going down an endless rabbit hole. That requires thought, inquiry, open-mindedness and ultimately responsibility for and a willingness to defend one's decisions. All things which the strong, brave and (purely coincidentally) safe folks bleating about how this will limit freedom of thought or, god forbid, open them up to criticism are typically terrified of.

O.K., if this is so easy to do, write a sample policy statement that might be put into, say, a university catalog and which has some effective enforcement mechanism behind it. Now, please make sure that this policy statement does not have the effect of potentially opening an Instructor or Professor up to either a lawsuit or disciplinary action from an affected student if discussion in the class turns toward a "triggering" topic in a way that the Instructor had not foreseen, and does not force the Instructor to police class discussion so as to steer it away from potentially unadvertised "triggering" topics. Please also make sure that it does not result in the Instructor ending up with a fractured student body in the class who have not all read the same core texts or attended the same lectures or participated in the same discussions.
posted by yoink at 10:26 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


As far as I know, weekly schedules, reading lists, etc. were not required at any of them, so the premise that "trigger warnings" are built into the system is faulty.

It's also not as if having that information is necessarily useful. Most things I read in college aren't well-described online.
posted by hoyland at 10:28 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


professors make any material involving classism, racism, sexism, ableism, etc. etc. 'optional'.

Optional if it's not necessary. One good thing that all this business does, IMO, is it pushes us to rethink certain curriculum decisions. I know that I am often in situations where it is assumed that the more "macho" and "realistic" something is in its descriptions of violence, sexual assault, etc, something is, the more artistic it is and the more historical value it necessarily has - regardless of whether it's the best choice for the topic or group at hand, and regardless of the other options, and regardless of the politics of using the thing. So:

1. I notice that straight white dudes can also kind of get off on "oooh, we've got to be tough and realistic and read and discuss in detail this graphic description by a colonizer of indigenous women being raped, because you're not a real historian if you don't read this".

2. I notice that when people are privileged on a particular axis, they are very comfortable using and discussing explicit images of marginalized people being hurt. The discussion seldom roles around to explicit images of people like themselves being hurt. I can think, for instance, of a really-existing white straight guy who looooooooves to get "realistic" about discussions of the trafficking of underaged women. He does not love to get realistic about sexual violence against young men.

3. Trigger warnings make us smarter about how we talk about things. I personally have sat in a room bloviating about the prison industrial complex and prison conditions, only to be horrified to realize that my shallow commentary (not evil, not mean, just shallow and foolish) was actually being heard by people who had been in prison and people who had near and dear ones in prison. "Trigger warning" is another way of saying "you are going to be heard when you say this". There are lots of different ways to talk about difficult subjects, but we easily default to the shallowest and simplest unless we're careful.

4. I teach some classes where we read fiction. It has been really productive for me to consider modes of writing about complex, painful and traumatic subjects that don't default to the macho. It has been really productive for me to think carefully about what I want students to get from the class, and whether I am not just defaulting to obvious, high-drama, violent and explicit material that may not even best serve my purposes or require the most challenging reading.

5. Trigger warnings push us to get past an endless diet of oppression porn. I was just reflecting last night that in a lot of mainstream science fiction, for example, women don't often get to just do regular stuff - they're always in the plot being raped or beaten or seducing someone or wearing space bikinis or whatever. Women appear primarily so that their gender can be used as a titillating plot point, or a moral lesson. Women don't appear nearly as much in generic situations, or in situations where their gender doesn't create titillating plot points - someone was just saying last night that he'd read a recent SF story in which a woman buys, like, space tampons or something, and this was the first time that he'd encountered such kind of plot point. When you're all "the best literature shows the Real!!!!! of trauma and violence", you're reducing any marginalized person to their marginalization.
posted by Frowner at 10:28 AM on March 5 [53 favorites]


But what if the Professor/Instructor says, "nope, I can't see that we'll be talking about x, y, or z in this class" and it turns out that several of the students in the class are really, really interested in x, y and z and keep bringing the discussion around to how the material intersects with those interests? And I don't mean that they're being assholes or saying "I don't want to talk about the topic of the course, but something else." I mean, what if they quite legitimately and with genuine intellectual integrity bring a perspective to bear on the material that I, as instructor, had not foreseen would arise? Is the university now liable to legal action for foisting this disagreeable material on the student in violation of the agreement? Do I have to shut down a real, intellectually motivated and student-initiated line of inquiry (the most precious thing to emerge from any class discussion)?

Has anyone actually proposed that, or did you build this slippery slope All By Yourself?
posted by kagredon at 10:28 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


The idea is that there are some particularly potent images/descriptions/themes that can be particularly upsetting to people with particular experiences; these things can be predicted easily; and it doesn't cost anybody anything to flag a syllabus or article as containing such stuff.

Except you have precisely zero ability to know what they are. Sure, it's easy to say "sexual violence" or "Holocaust depictions", but you have no way of knowing what else will be a trigger or to whom. "I didn't know Bill in the second rows dad died in 9/11 when I put up a picture of the Twin Towers as an example of mid-70s high-rise architecture". "I didn't know Lisa's abuser played that song when he did it; I was just playing an example of mid-century jazz".

The real issue is that once you say "we are obligated to give trigger warnings", you'll have to give punishments for *not* giving trigger warnings. I don't think there should be any problem with being up front about there being conventionally controversial or emotional items on the agenda, but this sort of thing seems ripe for scope creep and abuse. Obligating the instructor and/or school to know each and every students emotional landscape is impossible.
posted by kjs3 at 10:28 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]


I also don't know how much a trigger warning would actually be useful if you (the student) are going to have to engage with the material regardless. Who cares if you get a warning if you're still going to have to be triggered? (Though maybe someone knows an actual answer to this, and trigger warnings *are* still useful in that case, I don't really know).

*raises hand*

I've been sexually assaulted twice, once as a child, and triggered based on those assaults a handful of times. In every case, the severity of the triggering episode was directly correlated to how unexpected the material was. A tangential scene in a movie that referenced a very visceral aspect of my childhood assault left me literally mute and paralyzed with fear, trapped on the couch unable to speak or turn away. However, when people have prefaced discussions of similar material by saying "hey, let's talk about X," it's been much, much, MUCH easier to handle, to think about, and to process intellectually. So I'd say that the presence of the trigger warning in such a case would allow me to actually engage the material and learn, instead of freezing and dropping out of the discussion.
posted by KathrynT at 10:29 AM on March 5 [32 favorites]


My philosophy is that if people are saying they are hurt by something, we should think about that rather than telling them that no, that's not what they feel and no, fuck off.

Weirdly, I think if keyword tagging were a IRL thing this would not seem unusual and it wouldn't make people be hateful. It'd just be what happened. And if a student or other consumer considered the keywords and was unable to find a workable approach to the material, that could be discussed and dealt with.

There are a couple of topics that tend to give me intrusive thoughts, and I have coping mechanisms for when I need to go ahead and get through it, but I do need to know beforehand. I don't think that's a crazy demand. I don't think we need to defend our right to surprise people with descriptions of violence or abuse.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:30 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Oberlin College has published an official document on triggers, advising faculty members to "be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression," to remove triggering material when it doesn't "directly" contribute to learning goals and "strongly consider" developing a policy to make "triggering material" optional.

This has two parts, which need to be disaggregated. Giving people a warning on the content of any piece of material you might be teaching seems perfectly fair; people with trauma may want to prepare themselves to deal with material that's triggering for them. But removing from the curricula anything potentially triggering is totally unacceptable. If a student tells me "The domestic violence aspects of The Great Gatsby are so triggering for me that I can't read it," I will gently, kindly tell them "You cannot pass an American Literature class– or be conversant with American literature– if you haven't read The Great Gatsby, preferably a few times. Perhaps another class would be a better fit for you."
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:30 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]


"Who cares if you get a warning if you're still going to have to be triggered?"

Advance notice would give you the opportunity to proactively take any as-needed anxiety medication (e.g., Xanax) before that particular class session as a preventative measure instead of reactively taking it after you're already having an anxiety attack and then having to wait ~20 minutes for it to work while you're in the middle of class.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:33 AM on March 5 [8 favorites]


"I didn't know Bill in the second rows dad died in 9/11 when I put up a picture of the Twin Towers as an example of mid-70s high-rise architecture". "I didn't know Lisa's abuser played that song when he did it; I was just playing an example of mid-century jazz".

Yeah, that's why the "self-protection" aspect of being able to decline to participate in the conversation or leave the room is important. You can't know everything, but you can be sensitive to someone's need to take a minute before blithely soldiering on.
posted by KathrynT at 10:33 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


My philosophy is that if people are saying they are hurt by something, we should think about that rather than telling them that no, that's not what they feel and no, fuck off.

No one is telling anyone they don't feel what they claim to feel.

I don't think we need to defend our right to surprise people with descriptions of violence or abuse.


So class discussions should be policed by the instructor, and no student should be allowed to bring up potentially triggering material that the class has not been specifically warned about at the outset?
posted by yoink at 10:33 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


The slopes around these fields of straw men are slippery as fuck today.
posted by kmz at 10:34 AM on March 5 [21 favorites]


So class discussions should be policed by the instructor, and no student should be allowed to bring up potentially triggering material that the class has not been specifically warned about at the outset?

I think we're mainly talking about class texts and artifacts more than discussion topics. Sure, talking about X issue can be triggering or painful, but encountering a dramatized narrative or audiovisual version of something is usually much more visceral, which is the whole reason why we like art in the first place.
posted by FelliniBlank at 10:36 AM on March 5


This whole "but we can't have trigger warnings because they won't prevent everyone everywhere from being triggered" theme that's coming up here....well, yes, life is imperfect. The purpose of socialism, as Orwell remarked, is not to make life perfect but to make it less miserable.

I add that I have provided "trigger warnings" when teaching. It isn't actually that big a deal in general. You just do the best you can, and you try to be open to talking to your students, so that the student who is all "I am horribly triggered by stories which contain unexpected scenes of tea-drinking" can come and ask you if your material contains unexpected tea-drinking.

Crafting a good policy around this may be tricky - but honestly, haven't people said the same thing about how difficult it would be to have a policy around sexual assault or sexual harassment on campus? And we seem to have worked out usable though sometimes imperfect ones without the earth falling into the sun or anything.
posted by Frowner at 10:37 AM on March 5 [8 favorites]


The slopes around these fields of straw men are slippery as fuck today

Of for fuck's sake--not every attempt to think about the potential negative consequences of a proposed policy is a "slippery slope argument." If you propose something as policy at an institution (rather than just saying "hey, you know what I personally think is a good idea) then you have to ask, "o.k., how will that policy actually be enforced?" You also have to ask "what are the potential negative consequences of that policy"?
posted by yoink at 10:37 AM on March 5 [20 favorites]


The steps proposed in the first article, setting out trigger warnings on the syllabus so that students may structure their reading accordingly, seem quite reasonable. It may be slightly more work for the prof the first time but then they will have the warning for subsequent terms. You don't need to prevent study of a work or theme, but give students a heads-up so that they can work around their issues, and if such a thing is not possible then they can switch to a different class.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:39 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


I'm kind of picturing the professor hands out the reading assignments and then casually spoils it for you: "by the way there's a rape 2/3s of the way through."
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:40 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


Yes, yoink, I'm saying that nobody anywhere should be allowed to say anything ever without being vetted by a psychic first. That is precisely what everyone is saying.

Please explain who's getting hurt by attempting to reduce trigger situations?
posted by Lyn Never at 10:41 AM on March 5


I used to train volunteers to work on a crisis hotline, and we spent a lot of time dealing with triggers. The two points I started off the session with were:

1. Everyone has a trigger
2. You don't know what your triggers are.

Our goal wasn't to avoid them, it was to identify them, confront them, & help the volunteers learn how to handle them when they came up so that they didn't cause trouble in the middle of a crisis call.

What we found was that the "triggers" were almost never as simple as "abuse victim finds his/her PTSD triggered by discussing abuse." It was generally more oblique than that. Sometimes it was the sound of someone's voice, or a seemingly innocent phrase.

I don't see how you could really apply "trigger warnings" to literature, cinema, or anything that deals with deep or disturbing issues ... life and art are themselves triggers.
posted by kanewai at 10:41 AM on March 5 [25 favorites]


The slopes around these fields of straw men are slippery as fuck today

come on, one more eye-rolling cliche from the neuter-debate-and-discussion toolbox and you've got a hat trick.
posted by echocollate at 10:42 AM on March 5 [7 favorites]


Crafting a good policy around this may be tricky

It will definitely be tricky and in order to do it well you will need to think hard about potential negative consequences. Just saying "but we have good intentions!!!!" is not enough. One thing you'll need to think long and hard about if you're writing this up as a policy is that the organized right will pounce on this as a weapon to wage war on professors they regard as too outspokenly "left wing." Students will claim that their religious beliefs require special protection, that their political beliefs require special protection ("I'm from Cuba and I'm triggered by any advocacy of socialist policies" etc.). How do you protect academic freedom--both the instructor's and the students--while still having an enforceable and meaningful policy regarding "triggers"? Again, just imagining the best case scenario (person-I-imagine-liking-with-trauma-I-fully-believe-in-is-spared/prepared-for-reading-difficult-text) and refusing to consider any downside because that's a "slippery slope" is a recipe for a policy disaster.
posted by yoink at 10:44 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


The real issue is that once you say "we are obligated to give trigger warnings", you'll have to give punishments for *not* giving trigger warnings. I don't think there should be any problem with being up front about there being conventionally controversial or emotional items on the agenda, but this sort of thing seems ripe for scope creep and abuse. Obligating the instructor and/or school to know each and every students emotional landscape is impossible.

This is a concern of mine also.

When I was in art college both 20 and 10 years ago, it wasn't unusual for a teacher to mention that we would be seeing lots of nude bodies and/or dealing with problematic situations in history or in the present. But reading the links seems like things have gone up a notch, where the width and depth of warning have grown to encompass more specific situations. I'm uncomfortable with the idea that people who were not responsible for one's trauma, whatever it was, may face some sort of judgement for not taking the original person's trauma issues into account.

Literature, history and art all describe problematic situations. If you're going to college isn't that known or assumed?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:45 AM on March 5 [11 favorites]


So many people immediately jump to the absurd extreme when it comes to trigger warnings, but for the most part, trigger warnings are meant to be more or less the same as MPAA rating explanations or the "viewer discretion is advised" splash screen on a TV show. You know, that thing in the rating box or splash screen that says something like "strong graphic violence" or "drug content" or whatever. It's just that books don't have a convention of having ratings or content notes like movies and TV shows do, and there's no real centralized place that provides them. You're just supposed to know or guess based on the book's subject matter or context, or ask a librarian or friend who's read the book. In that context, it's courteous and thoughtful to provide a heads up if a book has content that falls under broad/common triggers, especially if the course context doesn't otherwise prepare you for it.

I do, however, take some issue with the suggestion that any given course should or needs to be a safe space for all students. I didn't see it anywhere explicitly in the article other than in the text linking to it, but any given humanities classroom being a "safe space" strikes me as something of a tall order. Making a classroom a safe space is a hell of a lot more work than including content notes on the syllabus or a verbal heads up from the professor about some upcoming triggering content in the reading or viewing for a class, and it requires that everyone be on board with it and understand exactly what safe space means. I had one class in college that was explicitly a safe space, and it was discussed at length in the syllabus, in the first class, and students were frequently reminded of it anytime the discussion or subject matter got intense. It was a class that relied a lot on discussion, dealing with sensitive topics around sex and violence, and sharing personal stuff, and we all took maintaining that safe space seriously. Given the class size and range of subject matter in your average humanities course, I don't see how you could maintain a safe space in the classroom setting without making a significant portion of the class about what being a safe space means.
posted by yasaman at 10:46 AM on March 5 [5 favorites]


Asked in good faith and out of privileged ignorance:

Back in the 80's when I was in college, we read a ton of stuff in college with some pretty strong content that would, today, be given a trigger warning. Were people being triggered all the time back then and we/I, culturally, were just unaware of it?

I'm not denying the legitimacy of anyone's reactions to triggering material, it just seems like a "new" thing. Maybe its just a thing that has only recently been labeled/identified or, more personally disturbing, a thing that has been going on for ages but has only recently entered my radar.
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:48 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


I'm kind of picturing the professor hands out the reading assignments and then casually spoils it for you

This is actually a pretty huge problem for trigger warnings in the literature or film classroom: they're either going to be laughably vague or undesirably, spoilerifically specific about plot elements that must be surprising. It's reasonable for a teacher to expect, and desire, that first-time readers be authentically surprised when they encounter the plot-central traumatic shit that happens in great works of literature. If you read something like, say, Light in August or Beloved in a literature class, you damn well ought to be reeling a little bit when you walk into the room. The visceral experience of that first reading is a very important subject for later reflection and discussion about the aesthetic experience of the work, not something that can or should be avoided.
posted by RogerB at 10:49 AM on March 5 [10 favorites]


It's really weird. I feel like if we're all being victimized/we're all ill/we're all special cases....well, that's fine, everyone is unique, but we always position ourselves against an unspecified source of wrong done to us and an unspecified norm of health/non-trauma/etc, but because everyone is sick and traumatized by their very nature, there's no villain there, no politics there. It's really strange.

I can hardly favorite this enough.

I think that trigger warnings do have a place in detailed rape/molestation/torture stories, but the term has been cheapened to the point of the "Explicit Lyrics" tags on albums.

This article (horrifying sexual assault) was the first time I ever encountered a trigger warning from a friend on FB, and boy, it was completely appropriate. It's also one of the finest crime articles I have ever read.
posted by lattiboy at 10:49 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Yes, yoink, I'm saying that nobody anywhere should be allowed to say anything ever without being vetted by a psychic first. That is precisely what everyone is saying.

O.K., so, again, describe specifically what the policy will say such that the potentially negative consequences I can foresee are prevented. Will it specifically say that the policy is purely advisory and that the student has no recourse whatsoever if triggering material is included/arises without warning? If so, it's no much of a policy, is it? If the policy is enforceable in some way and the student does have recourse to action of some kind (i.e., if it is an actual requirement placed on the professor--you probably don't realize this but the university catalog is a legally binding contract between the student and the instructor of record and/or the university which is why I keep bringing up the potential for lawsuits: that is a very real possibility) then how do you write the policy so free intellectual discussion is, in fact, protected?
posted by yoink at 10:49 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


A few semesters ago, I had a student in my mythology class demand an alternate assignment because she found the reading ("American Gods") offensive. This was at the end of the semester, during which we'd read countless stories about mass murder, infanticide, disembowlings, rape, bestiality, incest, masturbation, zombies, and various things scat-related. But she didn't like the vulgar language and claimed that the material exposed her to ugliness that she tried to avoid in real life. I told her that this reading was no more offensive than anything else we'd read, and that I wasn't going to come up with a different assignment because she had problems with "fuck" and man-eating vaginas. She dropped the class without too much fuss.

On the other hand, I had a student talk to me after class because we had been joking about Zeus's inability to not rape people, and the discussion had been pretty jovial. In my mind, I was making fun of how lightly the myths described rape and how offensively these stories had been bowdlerized to make Zeus "marry" or "seduce" his conquests, but she heard me belittling her traumatic experience - which I totally was. I apologized, mentally slapped myself, and have been much more sensitive to the topic ever since.

So since I teach a course that discusses all manner of disturbing imagery, I have a warning on my syllabus about the violent, sexual, and otherwise offensive content that they'll need to read. I also try to keep in mind what content might actually have occurred in my students' lives (rape, yes; the dead returning to kill us all on a boat made of fingernail clippings, no) and control discussions to avoid needlessly upsetting anyone. I'm not going to change the content, but I will be mindful of the way I treat it. So far, I haven't had any trouble.

But I also inadvertently caused a student to sacrifice a goat once, so I can't claim to be an expert in classroom management.
posted by bibliowench at 10:53 AM on March 5 [19 favorites]


Back in the 80's when I was in college, we read a ton of stuff in college with some pretty strong content that would, today, be given a trigger warning. Were people being triggered all the time back then and we/I, culturally, were just unaware of it?

Pretty much. I know I was, in the late 80's. We just didn't call it being triggered; we called it "having an attack of histrionics" or "seeking attention" or being a "disturbed girl."
posted by KathrynT at 10:53 AM on March 5 [18 favorites]


Who cares if you get a warning if you're still going to have to be triggered?

It makes a difference. Without trying to cover the whole ground, I'll mention two aspects. First, warnings are helpful to mitigate surprise. This is a general principle. If you are about to disturb someone, it is useful to give them a heads-up. Let's say you need to tell your mom that your brother has been in a car accident. Depending on what's happened you might begin by saying, "I need you to sit down," or, "Joey is okay and he's safe, but something's happened." People usually find difficult emotions more distressing when they come as surprise. If you can dilute that, it's helpful.

Second, although your particular course material might be unavoidable for that student, its timing may be flexible. Students do miss lectures, for illness or weather or just because they're college students, so let's agree that any individual lecture probably isn't crucial and its precise timing almost certainly isn't. Maybe on that day, the student had a particularly difficult morning relative to these issues. With warning, the student can make an informed decision either to attend class, or to skip and get the notes from a classmate and/or see the professor later during office hours.

Those are just two aspects. I see some other people have addressed others, and more may follow. I understand this issue can get complex, especially with uncertainty where and when to draw lines. My own experience is that in general terms this issue is so far from even being on the radar that I'm not particularly concerned about, "What happens when we go too far?" There's nothing wrong with chatting about that in theoretical terms, if that's what's interesting to you, so long as it isn't being used to derail efforts to improve awareness.
posted by cribcage at 10:55 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


The solution here is not formal, officious, open-ended trigger warnings. It's professors being more humane and broad minded.

And we're dancing around it but the real issue is sexual assault, where the vast majority of victims are women and most professors are men. A lot of profs (and non-prof men) simply have not understood how common or intense this problem is. They have stereotypes of what a victim might look like and are surprised that someone not like that would be affected so much. You can know statistics about assault without empathizing or feeling it emotionally, and that happens (especially when a layer of macho posturing is added).

There are very few other situations that where so many students are affected and professors are so removed from that experience (maybe time in prison?) So lets focus on getting teachers to understand the emotional realities of sexual assault and skip the TW jargon.
posted by msalt at 10:55 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


the dead returning to kill us all on a boat made of fingernail clippings, no

Fucking typical not-an-ancient-Greek-mythological-character privilege.
posted by yoink at 10:55 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


O.K., so, again, describe specifically what the policy will say such that the potentially negative consequences I can foresee are prevented. Will it specifically say that the policy is purely advisory and that the student has no recourse whatsoever if triggering material is included/arises without warning? If so, it's no much of a policy, is it? If the policy is enforceable in some way and the student does have recourse to action of some kind (i.e., if it is an actual requirement placed on the professor--you probably don't realize this but the university catalog is a legally binding contract between the student and the instructor of record and/or the university which is why I keep bringing up the potential for lawsuits: that is a very real possibility) then how do you write the policy so free intellectual discussion is, in fact, protected?

Well, I don't have a policy solution. But if I wanted to create one, I'd start by planning some sit-down meetings among the following groups: the university's general counsel, department chairs, program directors, campus organizations which deal with sexual assault, violence, refugee issues, etc. Then you'd need a bunch of faculty meetings. I'd probably also import some of the consulting social worker experts from the nearest big city for some of these meetings. I'd organize some "town hall" meetings with students and some smaller, more focused meetings where students who have - for example - been victims of violence would not have to listen to other students telling them to get over it as will inevitably happen in campus-wide meetings. I'd probably see if various senior administrators could meet with senior administrators from other colleges to see what emerging practices exist. Basically, depending on the size of the institution, we would have a whole shit-ton of meetings, many of them with legal counsel, and hammer out some kind of starter policy. I would also start working on a campus-wide information campaign to explain what was going on.

It wouldn't be "la la we had a two hour meeting and now we have a policy" but it wouldn't be "right wing students will use such a policy in bad faith so it's going to be off the table" either.
posted by Frowner at 10:57 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]


"But I also inadvertently caused a student to sacrifice a goat once, so I can't claim to be an expert in classroom management."

STORY TIME!
posted by Jacqueline at 10:58 AM on March 5 [12 favorites]


But if I wanted to create one, I'd start by planning some sit-down meetings among the following groups: the university's general counsel, department chairs, program directors, campus organizations which deal with sexual assault, violence, refugee issues, etc. Then you'd need a bunch of faculty meetings. I'd probably also import some of the consulting social worker experts from the nearest big city for some of these meetings. I'd organize some "town hall" meetings with students

And then the agent says "so what do you call this act?" and they reply (trigger warning) "The Administrators!"
posted by RogerB at 11:00 AM on March 5 [7 favorites]


[A few comments removed so far. Folks, make a basic effort or just skip the thread; you are not required to participate in a thoughtful discussion about this if the topic annoys you too much to do so, but if that's the case just go do something else.]
posted by cortex at 11:02 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


"But I also inadvertently caused a student to sacrifice a goat once, so I can't claim to be an expert in classroom management."

STORY TIME!


The first semester I taught my course online, I just adapted my face-to-face class and used the discussion boards. Each week, I had the standard "read X, make one post and two responses about X" assignment. I got bored pretty quickly, so one week I added the following to my assignment sheet: "Read X, make 1 post 2 responses, sacrifice a goat to either Thor and Freya, and write a 15-page paper explaining your choice."

One student emailed me later that day: "When is the goat paper due?"

Having no idea whether she was serious, I responded: "At least two weeks before Ragnarok, so I have time to give you feedback."

Another student sent an angry email: "There is nothing on the syllabus about a 15-page goat sacrifice paper. You can't make up new assignments and expect us to do them when we weren't expecting a 15-page paper!"

I figured I should probably post something on the class shell about how the comment was a joke, and how they shouldn't harm any livestock.

I then received this email from a third student: "Can I turn in the paper anyway for extra credit?"

Apparently, her father raises goats for food, so when he next selected a goat to eat - one that he was going to kill ANYWAY, I should add - she tagged along and claimed the goat for . . . she never turned in the paper, so I have no idea.

And that's how I learned that I should never say anything I don't literal mean to anyone at any time. And that students get a lot more upset about long papers than orders to kill animals.
posted by bibliowench at 11:14 AM on March 5 [95 favorites]


If a student tells me "The domestic violence aspects of The Great Gatsby are so triggering for me that I can't read it," I will gently, kindly tell them "You cannot pass an American Literature class– or be conversant with American literature– if you haven't read The Great Gatsby, preferably a few times. Perhaps another class would be a better fit for you."


I agree (well, okay, personally I don't feel that TGG is so essential that you couldn't build a solid, rigorous AmLit class without it , but I know there are people who would absolutely feel like they could not teach such a class without it, and that's their prerogative.) There will be a very small subset of students who are not in a place where they can engage with triggering subjects to such an extent that they wouldn't be able, even with reasonable accommodation, to demonstrate adequate mastery of the subjects and literature in a typical literature class. And they should drop the class and delay to another semester.

The students who trigger warnings as discussed in this thread are trying to help are not those students. The people who trigger warnings would help are the students who do well in the course, until the week when you start The World According to Garp, when they can't finish the chapter, or just don't show up, or quietly drop the class entirely, because the description of how people treat Jenny Fields after the movie theater hits too close to home, and they were blindsided. It is a loss, for everyone--those students, and the students who could've learned something from their perspective--when they aren't there. It's a loss for the course when people who could've participated in the class and in its discussion, had they had some warning about the content that would be in the reading, have their participation impacted by preventable triggering.

So, for those Defenders of Intellectual Freedom in this thread: is this what you want? Do you want literature classes to only be open to people who are sure, by virtue of their lack of response to descriptions of traumatic events, that they are not inviting anxiety attacks, mental health crises, etc.? Or is it better to allow people who are still processing trauma to participate in the class, by taking slightly more effort so that they can take extra measures to prepare for and process those upsetting triggers?
posted by kagredon at 11:15 AM on March 5 [13 favorites]


Well, I don't have a policy solution. But if I wanted to create one, I'd start by planning some sit-down meetings among the following groups: the university's general counsel, department chairs, program directors, campus organizations which deal with sexual assault, violence, refugee issues, etc. Then you'd need a bunch of faculty meetings. I'd probably also import some of the consulting social worker experts from the nearest big city for some of these meetings. I'd organize some "town hall" meetings with students and some smaller, more focused meetings where students who have - for example - been victims of violence would not have to listen to other students telling them to get over it as will inevitably happen in campus-wide meetings. I'd probably see if various senior administrators could meet with senior administrators from other colleges to see what emerging practices exist. Basically, depending on the size of the institution, we would have a whole shit-ton of meetings, many of them with legal counsel, and hammer out some kind of starter policy. I would also start working on a campus-wide information campaign to explain what was going on.

Well, at least you recognize that this is a really, really hard thing to do well and not simply a self-evident step that only moronic troglodytes could possibly see any downsides to.

I would bet you dollars to donuts, by the way, that if you went through the process you describe above, you'd end up with something like my proposed "boilerplate" solution above. It would have the immense advantage that it would be both easy to implement and could be closely vetted by the campus legal dept. Generally allowing professors to write their own statements for stuff that is required by policy leads to all kinds of headache; just look at campus statements regarding academic honesty, for example.
posted by yoink at 11:18 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


As it so happens, I was thinking about trigger warnings just this morning; the main character of my next graphic novel gets raped and mind-wiped off-camera, and part of the story involves this coming back to her. I've been intending to put a trigger warning on the front of the site when I start drawing it, and was asking myself this morning if I really need to do that. This post makes me pretty confident that the answer is still "yes, I should".
posted by egypturnash at 11:20 AM on March 5


The solution here is not formal, officious, open-ended trigger warnings. It's professors being more humane and broad minded.

The problem is that there's a lot of subjects where all you can give are open-ended warnings. I teach Greek and Roman mythology and basically my first class is telling people that there's a lot of rape and violence in nearly every myth and we can't get around it, so if that upsets/triggers you this is not the class you should take. I can't think of a single problematic subject that isn't explored graphically in a range of Greek myths.

We're not alone either - I can think of a range of subjects where you couldn't teach anything without just providing a boilerplate warning and plunging ahead anyway.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:24 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]


I once had a veteran in one of my composition class have a flashback after seeing a cornfield in a video about agriculture. It's not something that I would have warned anybody about, but it was awful seeing him go through a period of PTSD-induced mental anguish. As instructors, we need to warn students when we can, but also be aware of the complex and often surprising ways that trauma memories can be triggered.
posted by mmmbacon at 11:32 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


I think one reason to have a policy about trigger warnings is to push people to think about triggers. It would be nice if just saying to faculty "hey think about triggering material and be cautious" were enough, but some faculty tune that stuff out, some are actively opposed, some decide to troll*, some are just busy, some are new faculty struggling to figure out all kinds of stuff....A policy makes sure that everyone addresses something, even if no policy can solve all of its problems.



*Like when every once in a while you read some horrible math exam question where it's all "calculate numbers based on this horrible abusive or racist scenario".
posted by Frowner at 11:37 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Yeah, what's wrong with both giving open-ended warnings AND being humane and broad-minded? Why can't you say "A great deal of the material covered in this class involves depictions of violence, torture, rape, murder, infanticide, and other disturbing concepts. If this is something you feel you may be troubled by, see me during office hours and we'll see if we can work something out or if you may need to switch to a different class. And if anyone does unexpectedly have a bad reaction in class, feel free to withdraw from the discussion or even leave the classroom if you feel you need to in order to get your bearings; just talk to me or email me afterwards so I can catch you up on important things you missed and so I know what's going on. However, your enrollment in this class means you will be responsible for gaining mastery over all the material presented; again, see me if you feel this may be a problem for you and we'll see what we can work out." ?
posted by KathrynT at 11:40 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


msalt: "The solution here is not formal, officious, open-ended trigger warnings. It's professors being more humane and broad minded."

Yes, I feel like very few professors would object if told, "It is the professor's job to help students contextualizing challenging or difficult material, and to prepare students to engage with that material." Context isn't everything, but it's a lot; you don't walk into a class on the Holocaust expecting sunshine and roses, and you don't walk into an American literature class expecting all happy-go-lucky novels with pleasant endings. But if a professor is just throwing material about the Holocaust at students without providing context, interpretation, dialogue, etc., that's just "Here, have a bunch of historical torture porn, make of it what you will." I'm not going to say students should never be surprised (and in this day and age, if the professor's given no preliminary context for a book, you can google up a plot summary on most literature-class books without too much trouble, if there are things you seriously struggle to cope with even in fiction and you either need forewarning or to avoid completely), but preparing students for the material they're GOING to engage with is as important as discussing it after they finish reading/watching/viewing/whatever.

There is also a lot of power in a professor being aware of the students' reactions during the discussion -- even and sometimes especially the students who are NOT speaking. Their body language, facial expressions, etc., tells you a lot about what's NOT being said. When I used to teach ethics, I was always pretty alert to students whose postures became closed or defensive, or who seemed to be fighting with themselves about whether to speak or not, and when discussion got a little too strident, I'd often take an opportune moment in the discussion to say, "Guys, remember that some of your classmates have probably had abortions, and some of them are probably either adopted or have given a child up for adoption, so let's not talk about this flippantly or act as if these aren't real people -- these aren't just real people, they're people in this room." (And then you can reaffirm the strident student's point, while framing it in gentler language and moving the discussion forward.) Students get the point -- both the students who were being thoughtless about others' experiences, and the ones who had had those experiences.

My experience from watching some of my colleagues' classes is that a little training on this topic would not go amiss; there were three men in the department in particular who were very, very secure in their maleness, dismissive of female students' concerns, and would often go racing off in lectures where all the male students would be laughing and the female students shrinking in their chairs, and they'd talk in faculty meetings about how "Girls just never participate in class, all that early cultural training in being submissive" ... recognizing the issue of patriarchy while not recognizing how they were the worst part of it! (Two of them have since been fired for sexually harassing either students or colleagues.) Someone in a position of authority should have noticed years earlier how uncomfortable their classes made women, and worked with them to correct it. I would have been very interested in a (well-designed) training from the student advocate's office talking about the experiences of sexual assault survivors in wide-ranging liberal arts discussions, for example, or how minority students feel in classes discussing slavery, and what steps faculty can take to create a more inclusive environment -- ideally several different options, because the teacher is a necessary ingredient and we all have different personalities and methods. I wouldn't want some generic pablum, but a variety of tools that I could consider and choose as best fit my personality and teaching style and classroom needs. I do think there are a lot of different ways a teacher can create an open and inclusive experience for students, where students feel respected and heard. Not a "safe space," but a space where students feel their lives and experiences and interpretations can be heard as valid.

This is straying a bit off of trigger warnings now, but for me, personally, it would have been extremely helpful to have a chance to practice teaching a "class" in front of a small group of smart, sensitive professionals who could have helped me learn to address minority issues better. I knew that "best practice" was to address and acknowledge racism head-on, but OH that was hard to learn as a young white woman raised to be polite and "colorblind," and OH the fear of saying the wrong thing and being called racist. It took me a few years of trial and error before I learned how to smash my fear down, swallow hard, and just TALK ABOUT IT. If we'd had a training about handling tough issues (like sexual assault, racism, etc.) in the classroom, and I had been given the option of "practicing" some of my tougher material with three people from the diversity office as my audience, who would be kind and helpful and know I was trying to do it right and would have helped me do it better? I would have done that in a HOT SECOND.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:47 AM on March 5 [28 favorites]


I once had a veteran in one of my composition class have a flashback after seeing a cornfield in a video about agriculture. It's not something that I would have warned anybody about, but it was awful seeing him go through a period of PTSD-induced mental anguish. As instructors, we need to warn students when we can, but also be aware of the complex and often surprising ways that trauma memories can be triggered.

And even when it's not PTSD, seeing students get seriously upset by class material in ways neither they nor we can predict is not fun -- but having discussions like this one and thinking about these things in advance can only help us to deal with them (if they need to be dealt with) in ways that are flexible but fair.

Sometimes there are just horrid coincidences like my class screening Wit at a time when a student's mother had recently been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Nobody could have predicted at the start of the semester that this would be a problem, but if my course policies are so inflexible that there's no reasonable way for him to skip those 2 days of class without tanking his grade, then that syllabus needs improvement.
posted by FelliniBlank at 11:48 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Why can't you say "A great deal of the material covered in this class involves depictions of violence, torture, rape, murder, infanticide, and other disturbing concepts. If this is something you feel you may be troubled by, see me during office hours and we'll see if we can work something out or if you may need to switch to a different class. And if anyone does unexpectedly have a bad reaction in class, feel free to withdraw from the discussion or even leave the classroom if you feel you need to in order to get your bearings; just talk to me or email me afterwards so I can catch you up on important things you missed and so I know what's going on. However, your enrollment in this class means you will be responsible for gaining mastery over all the material presented; again, see me if you feel this may be a problem for you and we'll see what we can work out." ?

This sounds pretty reasonable. The question I have is what happens if the professor doesn't say this or only says half of it (as they see fit) and a student becomes upset?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:51 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


What happens when a professor only gives half of any other policy, like their absenteeism policy or their classroom participation policy?
posted by KathrynT at 11:52 AM on March 5 [7 favorites]


Why can't you say "A great deal of the material covered in this class involves depictions of violence, torture, rape, murder, infanticide, and other disturbing concepts.

I don't think anyone is arguing that that wouldn't be acceptable. It's perfectly workable in a class that very obviously will be dealing with such overt depictions. The problem lies in those unforeseen situations where few, if anyone, could have foreseen a triggering event happening. Classes where no one could have guessed a triggering event would occur.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:53 AM on March 5


People need to grow up and accept that no one is entitled to a life without offense, or emotional hurt.

I don't feel entitled to a life without offense or hurt, but some people's sense of entitlement to giving offense and hurt baffles me.
posted by fatehunter at 11:54 AM on March 5 [26 favorites]


What happens when a professor only gives half of any other policy, like their absenteeism policy or their classroom participation policy?

Don't know, not working in an academic setting. What does happen in those situations?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:57 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


The problem lies in those unforeseen situations where few, if anyone, could have foreseen a triggering event happening.

Then you modify the header and do the second part:

"We come to this class from diverse backgrounds and experiences, and we are here to learn more about things we don't yet understand. To that end, if anyone has an unexpectedly bad reaction to any of the material we cover in class, feel free to withdraw from the discussion or even leave the classroom if you feel you need to in order to get your bearings; just talk to me or email me afterwards so I can catch you up on important things you missed and so I know what's going on. However, your enrollment in this class means you will be responsible for gaining mastery over all the material presented; again, see me if you feel this may be a problem for you and we'll see what we can work out."

I mean I just really don't see what's hard about this.
posted by KathrynT at 11:59 AM on March 5 [12 favorites]


The problem lies in those unforeseen situations where few, if anyone, could have foreseen a triggering event happening. Classes where no one could have guessed a triggering event would occur.

If it's really unforeseen and completely unpredictable though, there's nothing to be done other than react with courtesy and kindness, and I don't think anyone expects anything else. It's sort of like if you're at a bake sale or potluck, and you've thoughtfully labelled everything with nuts, gluten, dairy, etc., but someone has an unforeseen allergic reaction to the sprinkles on one of the cupcakes. They didn't know they'd be allergic to the sprinkles, they thought they were just allergic to peanuts, and thought they'd be fine if they just avoided the nuts. But just because that one unexpected thing happened doesn't mean you shouldn't have labelled the rest of the common allergens at all.
posted by yasaman at 12:02 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


The question I have is what happens if the professor doesn't say this or only says half of it (as they see fit) and a student becomes upset?

"Nope, this idea can't work every single possible time under every single possible set of circumstances, so fuck it."
posted by Etrigan at 12:03 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


So class discussions should be policed by the instructor, and no student should be allowed to bring up potentially triggering material that the class has not been specifically warned about at the outset?

To be perfectly blunt, if you're not policing your class discussions to the extent that you try to keep them on topic and interrupt when things go completely far afield or students begin saying offensive things then maybe you might consider a different career.

You made your super open-minded position on this subject clear in your very first comment with If there is some topic relating to the interaction of humans with other humans which you are unable to bear discussing--even in an abstract and intellectual way--then the study of literature is not for you but I'm more than willing to address your concerns about university guidelines and lawsuits.

Cowboy up and act like a professional rather than a spoiled & frightened child.

Your complaints and concerns come across like someone who thinks nobody at the institution can lay down anything resembling basic guiding principles without stepping all over your classroom freedom or insuring you're going to be sued every other week. Yet I am reasonably sure wherever you work does some basic curriculum development, provides a diversity statement, has general policies about sexual harassment, has some resources and rules for handling learning disabilities, and a bazillion other bits of guidance for everything from time management to manner of professional dress. Yet somehow you manage to work within the guidelines of the course matter, aren't in court every third day, and departments and HR manage to deal with employee problems.

I guess I could be wrong. It might be 1982 where you teach. But my last adjunct experience I was handed some guidelines for my syllabus including the university diversity statement and boilerplate for dealing with learning disabilities. In the case of learning disabilities there was contact information for the department that helps students with challenges and a statement that anyone with a known issue should talk to me and we'd figure out a way to cope with it. Maybe it would mean different test types or arranging for a note taker or... who knows? It was unbelievably open-ended and generic and just a statement that hey, we know this is a thing and we're aware of it and we're interested in helping you work towards your success.

That wasn't a concrete set of inflexible, perfect guidelines that spelled out every possible issue and situation. Nothing in the solution was guaranteed to solve every problem without more work. It didn't promise that the presence of one student with a LD would mean the entire class mechanic would have to alter to accommodate them. It just provided a starting point for dealing with it and made everyone aware.

And I'm sure someone was super precious about it and said no way, I'm going to teach my class my way and anyone who doesn't like it can get stuffed. After all, there was once a question on the green from someone whose instructor in a speaking class insisted nobody could wear any correctional eyewear while speaking. There's always some asshole. And someone complains about them to their chair or the Provost and various HR procedures get followed.

I'm sure there was some student who decided they could just say nothing and then demand everyone bend over backwards 2 hours before grades were due to cope with a non-existent or undisclosed problem that could have been prevented with notice. And the Provost or chair or someone else dealt with it either by shutting it down quickly or having it turn into an extended pain in the ass.

That. Is. The. Job. And pretending that this "hey let's not freak people with problems out unnecessarily k?" is somehow the camel's nose under the tent and going to create some new and unique problem is just inane.

The question I have is what happens if the professor doesn't say this or only says half of it (as they see fit) and a student becomes upset?

If a class makes it through a semester without an upset student then the accompanying flying pigs and Winter Olympics in Hades will be enough distraction to keep it from being a problems.

Seriously, this is why Deans and Provosts exist. Conflicts happen. It gets managed. The idea that an educational institution can't manage within policy a basic statement of principle and issue some guidelines for classes is some combination of concern trolling, special snowflake my-class-my-rules tantrums, and complete lack of understanding about how institutions work.
posted by phearlez at 12:03 PM on March 5 [22 favorites]


Professors will surely create generic statements that will satisfy the demand for trigger warnings, just like the cancer causing chemicals warning labels that are slapped on just about everything sold in California. Why would they start anew with every class and every syllabus, especially if they could be held accountable for getting it wrong?
posted by Wordwoman at 12:06 PM on March 5


Why would they start anew with every class and every syllabus, especially if they could be held accountable for getting it wrong?

I don't know, maybe they take pride in doing their work in a way that actually reaches students.
posted by kagredon at 12:07 PM on March 5 [5 favorites]


or else they are victims themselves whose advocation that other victims should "grow up" is mostly about projection and needing help.

Are you really proclaiming, as you appear to be, that there is a right way to be a victim - the sort who deals with it properly by experiencing constant trauma, and the one who isn't experiencing continuous trauma and is therefore projecting?
posted by Jimbob at 12:14 PM on March 5 [4 favorites]


I think the implication is that person X telling other victims that X's tough-it-out method is the only right way to be a victim is indeed doing it wrong.
posted by phearlez at 12:15 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


I think that the "trigger warning" debate is a distraction from a bigger problem, which is that universities tend to approach their students' sensitivities and limitations, both institutionally and personally, from somewhere on a continuum of "benign cluelessness" to "punitive assholishness". We need to make policy efforts to ensure that students feel free to talk to instructors and admin staff about their wellbeing and to get accommodations when needed.
posted by junco at 12:16 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


This seems to be a simple way for us to be kind to each other. As many have said, a heads up is often all it takes for someone's anxiety not to be triggered. Let's be kind to each other.
posted by merocet at 12:25 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


"Nope, this idea can't work every single possible time under every single possible set of circumstances, so fuck it."

No one said that, so I'm not sure why you're presenting the statement as a quote.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:27 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


"Nope, this idea can't work every single possible time under every single possible set of circumstances, so fuck it."

No one said that, so I'm not sure why you're presenting the statement as a quote.


Because I didn't think you'd be disingenuous enough to pretend you were confused by a pretty common rhetorical device, both here and in the wider world. If it will help you in the future, imagine that I started that with "Translation:" or "In other words," before the obviously fake quote.
posted by Etrigan at 12:30 PM on March 5 [8 favorites]


I'm really tired of the idea that it's a college instructor's job to induce traumatic growth in their students. If trigger warnings can help put that crap to bed, I'm for them.
posted by lodurr at 12:32 PM on March 5 [4 favorites]


If I can accomplish one thing with this comment, it would be great if just one college professor reading this thread would find the most horrid and far-fetched example from his or her (relevant) curriculum and give a moment's thought to the possibility that someone sitting in the classroom might have that exact incident in their past.

I have made this exact argument as a radio programmer, when it comes to possibly disturbing lyrics. An example: One time my playlist said I needed to play the song "More than I can do" by Steve Earle. So I did, thinking nothing of it. I'm no huge fan of his so I was not at all aware of the lyrics. An hour or so later, I get a very personal and painful email from a listener who had been a victim of domestic violence, and hearing that song on the radio devastated her. It's not like she sought it out - it just was there, all of a sudden, on her favorite radio station.

I went back to my team and said, we can't play this song anymore, Steve Earle has plenty of other songs that aren't about a guy threatening to kill his ex. We can play one of those instead. I was surprised that I got considerable push back - "'Don't sit under the apple tree' by the Andrews Sisters is about a stalker! We can't worry about lyrics, or we'd never play anything!"

But I don't know, I think you can err on the side of being careful. When Sandy Hook happened, I knew I was never gonna play "Pumped Up Kicks" or "I Don't Like Mondays" on the radio ever again. And so on. If a class is by necessity going to go into some dark territory, I can't imagine what is lost by letting people know up front.
posted by jbickers at 12:36 PM on March 5 [7 favorites]


You know that therapy actually takes time, right, like you don't go to the psychiatrist and they give you a script for Brain Antibiotics and you take those for 30 days and you're cured and never worry about it again?

"Trigger warnings" seem rather new. What isn't new is that everyone and their mama has certain things that upset them. Including myself.

But does that mean that I want you to straight up say "oh, you may want to prepare yourself for this, because in this Women in Afro-American lit class we will be talking about the slave experience which may include grotesque violent times".

No. It's freaking obvious.

Unless you're taking a class on Disney princesses and then find out that the prof will be reading excerpts from burgess' 'sexual homicide' in class, I think things are obvious. Especially with a syllabus.

From what I've seen on this website, I've noticed 2 things:

1. Someone has a post about something which could be excruciatingly painful for others...and it's obvious from the initial text. And then they include take like trigger warning. Seems unnecessary because it's obvious...but truth be told, I like this approach because there is no doubt that it isn't a Disney story.

2. Someone posts something which seems innocuous, and then BOOM, something BIG. Total surprise for people who might find I upsetting.

Those 2 things make me think: yeah, it's a total courtesy. It would be great if EVERYONE did this. But they won't. So as someone who might get upset about something...I need to manage my own stuff, and NOT expect others to manage my experience.

So yeah, I don't think that saying "trigger warning" is a big ask...but I am fooling myself if I believe the internet and universities would do this. It would probably be better if I figured out a way to manage this myself. That would be less traumatic.

If it's a real problem, then one should find a way to deal with it that doesn't assume that others will use some kind of "trigger warning". This concept seems to give people a false sense of security...which is obliterated when a warning is not given.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:38 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


Because I didn't think you'd be disingenuous enough to pretend you were confused by a pretty common rhetorical device, both here and in the wider world.

The confusion stems from why you want lob rhetorical devices and put words in people's mouths, rather than dealing with the actual question. But that seems to be a thing you're enjoying doing in this thread, so have at it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:39 PM on March 5


But does that mean that I want you to straight up say "oh, you may want to prepare yourself for this, because in this Women in Afro-American lit class we will be talking about the slave experience which may include grotesque violent times".

No. It's freaking obvious.


If you seriously think that's obvious to many 19-year-olds who have never read any real literature before, you are incorrect. Education is about working with the actual students in your classes, not your Platonic cave ideal student.
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:44 PM on March 5 [6 favorites]


This concept seems to give people a false sense of security...which is obliterated when a warning is not given.

For my own experience at least, the presence of trigger warnings some or even most of the time doesn't make the experience of being triggered in the absence of a warning any worse. It just means it happens less often.

There is no downside to giving trigger warnings from my perspective. I mean, I don't fall harder and more hurtfully off an unlabeled step because "Watch your Step" signs exist.
posted by KathrynT at 12:45 PM on March 5 [6 favorites]


aren't all discussions about zeus essentially jovial?
posted by bruce at 12:49 PM on March 5 [15 favorites]


There are obvious "triggers" in coursework, such as rape, cannibalism, physical/mental abuse, et al., for which a warning should be included.

But how should colleges and universities handle those that aren't predictable? Perhaps programs asking for submissions through the administration that are provided to professors anonymously? i.e. "I have strong anxiety related to anything that references bears, because I was present when a friends was attacked by a grizzly." And then the administration could give the professor a heads-up to that particular issue.

It just seems like assuming that there isn't a responsibility for notifying students of specifics that may be damaging is based on assumptions of what those specifics are?
posted by miss tea at 12:52 PM on March 5


I know the term "privilege" is a bit overused these days, but I feel like a pretty good example of it is if one feels the need to dig their heels in in objection to the concept of a simple courtesy, purely because they themselves do not need it.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:52 PM on March 5 [17 favorites]


The confusion stems from why you want lob rhetorical devices and put words in people's mouths, rather than dealing with the actual question. But that seems to be a thing you're enjoying doing in this thread, so have at it.

We considered asking all mefites to try to be clear about their rhetorical devices when writing but since we couldn't come up with a structure that could cover every single situation and head off every possible complaint in case of incomplete explanation we just did nothing.
posted by phearlez at 12:55 PM on March 5 [7 favorites]


Your simple courtesy is my threat to academic freedom.
posted by spitbull at 12:58 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


Warning: Grown-Up or Uncomfortable Stuff Ahead

One final introductory note -- life may contain:
--violent content, including graphic depictions of violent acts
--sexual content, including graphic depictions of sexual activity, sometimes involving participants from orientations other than your own
--references to or depictions of mind-altering substance use, smoking, gambling, criminal acts, etc.
--adult-appropriate language, swearing/profanity
--offensive ethnic, gender identity, religious, age-group, sexual orientation, national origin, or other stereotypes and slurs

Those content elements may also come up in discussion, but you're not required to comment on them if you prefer not to. You do need to continue living.

posted by Sebmojo at 12:59 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


not to blow my own horn, but this is part of why I feel like the analogy to reasonable accommodation is a useful one. "Reasonable accommodation" is explicitly not "redesign your whole curriculum so that no one ever has a problem with it", it's not "have a contingency plan in store for every single edge case", it's "be aware that some of your students are going to have a harder time than others for reasons that are not related to their knowledge or diligence", it's "if there's a way to impart the same curriculum without making things harder on disabled students, maybe it's time for a redesign", it's "just in general be aware that this is a thing that exists, be prepared to deal with it, don't treat students dealing with it like they're stupid or lazy because they're not."
posted by kagredon at 12:59 PM on March 5 [5 favorites]


Your simple courtesy is my threat to academic freedom.

Please tell me this is a stupid joke.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:03 PM on March 5 [10 favorites]


Navelgazer: I know the term "privilege" is a bit overused these days, but I feel like a pretty good example of it is if one feels the need to dig their heels in in objection to the concept of a simple courtesy, purely because they themselves to not need it.

It's not just that, there's more to it.

A. If it's your responsibility to warn people, then you can be found liable for not doing it. It's just one more thing you can mess up in your job and get fired for. Maybe not tenured profs, but adjuncts and pre-tenured ones, sure.

B. Unnecessary warning labels annoy people, and stupid ones annoy people more. For every one person that is helped by a caption of "Warning: This course involves pictures of cadavers" in human anatomy, there will be twenty who go "No shit, really?" and lose a little respect for you.

C. People ignore syllabi and their brains filter out warnings anyway (due to the over-warning that already occurs), so I'm not sure how many people this would actually help. Unless you make it really obvious (i.e. announce it in class), in which case the people annoyed in (B) get even more annoyed. Constantly bugging people with PTSD warnings is also going to set people against PTSD and make people with it seem more nonfunctional than they really are.

D. If the warnings are required, they'll be so diluted by overuse they won't mean anything (see: This product causes cancer in the state of California...).
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:03 PM on March 5 [4 favorites]


If we shouldn't include more trigger warnings because that will dilute their effectiveness, then when were trigger warnings at their most effective? Back in the early 90s when they barely existed?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:05 PM on March 5


I teach a couple of courses that deal with scientific evidence in the courtroom. As you can imagine, the fact patterns of many of the cases I teach are upsetting. However, you can't teach law and in particular you can't discuss criminal law without dealing with upsetting cases. I do mention that they're upsetting. I think this helps, because it makes being appalled by what happened OK and something that can be shared safely.
posted by sfred at 1:10 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


yoink: "That is not my experience at all. The people I know who have found themselves "triggered" (that is, suddenly flooded with obtrusive and unwanted memories of a traumatic experience as the result of some identifiable external stimulus) have often remarked on how absurdly tangential the "trigger" seemed to be to the original event."

I may not know you, but as someone who has experienced and will probably again experience traumatic flashbacks to being raped and assaulted, the unpredictable scent/sound/sight-based triggers account for maybe a third of the instances. Unexpectedly encountering violent transmisogyny pretty much anywhere when my guard's down makes up the rest (and as an extra little piece of anecdote, has never had that effect when encountered forewarned). The unexpectedness - the shock of encountering that language and those attitudes without my defences up - is central to my experience of it.

I mean, I think a fair few people are assuming that on encountering a relevant trigger warning, the reader just slams the book closed, clicks their r/goldenretrievers bookmark or whatever. That's not true for me (although the latter is open in another tab, obvs), or most people I know with a similar history. I'll usually continue, suitably warned. Sometimes I regret that decision, usually I don't. From experience I certainly wouldn't expect most students for whom a trigger warning matters to miss much, if any, of the text, and would expect them to take in more and comprehend better overall if adequately informed about the content. The essential part is being able to make the choice, whether that means tackling affecting material with all the resources and techniques at your disposal, or choosing to take a different class.

Anyway, I'm off to read the watertight pieces of legislation presented with every proposed outcome in the last NSA thread!
posted by emmtee at 1:13 PM on March 5 [7 favorites]


It's reasonable for a teacher to expect, and desire, that first-time readers be authentically surprised when they encounter the plot-central traumatic shit that happens in great works of literature.

Art that can't survive a simple 'this involves a graphic description of rape' advisory (for example) is shitty art that depends on shock to succeed. I've read both the works referenced in the comment excerpted and no, knowing in advance what to expect did not detract from the experience.

Also I have to laugh at the idea that students in a literature class haven't already looked the book up on Wikipedia in the first place (most of them instead of actually reading it I'd imagine), spoiling the so-precious surprise for most of them. And no, that point doesn't invalidate a simple request to let people know that it's got graphic content because not everyone does that.
posted by winna at 1:17 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


It's not just that, there's more to it.

A. As mentioned above there have been plenty of new policies enacted over the last 10-15 years in education, such as policies about diversity, harassment, and handling learning disabilities. Should these too have not been implemented because "someone might mess up and get fired"?

B. First, you labelled trigger warnings as unnecessary when multiple people here in this thread have stated that they are often helpful for self-care. But beyond that, why is the "respect" of others more important than being considerate of people with PTSD?

C. Yeah no. Anyone who becomes "set against PTSD" because they had to read a 5 sentence trigger warning is an asshole and I don't care what they think.

D. So we must never require any warnings, because the moment we do we will be overrun with them and then.. um.. well, so what?
posted by jess at 1:20 PM on March 5 [4 favorites]


I teach a course on the American slave narrative (proposed title for next year: "12 Weeks a Slave" har har). So yes, anyone taking the course gets the standard explanation on day 1 that pretty much all of the readings will contain physical, mental, and sexual violence, and many other troubling depictions. But there's no predicting that students will read the syllabus at all (indeed, getting them to buy their books at the start of the course is a herculean effort), or that they'll even know how they'll respond to things. I have students fill out an info sheet at the start, too, where there's a space where they can give me a head's up about anything (disability accomodations, athletic travel days, etc). One student informed me that her mother had just died. I cringed, because there are a lot of murdered mothers in my course. I suggested that perhaps a different course might be more comfortable for her. She seemed torn between touched and offended that I'd singled her out after class, honestly, and stayed with my course and appeared to have no difficulties with the material--participated in all of the discussions, etc.

So I guess I just want to reiterate that warning up front in any kind of detail seems unlikely to work, and that I take a bit of offense at the casual depictions thrown about here of professors as totally uncaring and unwilling to make any effort towards our students. Yes, everyone's department has one or two egregious fossils still teaching, but the majority of us are in this profession because, you know, we actually care about our students and furthering knowledge (we sure aren't in it for the money).
posted by TwoStride at 1:21 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


One student informed me that her mother had just died. I cringed, because there are a lot of murdered mothers in my course. I suggested that perhaps a different course might be more comfortable for her.

Experiencing the death of a parent, unless done so in a particularly traumatic way (like eyewitnessing it), likely will not flood the brain with adrenaline when the memory of that event is being formed, and thus will not result in PTSD and triggering when the discussion of dead parents arises. Therefore, your analogy is a crock of shit.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:29 PM on March 5


I take a bit of offense at the casual depictions thrown about here of professors as totally uncaring and unwilling to make any effort towards our students.

I sincerely think it's unfortunate that you or any thoughtful, caring professor would find any part of this conversation offensive. Truly, no sarcasm intended. However, I would gently suggest an alternative reaction might be to consider that (1) most of us are well aware that professors like you exist, and we are thankful; and (2) we're telling you that professors also exist who are unaware of these issues and/or unwilling to view them as "serious" issues due to abstract, priggish, or imaginary concerns, and it would be awesome if diligent insiders like yourself could help raise awareness—even if just by giving some thought to the fact that those professors exist, rather than getting defensive on their behalf.
posted by cribcage at 1:30 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


B. Unnecessary warning labels annoy people, and stupid ones annoy people more. For every one person that is helped by a caption of "Warning: This course involves pictures of cadavers" in human anatomy, there will be twenty who go "No shit, really?" and lose a little respect for you.

Last summer in an upper-level English course she was teaching, my friend issued a trigger warning about a rape scene in a schlocky 19th century novel. The next week, she overhead two female students snickering about it before the class started. They were saying that the trigger warning was stupid because nobody could possibly be offended by such tame and silly prose.

What they didn't know was that another female student, who had been raped the year before, emailed the prof to thank her for the warning. She read the tame and silly rape scene, and she did find it very hard to get through. But because she had been prepared for it, she got through the thing and could participate in the class discussion like everyone else.

So for every two (or twenty) people who might roll their eyes at a trigger warning, there might well be one for whom it makes a big difference. I'd rather keep the respect of the latter than the former.
posted by Beardman at 1:30 PM on March 5 [19 favorites]


Therefore, your analogy is a crock of shit.

Are you the expert on all responses to dead parents?

Moreover, the student didn't mention how her mother had died. Perhaps it had been traumatic; we've had students lose their parents in car accidents (where they themselves were victims) or to murder before, and I'm certainly not going to push a student for more details than they're willing to share. And again, the student themselves might not know. Students whohave disclosed other events to me (assualt) have responded to material in totally different ways.
posted by TwoStride at 1:34 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


I take a bit of offense at the casual depictions thrown about here of professors as totally uncaring and unwilling to make any effort towards our students.

A number of the people who have been arguing that professors could exercise some more care around these issues are professors/instructors/academics/otherwise make their living in higher education.
posted by kagredon at 1:38 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


Jess: If you are interested, my thought is not that the warnings are always bad, nor that some kind of accommodation should not be undertaken, just that this kind of accommodation is a bad idea and will cause more problems than it solves. What I would suggest:

1. Coach students when they enter the college that if they have triggers, they should examine the content of courses and consult with instructors ahead of time. You know what your triggers are better than other people, and some triggers are unusual, and instructors can give you a more nuanced idea of what the course contains.

2. Stay off the big two triggers if you don't have to address them (sexual assault, war). In a given class you probably will have someone who has experienced at least one of those, so it's a really likely thing to set off. You should probably warn about those two all the time, unless it's obvious (i.e. history of WWII).

3. Instead of having rules and issuing warnings for everything (which just results in overdilution, ignoring of warnings, and backlash) only warn if things are unexpected. Like, maybe talking about rape in a mythology class - you might be forgiven for not knowing mythology has that. But a warning about cadaver pics in human anatomy will only serve to annoy people.

4. Try to inform students about the upcoming content in a more nuanced way than "Trigger warning". Telling the students about the upcoming content instead of warning them about it singles out people with PTSD less while still providing useful warning.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:38 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


I really like the idea of voluntary courtesy warnings. What's more reasonable than a heads up that coursework will include graphic material that some may find difficult? Teachers should be encouraged to use them, and they should try to be flexible in situations where a student requires special accommodation. A simple verbal statement at the beginning of a course would suffice, something general enough to put students on alert without teasing out every potential example.

I don't like the idea of mandatory trigger warnings with potential repercussions for failing to provide them. Making teachers liable for the emotional well being of their students based purely on course content seems like a very bad idea.
posted by echocollate at 1:41 PM on March 5 [6 favorites]


Are you the expert on all responses to dead parents?

No, but it is unlikely that the death of a parent will cause PTSD in their adult child, while experiencing rape likely does cause PTSD symptoms. Which means that using the former example to inform how to deal with people have have experience the latter is foolish.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:46 PM on March 5


i get triggered, i also work in areas where i am likely to be triggered. it is my responsiblity to work through those issues, to construct meaning from the trauma of my life. also, triggers can be random. i can work through material that should very much trigger me (the film if..., some neil lebute plays, sade) and it does not do anything at all, and i can work through material that is either very dry (greek translations of coptic sources about clothing) or very gentle (some childrens lit) and i am a complete fucking wreck.
posted by PinkMoose at 1:50 PM on March 5


No, but it is unlikely that the death of a parent will cause PTSD in their adult child, while experiencing rape likely does cause PTSD symptoms.

So what? TwoSteps was still kind and considerate to warn her student about potential emotional turmoil caused by the readings, whether it involved PTSD or not. And her story wasn't an "analogy" to win some argument; it was an anecdote demonstrating how a sensible consideration for students' feelings can be quite helpful and easily implemented without stepping on the toes of anyone's academic freedom.
posted by daisystomper at 1:59 PM on March 5 [12 favorites]


Professor: "Guys, remember that some of your classmates have probably had abortions, and some of them are probably either adopted or have given a child up for adoption, so let's not talk about this flippantly or act as if these aren't real people -- these aren't just real people, they're people in this room."

This. [not only about abortion, obv.] And someone needs to give this same talk to professors themselves. The problem isn't lack of boilerplate warnings, it's the lack of empathy and human connection. There are professors who are completely clueless due to sheltered experience, or misogynistic to different degrees, or who like being intellectual hardasses to the point of cruelty.

Making them copy and paste boilerplate on their course description will not solve the problem. They need to connect with and listen to their students, and not doing so should be one of the major ways their performance (and continued employment) should be evaluated.

Ironically, both sides of this argument here on Metafilter are demonstrating a lot of the lack of empathy and intellectual stridency at the root of this problem.
posted by msalt at 2:01 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Ironically, both sides of this argument here on Metafilter are demonstrating a lot of the lack of empathy

I am comfortable with lacking empathy for people who believe they shouldn't have to be bothered to extend some basic human courtesy and concern for their fellow humans because it might be hard or something.
posted by phearlez at 2:06 PM on March 5 [6 favorites]


I think it's ridiculous to support the notion that we should have the right to not use trigger warnings and then attack someone who thinks they are an appropriate courtesy (as echocollate very aptly described it). It's my class, I'll do what I think is appropriate up to the moment that more formal mechanisms, like the university's disability support program, kick in. For me, that means a very vague and general warning as I've describe above. It seems to work and I've used that approach for years. For others teaching different courses, something more specific might be appropriate. For others, none. It depends on the material, the teaching style, etc. One size doesn't fit all.

As an aside, since I mentioned formal mechanisms: PTSD would be recognized as a disability under our rules. If someone were to approach the disability centre, they would issue an accommodation letter that would oblige the course director to consider the accommodation. The course director could refuse, of course, if they thought such an accommodation would interfere with the course in some way. In practice, I've always been able to accommodate the physical and psychological issues of my students easily enough when that's come up.
posted by sfred at 2:12 PM on March 5


Most classes I've had with lots of readings or movies and responses to them allowed you to choose a certain amount to do responses to so you can skip some or they had papers where you could choose which of the texts to discuss or compare.

I expect in a class like that it'd be helpful to know ahead of time if any particular topics would trigger PTSD or phobias.

I've left class early during a movie because it was gratuitously violent and was making me nauseous-- not a PTSD thing or anything, I just have issues with certain kinds of horror. I'd have felt better doing so if the prof had said that was okay (and if the class' general attitude that watching a horror movie was a treat had been a bit more checked).

It'd also be nice if one could pick a course without stuff that's particularly bad for you; with tons of topics classes available and a large media canon that everyone will be missing a handful of works from it wouldn't be too tough to check the content/triggers for the works in a particular class and say, oh okay, that one has a lot of war stories or memoirs with childhood abuse or whatever else and avoid them. This obviously won't work in fields where you're going straight through a series of classes in order, but it might help people in more ecclectic areas of academia. (It could create problems with absolving some professors of in-course sensitivity if they think people with those triggers should just not take those classes, though.)
posted by NoraReed at 2:19 PM on March 5


So I think that people need to distinguish tough material and material that is actively triggering. So I'm a survivor of sexual assault and when I saw Apocalypse Now for a class in High School I found it upsetting and had a hard time with it but I was still able to appreciate it and discuss it. In college I read/saw the movie The Woman in the Dunes. Which both feature a graphic rape scene. Which I then had to sit through a discussion pretending I was totally cool with discussion while actively choking down my personal experience. I would love to be able to distance myself from rape for the purposes of discussing works like The Woman in the Dunes, both the book and the movie are great works. But I can't and don't really feel the need to sacrifice my hard earned well being for the sake of my liberal arts. Trigger warnings ideally aren't about not upsetting people but rather aimed to help people like me navigate day to day life. I have been rendered useless for a day before and it sucks because it's something you have no control over.
posted by KernalM at 2:21 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


A few years ago I had to take a postmodern lit capstone class to complete my English degree. It was the only class that fit my schedule, and the prof (who had a background in, among other subjects, transgressive literature) had indicated surprise when I signed up for his class.

For the most part I am thankful that I took the course. The prof assigned books and writers I would have never read otherwise, and I was glad I had others with whom to discuss, say, A Cyborg Manifesto, when it came up on the syllabus.

That said.

Towards the end of the semester, Prof. H had us read Dennis Cooper's entire George Miles Cycle. I had no knowledge of Cooper outside of the Bob Mould profile he wrote for Spin in 1994. To the prof's credit, many of our class discussions about the book eventually touched upon issues of queer history and the controversy about gay marriage within the gay community.

That said.

For those who have had not the pleasure, Cooper depicts sex acts and sexualized violence in painstaking detail. I had to stop reading once I hit the three- or four-page excerpt of the book in which a character is, shall we say, manually disemboweled. We read several books that semester that had sexual content, but the things that went down in those books was fairly extreme and upsetting. Cooper isn't as widely-written or the subject of as much controversy as someone like Bret Easton Ellis, and few if any of the students had any idea of how extreme the subject matter would be.

While I was prepared to do the work for this class, I would have valued a heads-up from the prof before the class started. Something like "hey, FYI, there's some graphic descriptions of rape and murder in Closer" would have been really appreciated. The prof downplayed it a little ("Cooper's an anti-fascist! It's okay!"), which didn't really help matters.
posted by pxe2000 at 2:24 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


I couldn't read everything but I do want to comment with my experiences and thoughts.

First off I have severe PTSD from long term sexual abuse by a family member. The situation involved such a long period of time that there are about 50 bazillion possible triggers.

Secondly at this point I've had 12 Years if therapy. In college I'd had much less as I was younger.

I think making an environment where making it safe and optional is best. I think the classes where it was acknowledged that things could be triggering and I could leave were great. In addition having an alternate assignment for things I couldn't handle was also great. I think that's all a teacher can do.

In my experience advocating for myself politely and briefly (no need for over sharing or details)has gone a long way. I needed to miss out on a criminology section or two but made it up with a paper analyzing dry policy related but not as graphic as the class would have been. In that case I was able to communicate by boundaries for my sanity and make some compromise.

I also understand that triggers do In fact come out of no where and it is no one's fault but my perpetrator and life circumstance. In fact just yesterday I was triggered by an ask me that mentioned a specific location where bad things happened. It isn't anyone's fault and shouldn't have needed a warning. I understand that life is just fill of random things and some may upset me.

The biggest thing is I take care of me when that happens and seek out accommodation s when nessisary.

It isn't anyone's job to manage my illness but my own.

It is nice when environments give me the opportunity to express my needs as needed and be flexible enough to work with me to find an appropriate solution.

Honestly the biggest problem I had in school was when essays wanted me to reflect on some part of my personal life be it cultural or developmental or discrimination reflection. In those cases I just made up fictional accounts to fit the requirement and moved on.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:35 PM on March 5 [8 favorites]


For those who have had not the pleasure, Cooper depicts sex acts and sexualized violence in painstaking detail. I had to stop reading once I hit the three- or four-page excerpt of the book in which a character is, shall we say, manually disemboweled. We read several books that semester that had sexual content, but the things that went down in those books was fairly extreme and upsetting. Cooper isn't as widely-written or the subject of as much controversy as someone like Bret Easton Ellis, and few if any of the students had any idea of how extreme the subject matter would be.

Jesus. I would not say that I am "triggered" by stuff like that, but I know from reading such kind of novels that they are enormously disruptive to my mental wellbeing over long stretches. Even reading your description makes me feel like I'm going to cry and vomit and I don't know how the fuck I would have gotten through a class like that. I would never, ever have trusted the professor again if he sprang something like that on the class.

Just, seriously, surely one does not have to have PTSD to be like "it is abnormally disturbing to me to read about sexualized violence, I don't get anything out of it, I don't want to read about it and I would like a really clear warning before the class starts". I add that "this class deals with themes of violence" is not the same as "this class deals with extreme, grotesque, sexualized murder". If someone says "this class deals with violence", I am not expecting the Xtreme macho sport sexualized disemboweling novel version.
posted by Frowner at 2:35 PM on March 5 [7 favorites]


This is why i avoid any and all literature and stick instead to tv--the news and the steamed series and shows such as The Sopranos.
posted by Postroad at 2:38 PM on March 5


I just want to comment to those who say let ADA office handle it ... In my case I has over a 3.7 gpa and took up to 21 hours a semester. I didn't need accommodations aside from a random assignment or two. I wouldn't have qualified for it until the assignment gave me problems and at that point it would have been to late to be approved. Luckally none of my professors made a hassle about it.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:48 PM on March 5


the news and the steamed series and shows such as The Sopranos.

Worth mentioning, in this context, that the news almost always mentions ahead of time if pictures are going to be graphic, and The Sopranos comes with a rating warning that there's iffy content in it.
posted by KathrynT at 3:02 PM on March 5 [6 favorites]


I don't see what GPA or courseload has to do with needing or not needing accommodation.
posted by kagredon at 3:18 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


Depending on the school, they can be relevant. I've heard stories about disability offices blowing off inquiries from students who are doing well. It shouldn't happen, but it does. Alternately, once you've qualified for accommodation, there may be barriers or red tape to enrolling in a heavier courseload. A student may reasonably prefer not to deal with that headache.

It can be hard, for various reasons, to convince a student who should qualify for accommodation to seek it out "just in case." You have to frame it in terms of a two-step process and explain they aren't deciding to use the accommodation merely by setting it in place. Still, it's a tough conversation with many students for complicated emotional reasons—pride, shame, etc. If there's a simpler solution than turning to disability assistance, as in this case there is, then better to look to that.
posted by cribcage at 3:33 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


The point is I and my situation didn't need to be fully documented through the disability office(which isn't all easy) about my PTSD because it affected my school work too irregularly. I didn't need the things the office provided (extra time, note taker , other testing accommodations, extended time) That's why the gpa and school schedule was provided.
I do think accommodations do need to be provided to people who get triggered. However unless it is pervading among all school work having something from the school should not be required or a professor to work with the student for a comparable assignment. In addition many people have traumatic things they'd rather not talk/relive without it being a disability.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:34 PM on March 5


AlexiaSky, I've worked informally with students before but, with respect, you handled the disabilities office incorrectly, at least in our system. The trick is to get a letter before you need it. In these kinds of cases they issue a kind of blanket letter. When students present that sort of thing to me I tell them to let me know if any issues come up and we'll work around them and I do so as a matter of routine. I'm doing it for two students in my courses presently. The problem of doing things informally is that other students can raise questions of fairness. With a letter I can simply say that this (accommodated) student's situation is different and if you have any problems feel free to take it up with the undergraduate program director (you never acknowledge an accommodation unless the student wants you to). Fortunately I've never had to do this.
posted by sfred at 3:34 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


Honestly I can see where it might have helped but I never ran into a situation where it was a problem (for me and my situation only). I'm not advocating that anybody do what I did in regards to getting accommodations.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:38 PM on March 5


I have a lot of issues with the phrase "trigger warning" but not with what I understand it to mean at a basic level -- especting that many, many people have had to deal with trauma by taking very minimal care to not deepen or repeat that trauma.

I've taught a few classes with very graphic and difficult content. I dealt with that two ways: on day one (and in the syllabus, but no one reads that) I gave a general overview of the kinds of material that the class is going to cover and the ways we are going to talk about them. That gives people a general heads up of what is coming, and more importantly sets an expectation of talking about it like caring adults who are aware that these might be very personal and sensitive topics for some people in the room. People deal with discomfort sometimes with inappropriate humor or exaggerating for effect, and that just isn't a helpful place for the class to go.

Secondly, right before a particularly graphic text or film, I'd give a heads up that it includes graphic sexual violence or interviews with survivors of torture, or whatever was the case, and that if someone wanted to substitute an alternate text listed in the syllabus to just email me after class, no explanation needed. It's a minor kindness, and more importantly it helps class discussion by putting it front and center that the material is difficult, that any and all of us might find it personally hard, and that we will need to find ways to discuss it that both respect the text and respect each other.

It's never better in a class to drop big traumatic surprises -- shock value and learning do not go hand in hand.

I didn't need accommodations aside from a random assignment or two. I wouldn't have qualified for it until the assignment gave me problems and at that point it would have been to late to be approved.

It's been said before, but any decent student disabilities office will simply send a fairly generic letter to the instructor at the beginning of the class outlining basic accommodations that might be needed. I never got a letter about PTSD but I got all kinds of others and it was much more helpful than when a student would come mid-semester to ask directly for accommodation.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:51 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


I don't mean to be rude, but this sounds like something that a psych could help with. Would it not be better to seek assistance with that, than be caught up in the effects everytime you hear or see certain stuff?



Psychiatry cannot fix everything.

And the older I get, (being the type of middleaged woman who people seem to trust to tell things to) I know that very few people get through life without some type of trauma-and although you will probably never know it, you are usually surrounded by survivors of the sickest and most horrifying stuff you could think of.

So, if you have the opportunity to be kind, be kind.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:59 PM on March 5 [11 favorites]


It would be nice if posters engaging with the specific examples given in the articles weren't described as using slippery slope or straw man arguments. Similarly, that anyone who thinks that it can be taken too far shouldn't be described as denying that any trigger warning has any effectiveness or use ever. It would seriously make your points sound a lot more understandable and reasonable if you didn't constantly exaggerate the argument you're against.

Similarly: this is not about sexual violence. Not solely. Saying it's only about sexual assault is not just reductive, it's wrong. Trigger warnings are applied for many serious issues, not just rape warnings, and it's misleading to say otherwise.

That being said, I'm fine with some trigger warnings; every time I watch something on cable there will be a warning rating, and on some channels a specific warning about strong violence/adult themes/sexual violence. That sort of thing is perfectly useful and not really at issue, to me or anyone else I've read in this thread.

It does become a question of where you stop, though. All the trigger warning advocates act as if it's going to be perfectly implemented by rational people whose common sense will prevail, but none seem to deal with, say, the example mentioned above where someone objects to a non-Christian viewpoint and demands a trigger warning for it. Because it's a common courtesy for a trigger warning, but where do you draw the line as to what potential offense/trigger doesn't require it?

I mean, how far out of the realm of possibility do you really think it is for a trigger warning policy to be adopted and then to have people object because there wasn't a specific warning for their particular problem area? Or for that problem area to be something like 'mentions of a non-Christian concept of God' or 'black people' or 'two people yelling'? It also seems quite possible that potentially triggering material could be simply removed from the syllabus because it's simply easier, less problematic, and possibly even less legally dangerous than keeping it in - not some far-fetched dystopic future thought, but a very real potential outcome.

So, trigger warnings - where do you draw the line? And who gets to decide exactly where that line is?
posted by gadge emeritus at 6:10 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


Well, when I was in a class where it was obvious that people were uncomfortable with non-Christian viewpoints, they pretty effectively used their position as a societal majority and privileged group to make everyone else uncomfortable to state positions contrary to them, which as you can imagine was pretty fun when trying to discuss Philip Pullman.

Those people are already getting their way in the way courses are handled and in what is considered literary and historical canon, so the idea that maybe they will be able to abuse a system that helps people with phobia or PTSD triggers and that is a bad reason to put those systems in place seems like a bad reason. Like, yeah, maybe a few decades after you put anti-Trust legislation in, corporations will find a way to abuse it and make it anti-Union, but that's a good reason to correct and update the laws, not to never put the regulation in in the first place.

There are a lot of echoes I'm seeing here of the same theme of "we can't put systems in place to correct sexual harassment and abuse at conventions because someone might abuse them or make false accusations"-- it's an attempt to keep people from creating a systemic approach to solve a systemic problem, and the arguments against doing so always involve a series of hypothetical abuses for a system that isn't in place. They never involve possible solutions to those problems or modifications of the system that would allow solutions to be put in place later because they are intended to shut down the idea, not to actually create improvements.
posted by NoraReed at 6:22 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


So, trigger warnings - where do you draw the line? And who gets to decide exactly where that line is?

I'd draw them at psychiatric conditions and let the dimwads who decide they're "triggered" by opposing sociopolitical viewpoints go run off and bring back a doctor's note about how non-Christians traumatized them. They'd shut right up at that.

But then, I have PTSD, and very little patience for the goonery that happens when people think a disability is somehow a Very Special Privilege and try to get in on it. Which, I've noticed, has happened from Tumblr outward -- the word 'trigger' means next to nothing now, and I've taken to going with the age-old "it gave me flashbacks" because that, at least, still seems to mean something in the context of revisiting old wounds.
posted by cmyk at 6:26 PM on March 5 [4 favorites]


My experience of dealing with trigger issues is from going to law school after I experienced police abuse. I appreciate that law school is very different in a lot of ways, but I had to deal with trigger issues with a few of my classes and I was also in classes where other people's trigger issues came up. In my first year I thought my criminal law professor handled trigger issues well - he made clear early on that folks could let him know if they needed to opt out of something, and he did a long intro before the section on rape to make clear that if anyone needed to opt out of being called on during that section that was fine and to let the rest of the class know they should show some sensitivity. Generally the approach was that you could opt out of discussion, and you were welcome to approach the professors about whatever issues you had, but you were still responsible for the material.

I had issues personally in a few of my other classes, most notably when one of my professors had a cop come in as a guest speaker. She let us know in advance, and I was able to talk to her about what to expect. Having the professors be kind about this and let us know we could opt out of discussion on personally sensitive issues made a lot of difference for me, and I was much more able to advocate for myself than the average 18 year old college student.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:05 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


There are a lot of echoes I'm seeing here of the same theme of "we can't put systems in place to correct sexual harassment and abuse at conventions because someone might abuse them or make false accusations"

Well, that's uncharitable, inflammatory, and unhelpful.

I agree with many uses of trigger warnings, but I also do agree with the articles in this post that there can be overuse, and policies being suggested in actual specific universities with actual specific curricula seem so broad as to be stifling. But if this once again is going to be reduced to being 'hypothetical abuses', it's going to be difficult for anything at all reasonable to be discussed. And drawing parallels to people attempting to shut down efforts to prevent sexual harassment is, frankly, gross.
posted by gadge emeritus at 7:06 PM on March 5


But if this once again is going to be reduced to being 'hypothetical abuses', it's going to be difficult for anything at all reasonable to be discussed.

You did tell people to not go down a slippery slope and then went down it yourself with the Christian thing.
posted by hoyland at 7:11 PM on March 5


A big part of my mom's first classes on the History of Photography and Contemporary Issues in Photography is preparing the students to see things like Sally Mann and Jock Sturges' naked kids, Joel Peter Witkin's corpse brides, and Mapplethorpe with a bullwhip up his ass. A lot of that shock is necessary to the art, but giving people a heads-up both cuts down on the number of people freaked out about things they don't want to see, and avoids wasting valuable class time on arguments with people just opposed flat out to the material. Seems to work pretty well for her, though she has had problems with conservative Christians who ignore the warnings then freak out later about the material. (She gets about one of those a year.)
posted by klangklangston at 7:13 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


You did tell people to not go down a slippery slope and then went down it yourself with the Christian thing.

It's not a slippery slope when it's a definite consequence, and it would take even the most cursory examination of even just Metafilter, where lolxians threads are held to a higher bar, to see that it's exactly the sort of thing that would happen.

Let alone the educators here who could tell you stories about students abusing the rules - check any one of a number of threads concerning university plagiarism.

Or you could dismiss any look at the consequences, or indeed these ideas being applied by people you don't agree with, as part of an argumentative fallacy. Good luck with that.
posted by gadge emeritus at 7:32 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


The biggest thing is I take care of me when that happens and seek out accommodation s when nessisary.

It isn't anyone's job to manage my illness but my own.


This.


Trigger warnings are all well and good--I have no quibble with them.

The bottom line, however, is that we must all be prepared to take care of ourselves. Don't be a victim secondarily. Explain you can't read the book, offer to read something else. Get up and walk out of a class discussion, if need be. Explain to the professor later. (I did this once, told him I couldn't be there for reasons, but didn't go into detail. He was very understanding, and later suggested that was an option to the class.) Teaching empowerment as well as giving warning.

I appreciate trigger warnings on MeFi posts, I truly do, but when the post title is something along the lines of "Horrific mangled body parts" and someone complains that that there was no trigger warning, I wonder why anybody with such a sensitivity would click on the post. (Now the same post with the title, "Parts is Parts", should have a TW.)
posted by BlueHorse at 8:14 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


I genuinely don't understand what's up with the empathy mechanism on the people who find the idea of trigger warnings to be some sort of absurd, horrible thing. I'm trying to imagine being an English teacher, teaching Mrs. Dalloway, and having a student confide "yeah, parts of that book brought back some really dark stuff for me; it gave me occasional suicidal ideation for a few days and I've been really anxious since." I would feel fucking TERRIBLE and can't imagine not being okay with giving students a gentle warning thereafter. I'm a pretty optimistic person, so I'm wondering if maybe folks just don't go through the exercise of imagining these situations playing out with actual people with real feelings?
posted by threeants at 8:16 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


emmtee did a good job up above of touching on something like what I'm saying, but I guess empathy takes a sort of effort, and I feel like people who try and paint this as freedom and adulthood vs. WORLD CULTURE COLLAPSES DUE TO TRIGGER WARNINGS are trying to shirk on the "empathy work" required to have any kind of mature engagement on this topic. Sussing this sort of thing out in a forthright manner makes you sort of vulnerable, potentially wagers some of your privilege and/or invested ego, etc. Unless we're just going to give up and go full-on everything relativism, there really is a fucking difference-- qualitative and damn near quantitative-- between a rape shown on TV triggering someone who's been raped and some ridiculous strawman like someone who doesn't like papayas being triggered by a picture of a papaya. Honesty is work, empathy is work, charting gray space is work, attempting to understand and make judgments on contexts and contingencies is work... and a lot of people just can't be bothered.
posted by threeants at 8:27 PM on March 5 [5 favorites]


It's not that people aren't imagining a student confide "that book made me feel really bad." It's that people are seeing a fairly significant university (Oberlin) declare that teachers should remove potentially triggering books from the curriculum. That isn't a slippery slope, that's an actual suggest from the administration, and it's chilling.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:28 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


I think providing standard warnings about material that commonly triggers people is fine. There are things that will utterly derail me that would probably be on a standard list of "triggers." Not getting accidentally sent into an anxiety spiral is highly desirable as far as I'm concerned.

However, there are other things that I absolutely, positively must not watch that, because it's a very specific childhood memory that is not a common trigger, no other human being could possibly foresee that it could hurtful. Indeed, most people find it joyful. Not only that, it is a common enough event that it's not easily avoidable on the web.

I have no idea how this plays out in an academic situation. I can say that if I were a professor, I would absolutely have the widest possible disclaimer on my class, no matter the subject. When content ratings first came out for the web, I opted for the most restrictive rating. The same rating a pornography site would merit, I guess. It's not that I posted anything offensive. It was mostly rants about the early days of the web and funny stories about my domestic life. I just didn't want to be limited in what I could post.

People shouldn't maliciously inflict pain on others by thinking that a video of something horrific is no different than a rickroll and anybody who can't deal with it should just suck it up. By the same token, people who are subject to PTSD or other triggered anxieties shouldn't presume malice without prima facie evidence to the contrary.

I honestly think the solution is for people to just be more gentle with each other. The fact that life is difficult isn't license to make it more difficult than necessary for people with emotional trauma in their past.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:35 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


It's not that people aren't imagining a student confide "that book made me feel really bad." It's that people are seeing a fairly significant university (Oberlin) declare that teachers should remove potentially triggering books from the curriculum. That isn't a slippery slope, that's an actual suggest from the administration, and it's chilling.

Ah, ok, that's sort of a different issue, and one that I'm not seeing a lot of discussion in this thread on. I guess I sort of feel like it's not a very pointful discussion in the abstract; a specific example really is needed to have a sensible exchange. However, I do disagree that it is inherently bad to remove a piece of curriculum because it causes people mental anguish. The choice is not "we all hunker down and read this rape scene together" vs. "LITERATURE IS OVER, EVERYONE BRING YOUR SUDOKUS TO CLASS". Is there any single piece of art that is literally curricularly irreplaceable, in a broad sense? Personally I'd wager no. Of course, this all opens up a larger discussion about what the canon is, how it became such, and how it does (or occasionally doesn't) reify physical and/or psychic violence against people who aren't white men.
posted by threeants at 8:36 PM on March 5


Unless I'm misunderstanding Oberlin's proposal, it doesn't actually remove anything from any curriculum. It asks professors to consider the effect that certain material might have—which, as has been noted, is something many professors currently don't think about—and then to ask themselves, "Is this material important to include in what I'm teaching, and if so, can I make it optional in certain circumstances?"

That seems reasonable to me. If I have misstated it, I'm open to correction.
posted by cribcage at 8:43 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


The bottom line, however, is that we must all be prepared to take care of ourselves. Don't be a victim secondarily. Explain you can't read the book, offer to read something else.

How exactly are you supposed to do this if you don't already know what kind of content the book has?

This is something I don't get with the "anti-trigger warning" crowd--trigger warnings are supposed to be a way for people to "take care of themselves." It's an check point for "okay, here's where you opt out if that's something you need to do." Yes, there are instances where people are triggered by something surprising, possibly even something impossible to predict would be triggering, and trigger warnings won't catch that, but that's not what they're intended for? And the point isn't to make it impossible to discuss potentially triggering material; again, it's the opposite, because it allows people to make a decision ahead of time if they'll get something out of the discussion and to make any preparations they might need to guard their own wellbeing.
posted by kagredon at 8:43 PM on March 5 [5 favorites]


there any single piece of art that is literally curricularly irreplaceable, in a broad sense? Personally I'd wager no. Of course, this all opens up a larger discussion about what the canon is, how it became such, and how it does (or occasionally doesn't) reify physical and/or psychic violence against people who aren't white men.

Toni Morrison's Beloved is on a lot of American literature syllabi. It's a book I really would consider indispensible. And it is chock-full of (and cited in the linked article as an example of probably-better-to-remove) triggering material.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:45 PM on March 5


I gave a "trigger warning" before beginning Lolita in my introductory American lit seminar this semester and told the class that anyone who wanted an alternate assignment could have it, no questions asked. This seemed to me to be the least worst option in a world in which any number of my students could be rape survivors. I didn't experience it as an imposition, though I don't want a world where Lolita can't ever be taught in a literature course, either.

I'm skeptical that this should be taken up at the level of administration or at the level of flattened, one-size-fits-all policy, but as an ethical and pedagogical choice by an individual instructor I think it's very often appropriate. I'm glad I decided to do it.
posted by gerryblog at 9:01 PM on March 5 [4 favorites]


In what way is Beloved irreplaceable? (And yeah, the reason I used the words "in a broad sense" up-thread is because obviously, tautologically speaking, no book other than Beloved is Beloved.) I'm not debating Toni Morrison's place as a lauded writer, I'm just skeptical of the idea that any single work can serve a fully unique pedagogical purpose (ok, maybe Perec in a seminar on how to write without the letter E?).

Anyway, sorry-- maybe this is winding off into a completely irrelevant derail. I agree that it's probably a bad idea to pre-emptively remove art like Toni Morrison's from a curriculum.

(Also, where in an article from the OP did they mention Beloved? It's been a while since I read Morrison, so I don't want to be talking out of my butt, but I couldn't find the reference.)
posted by threeants at 9:19 PM on March 5


oh my fucking good Oberlin asked the professors to think critically about what they're offering and suggested making it optional and that's IT and that Oberlin is a school that fucking epitomizes well-intentioned social justice ideas that are not always well executed and that's ALL THAT THEY ARE DOING

if this slippery slope bullshit was happening it would happen at Oberlin and it isn't

y'all are making like they threw all the copies of the American literary canon in a bonfire or some shit

I mean seriously "maybe think critically about what you're teaching from the following angles" is basically like professorship 101, isn't it? what is so bad about asking teachers to look at the work that it is their job to teach and say hey, maybe if there are barriers to students actively learning that material you should consider alternative assignments both because that is the decent thing to do and because it's part of your fucking job
posted by NoraReed at 9:26 PM on March 5 [10 favorites]


Depending on the school, they can be relevant. I've heard stories about disability offices blowing off inquiries from students who are doing well. It shouldn't happen, but it does. Alternately, once you've qualified for accommodation, there may be barriers or red tape to enrolling in a heavier courseload. A student may reasonably prefer not to deal with that headache.

Ah, I hadn't realized there might also be policy barriers on courseload with that. That is pretty shitty, as are bad disability offices. But yeah, I mostly was trying to challenge the implication that having a good GPA/high courseload negates the need for accommodation (an idea that's also pretty commonly expressed by students and sometimes professors, which ARGH.) But yeah, I wasn't really thinking through the amount of work and stress that can be from the student's end, so I apologize, AlexiaSky. And yeah, cribcage, you make a good point that the system that people will use is, in the end, the best one.
posted by kagredon at 9:28 PM on March 5


To maybe reconcile the sides a bit here: Any good teacher should have thought about how their students are likely to react, because that's part of knowing how to teach material. But just like how much of the harumphing you hear comes from asshole profs who are concerned that someone's going to mildly impinge on their assholedom by asking them to actually be decent teachers, a lot of the pushback comes from decent profs who have seen that there are plenty of idiotic administrators — and even other profs — who have no sense of proportion, and who wouldn't hesitate to make their lives harder by trying to create bright rules that will be blindly applied.
posted by klangklangston at 9:39 PM on March 5 [6 favorites]


Ok, I don't think that "trigger warnings" are the best way to talk about this within a classroom. "Trigger warnings" were specifically developed for unreviewed and unrated new media where a mystery meat link can give you anything from a cat macro to goatse. I don't think they're explicitly needed in nonfiction writing if you write a proper title and lede.

In a class setting, I think it's fine for the instructor to list the works on the syllabus, mention that some of the works may have dark or disturbing themes, create an environment for talking about those themes, and encourage students to do their own research about the works. Which is what I generally do. I don't need warnings on the jacket or movie poster. I read reviews.

That said, I'm a survivor of rape/child abuse and find some treatments of that triggery. Usually it's television news, due to it being a push medium and because everyone on TV news is acting with heightened affect, as if they're professional wrestlers.

As a survivor, I want good reporting of those issues. I want for skilled artists and writers to deal with those realities, and I want to talk about those works. I'm on a third draft of a short story where surviving sexual abuse is a central theme. But I need to have some degree of control over it. I read explicit reporting of Sandusky trial testimony. I was grateful that testimony was clearly introduced as the explicit testimony of the survivors above the fold. I have no interest in seeing a dramatization of that trial. I reserve the right to say, "not now," "not today," and sometimes "not in that medium," or "not from that source." I reserve the right to come into a work sideways and analytically via critical reviews that help me put those scenes into context.

What I do not want is to be ambushed by gratuitous references to sexual violence because someone thinks it's funny, it's their kink, as a blatant "kick the dog," or to set up a "victim-in-refrigerator." And that happens now and then because people are assholes, which is why we originally started talking about "trigger warnings."
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:45 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Toni Morrison's Beloved is on a lot of American literature syllabi. It's a book I really would consider indispensible. And it is chock-full of (and cited in the linked article as an example of probably-better-to-remove) triggering material.

And it's probably pretty safe at Oberlin, the headquarters of the Toni Morrison Society.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:49 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


empathy
posted by kagredon at 10:46 PM on March 5


Warning: Grown-Up or Uncomfortable Stuff Ahead

One final introductory note -- because the course covers contemporary and older American popular fiction, some assigned readings this term may contain:
--violent content, including graphic depictions of violent acts
--sexual content, including graphic depictions of sexual activity, sometimes involving participants from orientations other than your own
--references to or depictions of mind-altering substance use, smoking, gambling, criminal acts, etc.
--adult-appropriate language, swearing/profanity
--offensive ethnic, gender identity, religious, age-group, sexual orientation, national origin, or other stereotypes and slurs

Those content elements may also come up in discussion, but you're not required to comment on them if you prefer not to. You do need to complete assigned readings and read discussion posts.


Publish this, then consider the students warned. It's up to them if they wish to continue the class. Teach the class, using great literature and poor literature, if necessary to make a point - but teach it with all the gut-wrenching material the authors incorporated into their work.

If we ever, ever decide that it's more important to play to the multitude of delicate sensibilities of a crowd in such a way that individual fragilities aren't triggered, God help us all. Honestly - it's impossible in the first place and unreasonable in the second place.

PTSD has always been around - it is NOT a new phenomenon. It's been given different names, usually when referring to war and combat experiences, but come on ... children who live in homes with alcoholism or domestic violence or criminality have always been set up by those experiences to overreact to similar experiences in later years and among different persons and places - it's still PTSD and it's not new. What is new is the availability of mental counseling and therapy to help those affected learn ways to deal with life without the crash.

At least for now, the person with the PTSD is stlll the one who's different, and that can't be helped because that person is even different from the person sitting next to him with a different form of PTSD. There is simply no way literature can be read and appreciated without it bothering someone.

Look at movies/cinema: Are these students who are being triggered by your humanities class also avoiding all movies and television shows that might possibly trigger their PTSD?

I am a rape survivor from 50 years ago and my growing-up years involved physical and mental abuse, so I have some awareness of triggers. I don't watch movies or read books that involve explicit personal violence - even half a century after the fact. I also tend to go off the deep end when I hear or see someone bad-mouthing a little kid. What I don't do, though, is expect movies and books and college level classes to be careful not to expose me to gratuitous violence or anything else that might really upset me.

I just don't think it's possible to be all things to all people. Even if we could manage to avoid all imaginable trigger issues, there would still be other issues - religious issues, for instance, that we couldn't possibly wiggle around without setting someone off.

(thank you, Jessamyn)
posted by aryma at 2:13 AM on March 6 [8 favorites]


gerryblog, I'm curious, how do you deal with "alternate assignments"? Just give them a different book to read/write about and accept that they won't participate in class discussion? It's an interesting idea, but it seems like if you do it more than once, you're soon going to be teaching two different classes.

if there are barriers to students actively learning that material you should consider alternative assignments both because that is the decent thing to do and because it's part of your fucking job

If students are unwilling or unable to read the books assigned as coursework maybe they should drop the class because choosing classes appropriate for them is part of their fucking job.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 5:17 AM on March 6 [1 favorite]


Toni Morrison's Beloved is on a lot of American literature syllabi. It's a book I really would consider indispensible. And it is chock-full of (and cited in the linked article as an example of probably-better-to-remove) triggering material.

Who is saying that these books should not be taught? I read both the articles in the FPP and I simply don't see anyone saying that. Thanks.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:12 AM on March 6


I find the grandstanding about literature a bit absurd, as a lot of writers are scarred, suffer from mental illness or have their private obsessions, which don't necessarily encompass the whole breadth of human experience. Just like Marcel had a transformative experience eating a madeleine, people get triggered due to past experiences and conflating that with people getting offended is a red herring. To me, learning empathy is one of the great outcomes of literature; if you accept that students can be triggered because of past events and don't want to help them take your course, that lack of empathy on display undermines literature for all students in a way that is worse than some students' needing special consideration or, at worst, skipping a book.
posted by ersatz at 6:28 AM on March 6 [2 favorites]


The power dynamics and expectations of watching a movie vs. being in an active classroom discussion are very, very different and not really comparable for these purposes, I'd posit.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:26 AM on March 6


PTSD has always been around - it is NOT a new phenomenon. ... What is new is the availability of mental counseling and therapy to help those affected learn ways to deal with life without the crash.

I'm not a medical professional so I'll try to tread lightly here, but to my understanding, this is oversimplification to the point of being badly misleading. Yes, we have expanded opportunities for therapy today. The reason for that is our expanded understanding of how certain traumatic events affect the body and brain physically.

It isn't merely about a widening of therapy. It is a (relatively newly) developed social and scientific understanding that, "Hey, this is an actual thing."
posted by cribcage at 7:35 AM on March 6


ThatFuzzyBastard: "gerryblog, I'm curious, how do you deal with "alternate assignments"? Just give them a different book to read/write about and accept that they won't participate in class discussion? It's an interesting idea, but it seems like if you do it more than once, you're soon going to be teaching two different classes."

What I personally did, when I was teaching general ethics which hit on a lot of hot topics, was this: The class was a standardized syllabus where we had to cover particular material, and it was by unit -- 10 units. I had some opening material and a closing project everyone had to do, but for the units, my rule was that I will count your best EIGHT unit grades and drop the other two. It solves several problems for me at once -- students don't really come to argue about grades because they know they can screw up twice; I don't have to muck around with excused and unexcused absences, a student with the flu can just skip the unit without a penalty; I don't have to accept late papers; students who struggle with a particular unit and can't quite get their heads around it don't check completely out of class; and students who find a particular unit emotionally painful can simply skip it if they want to. I'm very upfront with them that I don't take it personally and it's totally up to them why they skip a unit because they're adults and they don't need to tell me or talk to me about it (although they can if they want!), just make the decision.

This works well in a class that's organized by content units rather than one that's cumulative. Generally what happens is almost all students do the first 8 units, look at their grades, and decide if they want to complete the assignments for the last two. They almost always still do (or at least skim) the reading and participate in the discussion for the last two, but don't bother with the last couple of assignments if their grades are good, and instead focus their energy on the final project. Only a very small number of students skip units because they're ill or have another problem. They're always outnumbered by the try-hards who do EVERY assignment trying to get the highest grade possible. But if I started having problems with it, I'd try a different strategy!

Obviously in a cumulative class, or for professors who don't like the "X assignments, drop 2," that strategy wouldn't work. Which is why I'm not a huge fan of overarching mandatory policies, but rather helping professors understand the issues and then giving professors a toolbox of various strategies so they can figure out which ones work well for them -- for them as teachers, for them as graders, for their particular class material.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:53 AM on March 6 [1 favorite]


Some of the "post a vague, blanket warning, and then don't worry about it 'cuz if they can't take it they're not fit to study literature" (sorry, paraphrasing) reads in my mind something like:

"Processed on equipment that may, at some point, have also processed something with nuts in it. We don't know. Anyway, we're not responsible for your nut allergy. Consider yourself warned, and us absolved. Or so our lawyers say, anyway. Bon appetit!"
posted by tigrrrlily at 7:58 AM on March 6


Some of the "post a vague, blanket warning, and then don't worry about it 'cuz if they can't take it they're not fit to study literature" (sorry, paraphrasing) reads in my mind something like:

"Processed on equipment that may, at some point, have also processed something with nuts in it. We don't know. Anyway, we're not responsible for your nut allergy. Consider yourself warned, and us absolved. Or so our lawyers say, anyway. Bon appetit!"


You say that like it's a bad thing. Some people have no desire to user trigger warnings for various reasons and will deal with it by doing the "Choose Not Warn" thing, i.e. "we are explicitly telling you that we are not warning for anything. This class/book/whatever may or may not contain triggering stuff. Caveat emptor."
posted by nooneyouknow at 8:10 AM on March 6


Yes, I say that like needlessly excluding people from aspects of society instead of accommodating them to some degree is a bad thing. I don't have a nut allergy, nor am I close to someone with one, but when I read a warning like that on a candy bar that doesn't list nuts as an ingredient, my blood boils. It's worse than not saying anything, even. Because now it's entirely on you.
posted by tigrrrlily at 8:20 AM on March 6


gerryblog, I'm curious, how do you deal with "alternate assignments"? Just give them a different book to read/write about and accept that they won't participate in class discussion? It's an interesting idea, but it seems like if you do it more than once, you're soon going to be teaching two different classes.

Yes, that's what I did. In the case this semester, the student decided midway through she absolutely didn't want to continue reading the book and asked for the alternative assignment. I gave her a lengthy DFW short story and we talked about that instead in office hours. I agree that it could easily get out of hand, but in this case it was only one student out of 35 who didn't want to go forward with Lolita.
posted by gerryblog at 8:47 AM on March 6


Who is saying that these books should not be taught? I read both the articles in the FPP and I simply don't see anyone saying that. Thanks.

Oberlin College has published an official document on triggers, advising faculty members to "be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression," to remove triggering material when it doesn't "directly" contribute to learning goals and "strongly consider" developing a policy to make "triggering material" optional.

Perhaps you hear that as merely a "consider this as a suggestion", as some posters here seem to. I don't. I hear that as, like so many messages to workers from their boss, a veiled threat, a way of saying "Hey, we're not ordering you to take this book off, just be aware that we have urged you to consider taking it off and if some student decides to demand that you be fired for teaching it, our ass will be well covered."
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:50 AM on March 6 [2 favorites]


Read the whole thing:

http://new.oberlin.edu/office/equity-concerns/sexual-offense-resource-guide/prevention-support-education/support-resources-for-faculty.dot

One, The Oberlin College Office of Equity Concerns is not the boss of a professor at Oberlin college.

Two, read the paragraph the follows the suggestion to removing triggering material that doesn't directly contribute to education. I'll copy and paste the beginning for you

Sometimes a work is too important to avoid. For example, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more. Here are some steps you, as a professor, can take so that your class can examine this source in the most productive and safe manner possible:

If you read the linked guide as a veiled threat, then I really don't know what to tell you.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:00 AM on March 6 [6 favorites]


I hear that as, like so many messages to workers from their boss, a veiled threat, a way of saying "Hey, we're not ordering you to take this book off, just be aware that we have urged you to consider taking it off and if some student decides to demand that you be fired for teaching it, our ass will be well covered."

That's sort of your issue though. Making material optional is a reasonable way to approach this and one of the ways libraries (in schools especially) manage to keep more books in the school library and in the curriculum by noting if there are a small group of people who find them objectionable--whether for reasons like triggers or reasons like it goes against their faith traditions--they can get accommodations. That's an improvement over having people lobbying for the content's entire removal and allows people to set a choice for themselves that doesn't need to be set for everyone. I understand your concern, but I feel that it's setting up an arbitrary "what if" against real life real world situations that have actually happened.

And if it turns out that people are abusing the accommodation option (something implied in a slippery slope way but not demonstrated by the people in this thread who have provided such accommodations personally) that can be dealt with as its own issue and people will probably start drawing lines like whether there's a medical necessity for the change or whathaveyou. However, for now, people need to make their own decisions about what level of "safe space" they want to have in their classrooms and it seems like a sensible thing to be mindful of the fact that, thanks to the increased awareness we have of mental health issues generally, we can make some better choices so that people can get a better education.
posted by jessamyn at 9:08 AM on March 6 [3 favorites]


I'd also like to comment that literature is in fact a medium someone can take at their own pace. Discussions aren't so much and sometimes people do say terrible things. Even in my ultra liberal masters in social work classes people occasionally said inappropriate things about all kinds of violence and oppression. Generally the professors or classmates correct very strongly. Self care is very important in that field.
If I had trouble with a book or topic reading is something I can put down/skim skip passages. And there is generally enough cliff notes that if I need them as a back up.A warning is just a warning. It shouldn't be about avoiding controversial books or discussions completely. I do believe the student has the responsibility to know their limitations and react accordingly.

I also think it does make a difference if there are alternative classes. For me I went to a large university and never ran into a course that I had to take where there wasn't an option to take different class. (except in my field which I chose)

In my field of study and job I'm quite aware that there are things I can't avoid. I made that choice going in. I worked with a therapist to make sure I have the skills to handle what I need to and use appropriate channels to deal with the rest. I also choose jobs that I know that avoid specific triggers, and have a system where I deal with it appropriately and promptly refer to someone appropriate.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:34 AM on March 6 [3 favorites]


How is this a new phenomenon? Seems like basic professional courtesy for a professor to provide context and, if needed, a little heads-up about course material.

Eons ago I took a criminology course, and two classes were devoted to watching and discussing the movie The Accused. The week before, the prof gave a little summary of the movie and warned us about the really graphic scenes. He also explained why it was important to watch: we were going into a section on how the justice system treats victims, and he didn't want the discussion to be derailed by students (majority male, majority frat) with very little understanding and EMPATHY for what rape victims go through. He had been giving that course for years and had obviously sat through those kinds of "debates" quite enough for a lifetime.

So he strongly encouraged the boys to attend, but gave anyone permission to skip the movie if they didn't want to watch Jodie Foster get assaulted. He figured that those who would choose to skip it probably understood the issues well enough to discuss them without the visual aids.
posted by Freyja at 10:50 AM on March 6 [1 favorite]


I think the phrasing "trigger warning" is too specific and sets us up to think too narrowly, either in terms of "OMG don't want to cause re-violation via catastrophic flashback" or it makes us rules-lawyer in the "nut factory" way.

I teach a good bit of risky material, I guess. I regularly teach a feminist drama course with a lot of very challenging plays, and my last "topics" course had the word cruelty in the title. With that one in particular we spent a lot of time talking about how to take care of ourselves and each other in confronting some pretty difficult stuff; I don't think it's so much that I did something right as that students really got the idea of responsibility to themselves and to a community. Maybe some of the "tough love" energy here could get re-focused more on collaboration and less on presumably litigious, presumably self-dramatizing individuals? Sure, people need to learn to deal--aren't teachers here to help with that? And really, even if we imagine some totatly trauma-free students, don't we want them as well to learn how to live better in a world that hurts so many people so badly?

Yeah, we have to worry about rules and such as teachers, but if we really care about the message we send to students, do we want our syllabi to say "I've covered my ass, now it's up to you to take care of yourself?" Wouldn't we rather say: "I want everyone to be able to participate meaningfully in this class. Please work with me so that you can be as fully included as possible."
posted by Mngo at 10:53 AM on March 6 [8 favorites]


If students are unwilling or unable to read the books assigned as coursework maybe they should drop the class because choosing classes appropriate for them is part of their fucking job.

You know, now that you say that I think maybe that is indeed a good idea. Perhaps, in the interest of letting that happen we could do something to help it happen like, say, PROVIDING THEM WITH THE INFORMATION ABOUT THE POTENTIALLY PROBLEMATIC CONTENT UP FRONT THAT THEY MAY NEED TO BE CONCERNED ABOUT. My grod, if only SOMEONE could think of SOME WAY to do that. Anyone? Anybody? Ideas?

I mean, I'm sure that whatever solutions are proposed will be completely inadequate because they might be used as a cudgel by bad bosses or be done poorly by crappy professors. But we could, you know, kick it around if anyone has some thoughts.
posted by phearlez at 2:32 PM on March 6 [3 favorites]


Trigger:
Just to put some focus on the trigger concept. I have never been big about triggers, probably still not too much. Except I found a trigger I didn't know I had, a couple years ago.

I have what is usually a mild type of claustrophobia. I get short-tempered when I'm closed in. That's all it's been, really. I had noticed problems in my 20s, but dismissed it when it never ame up again. It was just a specific situation that repeated enough times I noticed the pattern.

So, one day, I was watching TV, and there was a show about scuba diving in caves in Florida. I like scuba, and have done it. I love the water. Caves have always fascinated me, and I've visited Mammouth Cave without difficulty.

So this guy goes through a low passage and gets stuck. O.M.G. Meltdown. Panic. THIS is what the word 'trigger' is for.

I have not since been able to get an MRI. If I think about that video too closely, I'll panic. And neither caves nor scuba have ever produced a trigger before. Yet it super-sensitized my claustrophobia in a way which lasted many months. It is improving now, I can tell, because I'm not having any panic from thinking about it. (Not pushing my luck, just skimming).
posted by Goofyy at 9:59 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]


phearlez, I hope you understand that my tone there was parodying the comment I was responding to, which I found problematically hostile to teachers.

I'm actually all for content warnings on difficult material in a course. I prefer a general "content warning" to "trigger warning", since many people may not find this material specifically triggering, but nonetheless don't want to deal with it at this time.

What I object to is the idea that teachers have to accomodate all students who might be triggered, or even just upset, by difficult material. If someone doesn't want to read about sexual violence, that's absolutely their right, and it seems entirely fair to give a warning at the start of the semester (when dropping the class with no GPA effect is still possible).

But if someone's inability to read about sexual violence means they can't read William Burroughs, Dennis Cooper, or Kathy Acker, then they should not pass a American Queer Literature class, and it is not the responsibility of the professor to change the curriculum so that they can. This is what I---and I think a lot of people---are pushing against, the assumption that has become so prevalent that if a student can't hack the requirements of the course, it is the university's responsibility to change things so that they can.

As for my general mistrust, well, it all reminds me of the content warning battle that happened over record labeling. The PMRC made very clear that they didn't want to censor anything, they just wanted warnings. I myself thought the upset over the PMRC was wrong-headed for just that reason---don't parents have a right to know if the record they're buying for their kid has graphic sexual violence on it? But soon enough, the warning label became a way for retailers to cull their selection, and today many retailers still won't stock anything with a warning sticker, just like many theaters won't show NC-17 movies. Maybe the university system's commitment to free discussion will keep that from happening. But I wouldn't bet on it.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:24 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]


As for my general mistrust, well, it all reminds me of the content warning battle that happened over record labeling.

Good thing the two situations aren't remotely analogous, and good thing no one is proposing curriculum changes. Let your worries dissipate.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:41 AM on March 7


But if someone's inability to read about sexual violence means they can't read William Burroughs, Dennis Cooper, or Kathy Acker, then they should not pass a American Queer Literature class

Wait, what? Seriously? Seriously? Just how much queer literature have you read? There's a great deal more than those three writers, and sexualized violence is not the only topic queer people write about (In any case, there's a whole bunch of questions about what queer literature actually is: is it literature by people who self-identify as queer? Is it literature which "queers"narrative and genre? Is it literature by GLBTQ people generally, given that "queer" doesn't really come into being as a political identity until the eighties?) . I could easily put together a great syllabus of American queer literature excluding all three of those writers. With one hand behind my back. Jesus.

I add that there's all kinds of questions about canon. Like, unless we're talking about the infinite queer literature class, it's going to be a job and a half to get the students to read even a novel a week, which puts us, realistically, at about 14 novels a semester even if we exclude short stories - and frankly I think that's way too many books to properly absorb in such a short period, particularly for an undergraduate reader and particular if you're reading any critical material - which you really need to. (If we're talking about reading selections from Acker, Burroughs or Cooper, it's quite easy - just choose sections that don't involve sexualized violence. As it happens, I've read a lot of Acker and some Burroughs, and I can think of perfectly suitable short passages to use.) My point being that there is no way to read every single major work of queer literature in a semester, so any syllabus involves choices. The idea that you can't pass a generic queer literature class without reading Cooper is pretty silly.

If you're saying "I want to teach a class called "Cruelty, Violence and the Body: late 20th century queer literature"", then of course you're going to need some pretty heavy-duty stuff, although I think there are other books with lots of cruelty and sexualized violence if you really felt that you didn't want to include Burroughs, Acker or Cooper. (I'd say such a class would be incomplete without Samuel Delany's novel Hogg - which I've also read, mostly.)

I would say that it would be difficult to major in queer studies without reading at least some of Burroughs or Acker, just as it would be difficult to major in American literature without reading some Melville...but it's perfectly possible to take a single generic American literature class and read no Melville at all.
posted by Frowner at 11:32 AM on March 7 [6 favorites]


Of course there's more than those writers, and more topics. And on reflection, I'd probably leave Cooper off a syllabus on the grounds that if you've read Burroughs, you've already got what's important about Cooper. But I do think canons matter, and the thought of someone feeling conversant with even the basics of queer lit without reading Burroughs, Dorothy Allison, or Kathy Acker strikes me as wrong. Or thinking themselves conversant with Elizabethan drama without reading Othello. Or conversant with American literature and not reading Huckleberry Finn.

Again, I'm all for giving students a heads-up---and repeating that heads-up regularly---when there's going to be dark, heavy material. But making dark material merely optional seems to do a disservice to everyone involved.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 2:26 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


If students are unwilling or unable to read the books assigned as coursework maybe they should drop the class because choosing classes appropriate for them is part of their fucking job.

This goes somewhat beyond the scope of the FPP, though I think it applies to English classes or other classes that use fictional material, too (e.g., queer theory) – but students may be specialists/experts in subjects directly related to the trauma(s) that incited the PTSD. A class might be appropriate for a student because of her expertise, but there might be specific material related to that class's topic that isn't appropriate for her, because of how likely that specific material is to trigger a PTSD episode/flashback/etc for her.

For example, last semester, I took a class about national security, along with quite a few combat veterans. I have no idea if any of my classmates in that particular class has PTSD or not (it's frankly not my business), but in general, people who have an expertise in national security are *by definition* people who are at high risk for PTSD (i.e., they are by definition the people most likely to have seen combat, and the traumas associated with combat put people at high risk for PTSD). Rigidly including material likely to trigger PTSD episodes in a class on national security would disproportionately filter out people with knowledge of and an abiding interest in national security, because they are group with a disproportionately high rate of combat experience and they are therefore a group with a disproportionately high rate of PTSD. Rigidly sticking by a policy of including triggering material would therefore be absurd; how would it have been better to filter out specialists in a field from classes in that field?

In fact, my professors in that national security class didn’t stick by any kind of “we must include triggering material” policy; we weren’t assigned any material with visceral or graphic accounts of violence, for example. If a class that is essentially about violence and threats of violence, and in which there is a lot of assigned reading (it was grad level), can somehow keep from including material likely to trigger PTSD episodes in its students, then I find it hard to believe that the same wouldn’t be possible in virtually any other class. Also, even though the vast majority of the students there would probably have been fine-to-blasé about reading material that was more visceral or graphic, as far as I know, there were zero complaints about it not being included, and there *were* students who spoke up to say that they were happy that it wasn’t included.

I think the phrasing "trigger warning" is too specific and sets us up to think too narrowly, either in terms of "OMG don't want to cause re-violation via catastrophic flashback" or it makes us rules-lawyer in the "nut factory" way.

I had actually been thinking of trigger warnings in terms of "OMG don't want to cause re-violation via catastrophic flashback" -- what would be a better way to think about it? (Actual question, not trying to be snotty). I'm OK with courtesy warnings in any case, if only for reasons of politeness, but I had thought that trigger warnings actually were more specifically focused on helping people avoid PTSD triggers?

Also, I just wanted to put out there: more graphic =/= better. Graphic depictions of violence or other upsetting material can distract from content just as well as add to it. For some writers that's even a feature rather than a bug and they use it as a lazy stand-in for content (which is where tropes like "women in refrigerators" comes up). I don't have PTSD or even much/any trauma in my background but I'm a human being who doesn't like seeing people suffer (or even seeing character suffer) and I find it obnoxious, manipulative, and disrespectful when writers take advantage of that by using violence or other upsetting scenarios (such as poverty or substance abuse) as storytelling shortcuts. It actually will cause me to turn off a show or movie or stop reading a book, even one I otherwise love. Not everyone is *as* sensitive as I am, but that people are normally sensitive to seeing others suffer is exactly why it works as a shortcut for eliciting emotion that the writer/content hasn't otherwise earned and exactly why writers use those tropes. I think it's a mistake to imagine that it's idiosyncratic to be sensitive to seeing people suffer -- that's the *normal* reaction. It's *abnormal* to just shrug that off. If characters are being brutalized in the show, movie, or book and that brutality isn't integral to the subject matter then I would have a hard time justifying that show, movie, or book remaining on the syllabus *regardless* of whether students in the class have PTSD or whether the material would be triggering for them. Why should anyone be forced into feeling horrified and upset just because a writer decided to take a shortcut (via including graphic violence) to elicit an audience reaction? I don't expect to be protected against everything all the time, but I do expect, as a human being, not to be exposed *gratuitously* to human suffering and other deeply upsetting material.
posted by rue72 at 3:01 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


Well, as I suggested above, I think for many people having that kind of warning is more a matter of "I need to take care in reading this" instead of "I can't read this ever."
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:36 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


I do think canons matter, and the thought of someone feeling conversant with even the basics of queer lit without reading Burroughs, Dorothy Allison, or Kathy Acker strikes me as wrong.

I can, off the top of my head, think of titles by at least the first two authors that would be perfectly okay for people who didn't want to read stuff that's rapey and/or sexually violent. And a professor who is teaching a Queer Lit class should be able to think of tons more. Saying "the only way you can pass a queer lit class is by reading rapey, triggering stuff" is a really unpleasant overgeneralization. Maybe if you were doing a Body Horror class or something, or maybe something about Teen Slasher Movies or Vampirism and Zombies, but honestly... This is again your perception of what might create some work for someone whose job it is to do this work versus people who feel that reading one or two of the assigned texts for class will trigger their PTSD.

There's a larger argument about labeling in the library world. There is a semi-official ALA statement that calls some labels a censor's tool. However, that is in a completely decontextualized you vs. the library situation and in fact many libraries do employ genre labels and a few others. This is contested within the profession. However, this is a different situation from a teacher specifically saying "This is the class, the class reads this" and adding labels that are content-based (i.e. contains rapes, animal abuse, whatever) seems like it's not actually doing anything but alerting people to subject matter. That said, even pointing students towards places they can look up this information on their own, if it's a thing they care about, is another alternative. It's pretty easy, for example, to go to IMDB and look up a movie and get the parent's guide which lets you decide if seeing someone's pet shot and killed would be too much for you it would for me) and then move on from there.
posted by jessamyn at 5:09 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


Maybe if you were doing a Body Horror class or something, or maybe something about Teen Slasher Movies or Vampirism and Zombies, but honestly...

The class I did on vampires had Andy Warhol's Dracula (some sexual violence), the Dracula with Keanu Reeves , the really old Dracula, Nosferatu, Blade and From Dusk Til Dawn. When I talked earlier about having to leave a class early when we were watching a movie because it was making me physically ill, I was talking about From Dusk Til Dawn-- I have no stomach for that kind of violence. (And that barely even qualifies as a vampire movie; those vampires were practically zombies.)

That class gave us an option on almost all of the papers to allow us to write about whichever of the movies we wanted to, IIRC, though we had to write about most of the required novels. I don't recall a lot of sexual violence in those either, probably because the classics of that genre are as likely to do that through metaphor as anything else. And none of the texts we used (movies or novels) dealt with war. So yeah-- 75% of that class was "safe" for the two biggest triggers and there would be more than enough other material to find up with substitute assignments for if students couldn't deal with the main material for one reason or another.

I was a lot less aware of social justice stuff when I took that class, so it's possible that I just didn't register sexual violence in some of the stuff we watched. Apologies if I missed something in what I mentioned.
posted by NoraReed at 10:16 PM on March 7


Another thought on queer literature, violence and triggers: what bothers people is really individual. The person who can read Acker might not be able to read Allison, the person who can read some Acker might not be able to read all of it. That's why it seem so silly to me to have any kind of absolutist standpoint.

I've read virtually everything Dorothy Allison has written, including her critical work. I really like her. The only thing that bothers me is a short story which appeared in Swords of the Rainbow which involves someone nearly being tortured to death in a BDSM context. That haunts me even though I read it years ago, stopped reading in the middle and checked to make sure that the protagonist was able to escape at the end. It's a story that is obviously highly erotic for Allison, but it is extremely violence, nonconsensual and hard-core. I truly, truly wish I had not read it.

For me, "people being tortured to death or murdered during sex" is something I just can't read when it's fictional, partly because I know only too well from political work that it happens to real people and I can't start thinking "la la transgressive queer literature" without thinking "this actually happened to women in Central America who were victims of US-backed regimes; it's probably happening to some poor soul in a prison as I write". Partly it just upsets me too much to bear. (I think that everyone who is all "oooh, this is the real of queer literature" should read Renegade and Blood In The Fruit by Timmi DuChamp, both of which are written in a realistic register and both of which are deeply queer and deal with torture.)

But my point is, that doesn't mean I categorically cannot read these authors. It just means that I have a particular thing that I can't read about, and I don't think that keeps me from any deeper understanding of queer literature as a [n ambiguoous] genre.

Someone who is so seriously triggered by any mention of violence is unlikely to take a class without seriously vetting all the books first - believe me, such a person would be aware that anything from Ethan Frome onward is going to prove difficult for them. Someone who has a problem with a particular thing can quite reasonably assume that they're going to be able to read the vast majority of material for a class with no problem, and just want some warning for the few things that they would find too much.
posted by Frowner at 3:57 AM on March 8


rue72: "I had actually been thinking of trigger warnings in terms of "OMG don't want to cause re-violation via catastrophic flashback" -- what would be a better way to think about it? (Actual question, not trying to be snotty). I'm OK with courtesy warnings in any case, if only for reasons of politeness, but I had thought that trigger warnings actually were more specifically focused on helping people avoid PTSD triggers?"

Rue72, I think that is the most important way to think about it (and sorry if my phrasing sounds flip to anyone). What I was trying to suggest is that there are also many reasons to give folks a heads-up that might not fit what many think of as PTSD (as sudden, acute, and all-encompassing). Lots of PTSD symptoms aren't so spectacular, right? And people can have awful reactions that aren't necessarily evident to those around them.

What I wanted to say is that it's not just a choice between "setting off a bomb" by saying/showing the wrong material and posting legalistic disclaimers to shift the problem entirely to individual students. I should think about all students' access to the class, I guess, and not just those who fit my image of PTSD.
posted by Mngo at 6:50 AM on March 8


Frowner, I really do hear where you're coming from. And I identify, though in a different way. My (perfectly ordinary for most people) childhood traumas combine with my brain chemistry in such a way that any depiction of surgery causes me to have a massive full-body anxiety attack that generally ends with my unconscious on the floor in what observers have described as "a small epileptic seizure". I was in college when discussion of how the west should react to female genital mutilation. so this happened with grim frequency.

But this discussion exemplifies exactly why I think my paranoia is justified. At first, it's just a call for teachers to warn students when triggering (or just very upsetting) material is going to be presented. And that makes a lot of sense; I can't see why any teacher should object. Then it becomes a call for teachers to accommodate students who can't handle certain works in the curricula And then, sure as clockwork, right here on this thread, people start saying "Well really, it's not like any of these upsetting books *need* to be on your syllabus, is it? Wouldn't everyone be happier if you just didn't read them in class?" That shift happens every time---first a work is labeled, then it's made optional, then the default becomes to leave it out.

And when that moves from being a suggestion (as it currently is) to being a policy (as many want to be), that's when implications grow teeth. If it's policy to provide trigger warnings, a professor can (and should) be punished for not warning people about... well, about whatever is defined as triggering, which will probably include sexual violence, but not a lot of other people's individual triggers. And then accommodation of these needs becomes policy, and a professor who wants her course to be cumulative, not unit-based, or who thinks some of these upsetting works really are essential to the subject, will have a problem. And finally, just as happened here, everyone will agree that it's better if those books are reserved for the more advanced courses, and while no one would be *punished* for putting a bad book on the syllabus, it'll certainly tell the administration who cares about the institution and who doesn't.

I know some people think this is ridiculous slippery-slope thinking. But considering that this is exactly how the discussion went down in the relatively civilized confines of Metafilter, I can imagine how much cruder and uglier it will get in the sausage-grinder of university policy-making.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:50 AM on March 8 [4 favorites]


adge emeritus: It would seriously make your points sound a lot more understandable and reasonable if you didn't constantly exaggerate the argument you're against.

....

....All the trigger warning advocates act as if it's going to be perfectly implemented by rational people whose common sense will prevail


Ahem....
posted by lodurr at 1:04 PM on March 8


I know some people think this is ridiculous slippery-slope thinking. But considering that this is exactly how the discussion went down in the relatively civilized confines of Metafilter, I can imagine how much cruder and uglier it will get in the sausage-grinder of university policy-making.

Considering how many people were on hand to bravely stand athwart that slippery slope and prevent any movement down it -- including many of them within the first few comments of this thread -- I suspect we don't have to worry too much about plummeting down it.
posted by Etrigan at 2:55 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


I know where you're coming from, TFB, but I also think you're verging on an error, what a pretty good piece on Feministing about this topic calls " a common but fallacious trope I see in “anti-PC” critiques: the belief that acknowledging the effects of speech is somehow counter to its free movement." I've seen classroom free inquiry dented by "PC" orthodoxy (and Diana Fuss's great book Essentially Speaking has a great take on this), but we don't have to go down that road--we can have more speech rather than less.
posted by Mngo at 8:02 PM on March 9


Considering how many people were on hand to bravely stand athwart that slippery slope and prevent any movement down it...

... we were lucky this discussion happened on Metafilter, and not in the article comments at NewRepublic.com.
posted by lodurr at 8:20 AM on March 10


Mngo: We definitely can have more speech rather than less, and I actually think that providing content warnings could be exactly that––– by letting people know difficult stuff is coming, you empower them to prepare themselves to process and talk about it rather than shutting down. But like I said, I'm pessimistic that would happen, because even on this site, the discussion quickly slid from "We should warn people about triggering stuff" to "Triggering stuff should not be required reading" to "Triggering stuff shouldn't be on the syllabus." And while a few people are standing athwart that slippery slope, the majority here seems quite happy to slide down it, and most college administrators are far more inclined to take the easy way that commenters here.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:58 AM on March 10


The glaring difference between metafilter and a college classroom is that comments on metafilter are made by individuals with little consequence, while decisions made by universities are of consequence, made by more than one individual, and deliberated. Most importantly, there is a thing called academic freedom, which prevents much regulation in the classroom.

And, who is saying that triggering material should not be on a syllabus? If you are talking about specific comments, please point them out.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:10 AM on March 10 [1 favorite]


"Triggering stuff shouldn't be on the syllabus."

Who has said this? The only statements I've seen that reference that concept even tangentially are in response to assertions that viscerally terrible material is essential for a broad understanding of literature, and have been arguing that it's possible to put together even quite specialized literature and media courses without including material with the strong potential to trigger people. That's not even remotely the same statement as "triggering material shouldn't be on the syllabus."
posted by KathrynT at 11:39 AM on March 10


I read every non-deleted comment on this thread as they came up, and just ctrl+F'd the word syllabus, and read each comment that mentions it.

No one in this thread suggested anything close to saying that "Triggering stuff shouldn't be on the syllabus." Maybe it was on another thread that ThatFuzzyBastard read that comment and misattributed it to this thread. Considering the number of ridiculous strawmen that many people in this thread brought up, I doubt it.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:35 PM on March 10


No, no one said those exact words. But every time a specific book that could be triggering was cited, people started saying it's not like that book is essential, better to reserve it for a higher-level class. And this is exactly how it goes down at colleges---belief in academic freedom keeps books from being openly banned, but as it becomes more trouble to have them on the syllabus (sure, you can keep Things Fall Apart on, you just have to make it optional and restructure your class accordingly) and eventually it's just so much easier not to teach it.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 12:42 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


But every time a specific book that could be triggering was cited, people started saying it's not like that book is essential, better to reserve it for a higher-level class.

And notice how no one has ever been able to point out exactly why any of those books actually is essential. So yes, some books may fall off the syllabus, just like books do all the time for non-nefarious reasons.
posted by Etrigan at 12:46 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


people started saying it's not like that book is essential, better to reserve it for a higher-level class.

This is a completely different claim than the previous one you made. Your goalpost shifting is irritating.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:49 PM on March 10


eventually it's just so much easier not to teach it.

Your concern has been noted. Your ideas are not getting traction here. It would be nice if the conversation could move on from this point.
posted by jessamyn at 12:54 PM on March 10


Jessamyn, I was asked a question. I answered it. If you would like the conversation to go elsewhere, well, anyone can take it elsewhere.

And notice how no one has ever been able to point out exactly why any of those books actually is essential. So yes, some books may fall off the syllabus, just like books do all the time for non-nefarious reasons.

So you would like each professor to defend potentially triggering books before including them, but there's no need to defend less controversial books? Again, this is creating extra pressure on some books, making them harder to include. It's not censorship, but it's certainly pressure against books for reasons separate from their literary or historic merit. And removing books due to shifting definitions of literary or historic merit is fine, removing them because of administrative pressure is less so.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 1:35 PM on March 10 [2 favorites]


So you would like each professor to defend potentially triggering books before including them, but there's no need to defend less controversial books?

That's not even an uncharitable reading. You are flatly making up a position and then defending against it. Your slippery slope is made of straw.
posted by Etrigan at 3:15 PM on March 10 [3 favorites]


Your concern has been noted. Your ideas are not getting traction here.

I'm enjoying ThatFuzzyBastard's comments. There's a bit of a pileon going on here, in classic Metafilter fashion, which has caused me to participate less in this particular topic (and in Metafilter generally). But Metafilter is not Reddit, and I don't like to see this become a popularity contest.
posted by msalt at 4:50 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


And notice how no one has ever been able to point out exactly why any of those books actually is essential. So yes, some books may fall off the syllabus, just like books do all the time for non-nefarious reasons.

I'm so relieved to learn that all this talk of removing books from syllabi is a pure strawman. No, they'll just "fall off" syllabi, "non-nefariously." At least we're just talking about incinsequential trash like Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.. It's not like it's one of a handful of the most important books in English of the last century. Well, it is, but heck, who needs a whole handful.
posted by yoink at 6:08 PM on March 10 [3 favorites]


There are zero irreplaceable books. None. Not a single goddamn one, in any genre, no matter how finely you want to slice it. People who say different are either selling something or so caught up in the hipstery self-importance of their own reading habits that they'd be better off nowhere near impressionable young minds. But you and TFB are defending some theoretical callow professor who would happily put Things Fall Apart on his syllabus but is terrified of the approbation he would receive from those pernicious triggerwarningistas -- that the existence of someone on MetaFilter who dares to suggest that maybe there really aren't books that positively must be taught to everyone inevitably leads to torches and pitchforks.
posted by Etrigan at 6:25 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


Whereas I think there are zero replaceable books, just like there are zero replaceable people.

Oh, and I'm not too worried about the approbation the prof might get from students. I'm worried about the approbation she'd get from her tenure committee, which would never, ever refuse tenure to a professor because she put a book on the syllabus, but would certainly notice a professor who didn't get along with students to such an extent that she put books in that everyone agrees are inappropriate.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:29 PM on March 10


"At least we're just talking about incinsequential trash like Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.. It's not like it's one of a handful of the most important books in English of the last century. Well, it is, but heck, who needs a whole handful."

For all the defenses of literacy here, there seems to be a persistent inability to read what has actually already been discussed multiple times. Specifically:
Sometimes a work is too important to avoid. For example, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more. Here are some steps you, as a professor, can take so that your class can examine this source in the most productive and safe manner possible:
(emph. mine.)

I'm so relieved to learn that all this talk of removing books from syllabi is a pure strawman."

So, yes, in this instance, that's a pure straw man. Maybe pick a different example, or stop trying to have it both ways?
posted by klangklangston at 6:34 PM on March 10 [5 favorites]


Yes, and if it stopped with the trigger warning suggestion, I'd have no problem with it. But if you kept reading past that part, you might have noticed one of the suggestions is:

Strongly consider developing a policy to make triggering material optional or offering students an alternative assignment using different materials.

Now if you think it's an essential book to read Things Fall Apart in a world literature class, that "strong" suggestion might make things a little difficult. Hard to have a central part of your class reading be optional. Much easier to leave it off.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:51 PM on March 10


Sheesh, it wasn't even that late... "Now if you you think Things Fall Apart is an essential book for your world literature class," I mean.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:21 AM on March 11


But like I said, I'm pessimistic that would happen, because even on this site, the discussion quickly slid from 1) "We should warn people about triggering stuff" to 2) "Triggering stuff should not be required reading" to 3) "Triggering stuff shouldn't be on the syllabus." And while a few people are standing athwart that slippery slope, the majority here seems quite happy to slide down it, and most college administrators are far more inclined to take the easy way that commenters here. (numbers added because I'm bone tired).

Explicitly advocating #1 doesn't imply acceptance on #2 and #3. It's simply a advocacy of #1.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:14 AM on March 11


phearlez, I hope you understand that my tone there was parodying the comment I was responding to, which I found problematically hostile to teachers.

*snort* "Problematically hostile," oh please. No, you're mistaken about the target. Which I am pretty unsurprised by, given your demonstration of a pretty severe persecution complex regarding anything that resembles professional guidance.

Rest assured, I care not about your tone. It was the content that I considered to be empty junk, and the content I responded to. The target of the hostility, if I can make presumptions for NoraReed, was the specific subset of teachers who are LAZY, WHINING, AND EXCUSE-MAKING. Having extensive experience with teachers as a consumer and as fellow professionals I know that that set of bozos are a small (but admittedly excessively loud) percentage of the total population of teachers.

But if you kept reading past that part, you might have noticed one of the suggestions is:

Strongly consider developing a policy to make triggering material optional or offering students an alternative assignment using different materials.


Yes, everyone noticed that. And most of us who live in society are prepared, in our workplace, to advocate for our positions and believe we're competent enough to make a case for our professional decisions.

Nobody with any experience working in academia would say it's without problems and horseshit, but it's hard to take seriously the endless parade of "what if" and tenuous slippery slope fear-mongering that has consumed the opposition voice here. PTSD of many flavors exists and is a real concern in the classroom. Particularly when it comes to sexual violence, given what a shit-show so many universities continue to be when it comes to handling sexual assault reporting.

So with that demonstrated reality on the one side, why should this nebulous but-but-but be given a pass with this hand-waving maybe-it-could sort of claim? Come up with something resembling actual consequences for the quality of teaching. Because this level of guidance is nothing new at the university level. We've been placing these sorts of constraints on our professionals with regards to equality - with the population identified continually shifting over the last decades - and sexual harassment and diversity for as long as I have been alive.

So if there's a real consequence here such that great books and pivotal literature has been edged out by this sort of thing it would be easy to find. It would also be endlessly documented and analyzed since there's few industries more self-documenting and naval-gazing than academia.

But it doesn't happen, because actual professionals who are interested in quality education and the reflection of reality - both in the material and in their audience - find a way to make these things part of being even better. The cry-babies are always there, whether it be about letting people in with matched chromosomes or too much melanin, including materials that represent something other than the white dude version of history & lit, talking accurately about our founding fathers and their slave diddling, caring about student diversity, etc ad infinitum. But the majority find a way and work within these vague guidelines just fine.

I'm worried about the approbation she'd get from her tenure committee, which would never, ever refuse tenure to a professor because she put a book on the syllabus, but would certainly notice a professor who didn't get along with students to such an extent that she put books in that everyone agrees are inappropriate.

We'll put aside whether this even qualifies as one of the top ten issues facing anyone who'd like to get tenure in the modern system, but let me go on record in what you will undoubtedly consider another "problematically hostile to teachers" statement: anyone who can't make a case to a tenure committee for why they picked the novels they taught doesn't deserve tenure. Or, probably, a job teaching anyone anything anywhere.

That's the sort of "how could anyone be expected to justify themselves" whining that got NoraReed to drop the "your fucking job" bomb and it boils my blood as well. Because it is beyond the realm of heartless to oppose measures to address the acknowledged real emotional problems of people because the only concrete cost is making a disclosure and thinking about your work. It's professionally lazy and it's lazy reasoning. It's the "think of the children" or "terrorists" or "drugs are bad" of justifications, ignoring real costs because somehow something that nobody can point to ever actually happening might possibly happen sometime.

Look at the discussion up above about concrete examples that may or may not come up - depending on the purpose of the course - as problem works for this purpose. Alternatives were proposed and relative merits presented, and somehow the bar of having a discussion about it was surpassed. Here on this lil ol' website, not even in a professional environment where it was part of why any of us were drawing a salary. If the blue can manage and the participants can work up the words in their idle time for entertainment why is it Just Too Much to expect people to do for their jobs?
posted by phearlez at 9:20 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


You do realize that a slippery slope is a logical fallacy and not an argument to actually make, right?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:43 AM on March 11


It's not a slippery slope, or a what-if, if it's actually spelled out as proposed policy. And it is. As I quoted above.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:28 AM on March 11


Except its not because as I have said before The Oberlin College Office of Equity Concerns does not regulate syllabi. Its a simple guidebook on educating professors on trigger warnings. Nothing more, no matter how hard you try to make it.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:57 AM on March 11


Note to the most vocal pro-TW folks here: heavy sarcasm, ALL CAPS and cussing are not making your arguments more powerful. They are contributing to the sense that you are trying to win an argument by force rather than logic, though. Which, unfortunately, is also something that happens on college campuses a lot.

Hence the concern about "soft pressure" to avoid controversial material, especially given comments right here about how "there are zero irreplaceable books." Colleges are one of the few places in society specifically designed to explore ideas, including difficult ones, and that's why they have provisions such as tenure to protect professors who might upset people.
posted by msalt at 11:11 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


There are zero irreplaceable books. None

I agree entirely. Which is what makes this "but we're only going to get rid of the replaceable books" thing so utterly terrifying to me. The "replaceable" books include, by your definition, all the books I (and anyone else) want to teach.
posted by yoink at 11:11 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


I just searched for f-bombs and all caps, and I don't see that either are much more prevalent than any other long metafilter thread. Some of those f-bombs are coming from anti-TW people. I think I used the word "asshole" once, but that was in reference to certain forms of trolling and gratuitous rape/torture in fiction and drama.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:30 AM on March 11


And all that we are asking is that if a professor is going to assign a book that includes graphic depictions of sexual violence, that they give their students a heads up. I don't know why you would prefer a situation where students are blindsided by those things.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:31 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


And all that we are asking is that if a professor is going to assign a book that includes graphic depictions of sexual violence, that they give their students a heads up. I don't know why you would prefer a situation where students are blindsided by those things.

Who is "we" in that "all that we are asking"? Because the discussion about "non essential" books clearly envisages some of those books (and, by the definition offered, that includes any book you care to name) being "non-nefariously" nudged off the curriculum. So, you may personally be restricting this to a "heads up" but "we" (i.e., the pro-mandatory-Trigger-Warning brigade in this thread) clearly include those who envisage far, far more radical (and, to me, genuinely chilling) steps.

And what does "asking" mean? If this FPP were a link to a blog by a professor saying "you know, I generally try to give students a heads up about any traumatic material in the texts we will cover in the course and you should too" the only comment I'd have been inclined to offer was "yes, that's good advice." I have never, once, said anything to the effect that it's a good idea to "blindside" students with traumatic or difficult material.

But this becomes a very different matter when we start talking about making this university policy. That is where "asking" becomes "ordering." And at that point you need to be very, very careful about how you construct those "orders." What are the enforcement mechanisms? What kinds of recourse do students have? How to you make sure that academic freedom (i.e., the professor's right to teach Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart--for god's sake) is preserved?

Those are all extremely difficult questions that people in this thread have simply failed to even try to answer, preferring, instead, to simply shriek "straw man! slippery slope!!" whenever they get raised.

So I said it before and I'll say it again: if you can see a way to write this as policy such that it is not impinging anyone's academic freedom and does not result in a defensive reshaping of the syllabus then please give an example of what that might look like. Because simple handwaving and "won't someone think of the children?" pearl-clutching really don't address that very real problem.
posted by yoink at 11:46 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


And all that we are asking is that if a professor is going to assign a book that includes graphic depictions of sexual violence, that they give their students a heads up. I don't know why you would prefer a situation where students are blindsided by those things.

Maybe I'm in the "you"? If so, then you are misdirected, as I have repeatedly said from the start that I think professors should give students a heads-up if there will be graphic scenes of violence (sexual or otherwise) or any other dark material. Saying otherwise is pure strawmanning. It's the "make it optional" part that I find problematic.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 12:09 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


Note to the most vocal pro-TW folks here: heavy sarcasm, ALL CAPS and cussing are not making your arguments more powerful. They are contributing to the sense that you are trying to win an argument by force rather than logic, though.

My old boss used to tell me "profanity is the last resort of a crass motherfucker," but I personally don't find it always beyond the pale. Regardless, I have no interest in "winning" any argument - as if such a thing was possible - and I find the idea that off-color words or caps for emphasis represent "force" as borderline comic.

If you see them in my posting they're there to represent frustration; in this case with obtuseness and goalpost-moving and scare-mongering. To wit:

it's actually spelled out as proposed policy. And it is. As I quoted above.

Except that your continued expressions of terror over it aren't over what you have actually quoted, it's over some fictional secondary impact of parts two and three: be willing to defend the inclusion of potentially troubling materials and give some thought to ways to offer alternative materials that could satisfy the requirements.

You and others seem to think this is some huge over-reach and see mystery boogeymen around the corner for if anyone ever actually does this, as well as apparently seeming to believe it's too much to ask a professor to say why a particular work needs to stay. You seem to see this as some unprecedented thing as if there's not already conversations going on between department chairs and professors about materials.

Personally I'd be embarrassed to have material in a course that I couldn't come up with a simple justification for, and if I heard that someone didn't have their contract renewed because they couldn't have a conversation about how a book fit into their curriculum I'd think "well, sure."

So my response to you, yoink, when you say Because simple handwaving and "won't someone think of the children?" pearl-clutching really don't address that very real problem. is that you and other concern-mongers are the ones who haven't identified a "very real problem." You have objections that, to me at least, look like special-snowflake objections to being asked to look critically at your own choices and performance.

PTSD and visceral responses to material are very real. The concern that a required disclaimer/disclosure AND sometimes being asked to justify some course content AND then then it still making some student upset enough to complain AND then someone might use those things together against an otherwise innocent and did-everything-right professor - THAT is where I don't see an identified very real problem.

I repeat, for the third time - this level of guidance with regards to discrimination and diversity are nothing new in universities. Where's the actual systemic chilling effect? Where's the research showing that XYZ pivotal material has been displaced as a result? If it didn't happen then why is it going to happen now?

I agree entirely. Which is what makes this "but we're only going to get rid of the replaceable books" thing so utterly terrifying to me. The "replaceable" books include, by your definition, all the books I (and anyone else) want to teach.

Are you actually saying that if asked to defend certain materials over alternate materials which will cause students less trauma but accomplish the same academic mission that you cannot? And that despite that, given that choice, we should side with you because it's what you personally desire? Because that's how this reads as a response to remove triggering material when it doesn't directly contribute to learning goals.

And of course, as was pointed out above, the Oberlin text is non-binding and written as an answer to the fictional question How can I make my classroom more inclusive for survivors of sexualized violence? and not actual guidance outside the equity office.

So there's your very not-real problem. Guidance from an office that doesn't have direct supervisory oversight of any teaching units. The institution cares enough to create the office so you have to cope with the fact that it's a priority for them and it may, eventually, roll around to people noticing if you're working in direct opposition to them. Having watched huge sections of institutions largely ignore everything that rolls out of the office of disability services it's hard for me to take seriously these hand-waving what-if negative repercussions.

It's the "make it optional" part that I find problematic.

Ah, our fundamental disagreement - the rest of us find deliberate selective misquoting problematic.

Strongly consider developing a policy to make triggering material optional or offering students an alterative assignment using different materials. When possible, help students avoid having to choose between their academic success and their own wellbeing.

A powerless office issued a suggestion that you consider a policy. Clearly it's all Archie comics and Bazooka Joe analysis from now on.

(I used caps, profanity, and sarcasm above; you can consider this a preemptive acceptance of "losing" the argument)
posted by phearlez at 12:19 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


So, you may personally be restricting this to a "heads up" but "we" (i.e., the pro-mandatory-Trigger-Warning brigade in this thread) clearly include those who envisage far, far more radical (and, to me, genuinely chilling) steps.

...

Those are all extremely difficult questions that people in this thread have simply failed to even try to answer, preferring, instead, to simply shriek "straw man! slippery slope!!" whenever they get raised.

It's rather ridiculous to say there's no slippery slope involved when you just equated advocacy of warnings with syllabus revision, regardless of the variety of opinions expressed in this thread.

But to answer your questions: no, I don't think it should be a distinct university policy.

I do think that issues of PTSD and other mental health issues students might face should be a part of faculty education. Accommodations can be resolved either at the discretion of the professor or via student advocates and disability services on a case-by-case basis, just as we resolve dozens of other cases of students needing accommodation every semester. Yes, that might include alternative assignments that balance the needs of the degree program with the needs of the student.

All of which we do on behalf of students with more visible and less controversial disabilities and health issues.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:25 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


It's rather ridiculous to say there's no slippery slope involved when you just equated advocacy of warnings with syllabus revision, regardless of the variety of opinions expressed in this thread.

Well no, we're mentioning that the very same document advocating warnings is also advocating syllabus revisions. If you think some parts of that document should be adopted as policy and some shouldn't, that's cool. But it's not like we're making this up.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 12:49 PM on March 11


But to answer your questions: no, I don't think it should be a distinct university policy.

Then you are not in any kind of disagreement with me, as I have been restricting my comments, from the start, to a discussion of the dangers of implementing this as policy.

I repeat, for the third time - this level of guidance with regards to discrimination and diversity are nothing new in universities.


I teach in a university. I have taught in four universities, two of them very prominent. Never once have I had to defend my choices as to which texts I would teach to anyone on any basis other than the intellectual coherence of the choices I'm making. Your claim is simply false.

Are you actually saying that if asked to defend certain materials over alternate materials which will cause students less trauma but accomplish the same academic mission that you cannot? And that despite that, given that choice, we should side with you because it's what you personally desire? Because that's how this reads as a response to remove triggering material when it doesn't directly contribute to learning goals.


Censorship always sounds harmless to censors. Give me the right to choose which texts are and aren't "essential" and of course I will make good and wise decisions. The problem, though, in the real world is the old one of quis custodiet ipsos custodes. Who is on this panel you seem to be imagining to which I will have to justify my syllabus? (And, by the way, I do love the way we get this repeated insistence throughout this thread that anyone troubled by this is just inventing all the possible downsides out of whole cloth--obviously there are no implications for the syllabus, obviously no one is putting any pressure on anyone to teach anything different from what they typically teach; oh, and by the way, texts as central as Things Fall Apart are inessential and will disappear from the canon and you'll have to make a formal defense of all the works you propose teaching to some shadowy body I haven't yet defined. But, you know, you're totally free to do whatever you want. As long as you get approval in advance.) What expertise do they have? What recourse do I have if I disagree with their findings? What are the consequences if class discussion turns to that text even if I have removed it from the syllabus? If a student who has read the "unapproved" text reads the "approved" substitute (I really cannot believe that you can read the opening to this sentence without immediately seeing what a profound insult to academic freedom you're imagining here) and brings it up in class ("hey, this reminds me of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart...") do I have to police that discussion? Do I have to stop the class and offer any potentially traumatized student the option of leaving? If I fail to do either of those things what disciplinary action do I face?

Try actually writing some policy language that would answer those questions above and then ask yourself what your university's committee on Academic Freedom would likely say in response to such a proposed policy change.
posted by yoink at 1:07 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


Well no, we're mentioning that the very same document advocating warnings is also advocating syllabus revisions.

Which is disingenuous given that the criticism was not directed at "the document" but "you," "the pro-mandatory-Trigger-Warning brigade in this thread," (emphasis added) and "the majority here." No, you're not making the Oberlin policy up. You and yoink are making up some sort of consensus here in which advocates of warnings are also advocates or tolerant of syllabus revision.

If you think some parts of that document should be adopted as policy and some shouldn't, that's cool.

I just explicitly stated my position which has nothing to do with "that document" in whole or in part. Don't frame me as an advocate of it in whole or in part.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:16 PM on March 11


Then you are not in any kind of disagreement with me, as I have been restricting my comments, from the start, to a discussion of the dangers of implementing this as policy.

I'm not aware that the policy is a participant in this thread. Perhaps you should address your criticisms to the policy, and not warning advocates in this thread as you did previously.

Try actually writing some policy language that would answer those questions above and then ask yourself what your university's committee on Academic Freedom would likely say in response to such a proposed policy change.

How are accommodations for disability or health issues currently handled by those committees?
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:31 PM on March 11


"So I said it before and I'll say it again: if you can see a way to write this as policy such that it is not impinging anyone's academic freedom and does not result in a defensive reshaping of the syllabus then please give an example of what that might look like. Because simple handwaving and "won't someone think of the children?" pearl-clutching really don't address that very real problem."

Honestly, it looks like there's more pearl-clutching and, "Won't someone think of Things Fall Apart," (which has repeatedly been described as under attack based on some gibberous fantods of "Strongly consider developing a policy to make triggering material optional or offering students an alternative assignment using different materials") based on the handwaving of you and a couple others in the thread.

I teach in a university. I have taught in four universities, two of them very prominent. Never once have I had to defend my choices as to which texts I would teach to anyone on any basis other than the intellectual coherence of the choices I'm making. Your claim is simply false."

Where in the proposed policy does it say you'd have to defend your choices on any basis besides intellectual coherence? And I'd be surprised if none of your schools had any guidelines on diversity or discrimination in teaching — both of the ones my mom teaches at do (a top-tier state school and a community college).

"Give me the right to choose which texts are and aren't "essential" and of course I will make good and wise decisions. The problem, though, in the real world is the old one of quis custodiet ipsos custodes. Who is on this panel you seem to be imagining to which I will have to justify my syllabus?"

Well, given that the original invocation was a fantasy tenure review committee, I'd imagine that it would be comprised like most tenure review committees.

"(And, by the way, I do love the way we get this repeated insistence throughout this thread that anyone troubled by this is just inventing all the possible downsides out of whole cloth--obviously there are no implications for the syllabus, obviously no one is putting any pressure on anyone to teach anything different from what they typically teach; oh, and by the way, texts as central as Things Fall Apart are inessential and will disappear from the canon and you'll have to make a formal defense of all the works you propose teaching to some shadowy body I haven't yet defined. But, you know, you're totally free to do whatever you want. As long as you get approval in advance.)"

This is entirely a straw man. C'mon.

"What expertise do they have? What recourse do I have if I disagree with their findings?"

As it's nominally a tenure review committee, wouldn't that depend on your institution? Generally, there's an appeals process. But you'd know your institution's policies better than we would.

"If a student who has read the "unapproved" text reads the "approved" substitute (I really cannot believe that you can read the opening to this sentence without immediately seeing what a profound insult to academic freedom you're imagining here) and brings it up in class ("hey, this reminds me of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart...") do I have to police that discussion? Do I have to stop the class and offer any potentially traumatized student the option of leaving? If I fail to do either of those things what disciplinary action do I face?"

Are these actual problems that you've faced, or is this just a spinning hyperbolic recitation of your fears?

Like I said, my mom teaches some pretty controversial stuff — pretty much on purpose — and has had some dumb administrator and fellow faculty interactions over it. But none of them really correspond to what you're describing at all, and given the repeated dunning over Things Fall Apart as emblematic, it doesn't seem like anything that's recognizable from the thread itself.
posted by klangklangston at 1:31 PM on March 11


Seems like the best policy would be to have mandatory training for professors on the issue of trigger warnings. Sure, there are going to be a few assholes who think trigger warnings are just the feminist PC police, and protest with innumerable what-if scenarios, and ignore or dismiss the whole concept, but the well-meaning people who are simply ignorant of how trauma affects people will benefit, as will their students. I can't imagine anyone having a problem with that.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:42 PM on March 11


This is entirely a straw man. C'mon.

Read the comment I was responding to. It was claiming that I don't like the idea of these policies because I fear defending my syllabus choices. To whom am I imagined to be defending these choices if not with some committee charged with the job of approving/disapproving syllabi?

Are these actual problems that you've faced, or is this just a spinning hyperbolic recitation of your fears?


Neither. Obviously they are not problems that I have faced because, as yet, I have never taught anywhere where there is a policy that dictates that texts which some hypothetical student might find troubling to read must be proven, somehow, to be "essential" to the class before you include them in your syllabus. I am pointing out problems that I can foresee arising if such a policy is imposed, in future, and is not very, very carefully framed.

Like I said, my mom teaches some pretty controversial stuff — pretty much on purpose — and has had some dumb administrator and fellow faculty interactions over it. But none of them really correspond to what you're describing at all

Yeah, because there was no policy in place requiring that she defend the choices she makes for her syllabus to some university committee, excuse students from reading those texts which they imagine they might find disagreeable and adequately warn students of all possible occasions they may have in class texts (and class discussion? Nobody seems willing to say one way or the other what we're supposed to do about that) to be reminded of prior traumatic experiences. Had they had such policies in place it is very possible that she would have had a much more unpleasant time.
posted by yoink at 1:45 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


Perhaps you should address your criticisms to the policy, and not warning advocates in this thread as you did previously.

I don't know what you are trying to say here. All my comments have been addressed to the danger of trying to impose this as a policy on universities. I don't know what you mean by "warning advocates in this thread." Perhaps you have me confused with someone else?
posted by yoink at 1:51 PM on March 11


To whom am I imagined to be defending these choices if not with some committee charged with the job of approving/disapproving syllabi?

Students whose experiences mean they would benefit from trigger warnings.
posted by Etrigan at 1:58 PM on March 11


Wait...Klang, I just re-read your comment and I realized that you accuse me of creating a 'straw man' in saying that there are people in this thread who want faculty to have to defend their syllabi to an ill-defined committee of some kind. And immediately before that you're saying that I should, of course, imagine this committee as being formed in the same way as a "tenure review committee."

So is this idea of a committee that approves syllabi a complete straw man that is purely my own invention or is it a well-established proposition in the thread that I ought to recognize has the form of a "tenure review committee"? Both those things can't be true.

(I should note, also, that "tenure review committee" is a meaningless descriptor. At my institution, for example, the department considers tenure cases as a committee of the whole. There is a campus-wide committee which then considers the case--along with cases from every school on campus--and forwards its recommendation to the Chancellor, who ultimately grants tenure. So how am I to imagine this Committee on Syllabi Safety? As the whole department approving/disapproving individual faculty syllabi? As a campus-wide committee--largely made up of people who are not in my discipline? There is just a bizarre unwillingness in this thread by the advocates of the general idea of these warnings to actually think seriously about how any institutional demand for them ought to be framed and how one might protect against potential negative consequences.)
posted by yoink at 2:00 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


I should note, also, that "tenure review committee" is a meaningless descriptor.

Perhaps you can mention this to ThisFuzzyBastard, who brought it up.
posted by Etrigan at 2:02 PM on March 11


Students whose experiences mean they would benefit from trigger warnings

You are saying that students should get to vote (as a committee? per class? what?) on what should and shouldn't be on the syllabus in their classes? Or are you saying that individual students who have declared themselves to be at risk of a traumatic response to specific triggers should have to endure having professors make a "case" to them as to whether or not the text they may find traumatic is "essential"? Or what?

It is depressing to see just how pitifully little actual thought the proponents of this idea are willing to give to what implementation of this proposal as policy ought to look like.
posted by yoink at 2:03 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


Perhaps you can mention this to ThisFuzzyBastard, who brought it up.

Oh, so Klangklangston was just inventing the idea that someone had proposed a "tenure review committee" as a possible model for a committee that would approve/disapprove syllabi. I'm sorry, I took him at his word. Of course ThisFuzzyBastard's comment had nothing whatsoever to do with that.
posted by yoink at 2:06 PM on March 11




It is depressing to see just how pitifully little actual thought the proponents of this idea are willing to give to what implementation of this proposal as policy ought to look like.


Not really, cause Frowner was pretty articulate here:

Well, I don't have a policy solution. But if I wanted to create one, I'd start by planning some sit-down meetings among the following groups: the university's general counsel, department chairs, program directors, campus organizations which deal with sexual assault, violence, refugee issues, etc. Then you'd need a bunch of faculty meetings. I'd probably also import some of the consulting social worker experts from the nearest big city for some of these meetings. I'd organize some "town hall" meetings with students and some smaller, more focused meetings where students who have - for example - been victims of violence would not have to listen to other students telling them to get over it as will inevitably happen in campus-wide meetings. I'd probably see if various senior administrators could meet with senior administrators from other colleges to see what emerging practices exist. Basically, depending on the size of the institution, we would have a whole shit-ton of meetings, many of them with legal counsel, and hammer out some kind of starter policy. I would also start working on a campus-wide information campaign to explain what was going on.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:07 PM on March 11


Not really, cause Frowner was pretty articulate here:

That describes a process of arriving at a policy (in pretty generic terms); it does not describe--or even sketch--what the actual policy might contain.
posted by yoink at 2:12 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


And I'd be surprised if none of your schools had any guidelines on diversity or discrimination in teaching — both of the ones my mom teaches at do (a top-tier state school and a community college).

Oh, by the way, klang, I'd be interested if you could provide a cite for that. I know of no policy at my current institution which makes any demands whatsoever on individual faculty members to show evidence of "diversity" or "non-discrimination" in the syllabi of individual courses and I would be shocked to find out that there was any major or even bush-league university in the US that did. Any such provision would be in sharp disagreement with the AAUP's decades old and oft-endorsed statement on Academic Freedom. I suspect that you are confusing policies relating to non-discrimination towards students and departmental commitments to "diversity" at the level of the whole curriculum with requirements that would be brought to bear upon faculty members on a syllabus-by-syllabus basis.
posted by yoink at 2:17 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


I know of no policy at my current institution which makes any demands whatsoever on individual faculty members to show evidence of "diversity" or "non-discrimination" in the syllabi of individual courses and I would be shocked to find out that there was any major or even bush-league university in the US that did.

I am sure you will now move the goalpost re: demand, despite everyone feeling free to fabricate the idea that Oberlin is demanding anything.
posted by phearlez at 2:21 PM on March 11



That describes a process of arriving at a policy (in pretty generic terms); it does not describe--or even sketch--what the actual policy might contain.



Can we leave it at that? Since the FPPs werent really about policy, really more about having trigger warnings in classrooms (unmandated). The only people now proposing a policy seems to be this student group at UCSB. Can we have the discussion that you clearly want to have when people start advocating policy? This FPP seemed to be an attempt to open up the discussion about having trigger warnings in college classrooms, not about having a policy that mandated them. you're putting the cart before the horse.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:22 PM on March 11


Students whose experiences mean they would benefit from trigger warnings

You are saying that students should get to vote (as a committee? per class? what?) on what should and shouldn't be on the syllabus in their classes? Or are you saying that individual students who have declared themselves to be at risk of a traumatic response to specific triggers should have to endure having professors make a "case" to them as to whether or not the text they may find traumatic is "essential"? Or what?


As others have pointed out, there are similar "Or what?" policies for people with other disabilities, none of which seem to have destroyed the institution of academia. Perhaps the mandates of disability services offices could be expanded to include advising instructors on the idea of trigger warnings and accommodation. You know, like has been suggested several times already in this thread.
posted by Etrigan at 2:27 PM on March 11


and I should add, by policy I mean 'advocating policy that regulates classroom content', not a policy that says, 'hey professor, read this pamphlet'.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:33 PM on March 11


Most syllabi are a matter of fitting a bushel into a teaspoon. So the idea of being unable to find an independent assignment for a student needing accommodation among the dozens of irreplaceable texts that get cut because of time constraints doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

... some hypothetical student might find troubling ...

... which they imagine they might find disagreeable and adequately warn students of all possible occasions they may have in class texts ...

We're not talking about "troubling" or "disagreeable." We're talking about "possibly triggering the symptoms of a major mental illness." That's an important distinction here. Hence my suggestion that it should be handled parallel to accommodations for less controversial disabilities and medical conditions.

All my comments have been addressed to the danger of trying to impose this as a policy on universities.

Except for the ones that were addressed to "the pro-mandatory-Trigger-Warning brigade in this thread." And on preview, "... advocates of the general idea of these warnings..." and "... the proponents of this idea ...".

What did I do when I needed medical accommodation? I went to the student advocate office. My advocate outlined for me exactly what I needed from my medical team in terms of documentation. I made a visit to the doctor and got the documentation. The advocate walked me through taking care of things at the institutional level. Then I spent a few hours going to office hours for instructors who were more than willing to take advantage of loopholes in the Enormous State University bureaucracy to help me out.

Or more simply? Student comes to you with a note from their licensed health practitioner. You talk with them about their concerns and limits, and come to a creative solution.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:38 PM on March 11


I repeat, for the third time - this level of guidance with regards to discrimination and diversity are nothing new in universities.

I teach in a university. I have taught in four universities, two of them very prominent. Never once have I had to defend my choices as to which texts I would teach to anyone on any basis other than the intellectual coherence of the choices I'm making. Your claim is simply false.


This is comic. The fact that you have never been asked to do more than that is not proof that my claim is false. It is a demonstration that the existence of these sorts of guidelines never manifest into the boogeymen that their opponents fabricate from whole cloth.

It is depressing to see just how pitifully little actual thought the proponents of this idea are willing to give to what implementation of this proposal as policy ought to look like.

Not going along with this idea that a non-binding suggested idea for a concerned professor constitutes a veiled threat from management or declarations that teachers should remove potentially triggering books from the curriculum or making dark material merely optional is not the same thing are giving little thought to how a policy would look.

However, since I made the diversity parallel, how about this? I'm sure it's not real since no university ever mandated including something on a syllabus, but it LOOKS LIKE every syllabus is supposed to have some variation of that statement indicating that students have a certain right to some accommodations, subject to limitations.

Now this is surely scary for faculty members because it's my understanding that any divergence from policy and procedure at that particular institution always results in prompt action and dismissal of the offenders and anyone harboring them. But scary as that may be, they still have a management structure of some sort and there are no doubt established HR procedures for when these conflicts occur.
posted by phearlez at 2:42 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


"To whom am I imagined to be defending these choices if not with some committee charged with the job of approving/disapproving syllabi? "

I dunno, man, it's your fantasy. You go on imagining defending these choices to whomever gets your rocks off.

"Obviously they are not problems that I have faced because, as yet, I have never taught anywhere where there is a policy that dictates that texts which some hypothetical student might find troubling to read must be proven, somehow, to be "essential" to the class before you include them in your syllabus."

…which isn't even under discussion? But I imagine your department would give you a bit of side-eye if you decided that Danielle Steel was the best use of your Intro to Lit time too.

"I am pointing out problems that I can foresee arising if such a policy is imposed, in future, and is not very, very carefully framed."

You are pointing out imagined problems with an imagined policy that you imagine may come into being some time in the future, because you've mastered some logomancy divination from Oberlin sensitivity woolgathering.

"Yeah, because there was no policy in place requiring that she defend the choices she makes for her syllabus to some university committee, excuse students from reading those texts which they imagine they might find disagreeable and adequately warn students of all possible occasions they may have in class texts (and class discussion? Nobody seems willing to say one way or the other what we're supposed to do about that) to be reminded of prior traumatic experiences. Had they had such policies in place it is very possible that she would have had a much more unpleasant time."

For intro and history courses, she has to justify her choices to the other faculty who also teach the same class, since they all work from essentially the same syllabus. (Or rather, used to. Right now, she's the only one teaching those classes.) She also has to justify them to her students, as well as to any administrators who have to deal with the (annual) complaints about it.

"Oh, so Klangklangston was just inventing the idea that someone had proposed a "tenure review committee" as a possible model for a committee that would approve/disapprove syllabi. I'm sorry, I took him at his word. Of course ThisFuzzyBastard's comment had nothing whatsoever to do with that."

No, it's also the description used by Phearlez upthread, in the comment you were responding to.
posted by klangklangston at 2:56 PM on March 11


There's also hundreds, if not thousands of articles about how to discuss sensitive issues in classrooms.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:05 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


[A couple comments removed. You guys can just mefimail each other, you know.]
posted by cortex at 4:07 PM on March 11


No, it's also the description used by Phearlez upthread, in the comment you were responding to.

It's challenging to keep track of what fictional peyote nightmare we're dealing with at any given moment here; I was responding to the "boogahboogah someone might ask a tenure candidate whether her teaching choices actually involve rigor and thought" nightmare. There's apparently some other boogahboogah what if They whoever They are don't approve when I sacrifice the goat required to let me keep my desired syllabus. Confusing it with the tenure committee was probably unavoidable, what with Illuminati rarely issuing coherent organization memos. Secret anti-academic-freedom conspiracies are hard, y'all.
posted by phearlez at 8:36 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


Seems like the best policy would be to have mandatory training for professors on the issue of trigger warnings.

Better, I think, would be mandatory training for professors on connecting with students emotionally and being empathetic with those who might have had very different life experiences. IE solve the root problem, don't patch over it. Cf. the Tao Te Ching, ch. 18:

"It was when the Great Way declined that human kindness and morality arose. ...
It was when the 6 close family members were not at peace that there was talk of 'dutiful sons.'"
posted by msalt at 12:28 PM on March 12


I've just enjoyed Tressie McMillan Cottom's critical analysis of this whole issue.
posted by emilyw at 7:58 AM on March 13 [3 favorites]


Better, I think, would be mandatory training for professors on connecting with students emotionally and being empathetic with those who might have had very different life experiences.

But that might involve actually giving emphasis to teaching skill or efficacy. Since the likelihood of teaching skill and efficacy being used as a positive factor in a tenure decision is roughly in inverse proportion to the status of the tertiary institution, this is highly unlikely.

Really, the level of entitlement that university teachers feel around this issue just boggles my mind. What are you there for? Are you there to propagate your values, or are you there to help students learn?

BTW, there's no "right" answer to that last question, but if one wants to understand why one opposes or supports the idea of giving students a heads-up when you think they might get triggered, it's helpful if you actually admit to yourself what your own answer is.
posted by lodurr at 6:27 AM on March 14


From Emilyw's link
Yet, no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression.

I'm not sure that's the whole story, but it seems like an important part.
posted by Mngo at 8:27 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


A useful point, imo, from t the comments there:
"Taking a trigger warning as a label of uncomfortable content is an abuse of it. Trigger warnings are for survivors who lived though such circumstances who may want or need to avoid reliving it- not to keep naive majority people in their bubble."
posted by Mngo at 8:37 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


who may want or need to avoid reliving it

This particular part is a big problem. my wife is currently doing research on emotional disclosure in classrooms (particularly in composition classrooms), and she's found that expectations of detailed emotional disclosure of traumatic material are rampant, and alternate assignments are rare. The rationale is that reliving the experience is good for you.

Everyone who knows about the science of trauma knows this is nonsense. Yet there's a large and growing body of literature that purports to show it's a good idea, in no small part by citing (usually old, no-longer-supported) psychological research, like Pennebaker's original laboratory experiments on written emotional disclosure.
posted by lodurr at 6:53 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]


This particular part is a big problem. my wife is currently doing research on emotional disclosure in classrooms (particularly in composition classrooms), and she's found that expectations of detailed emotional disclosure of traumatic material are rampant, and alternate assignments are rare.
It's interesting the two poles of this. I remember reading articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education twenty+ years ago about the challenge poetry professors faced with students and extreme disclosure. They weren't being assigned very intense topics but were picking them themselves. Which then made critical analysis challenging because you had to deal with not only the inability of folks to kill their darlings but also feeling like their experiences were being criticized. But being young and intense, the students identified poetry with personal intense feelings.
posted by phearlez at 8:48 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]


the problem with composition is that these assignments are coming from the instructors, not the students. These aren't creative writing classes -- they're college composition classes, rhetoric 101/102 or the equivalent. The students are supposed to be learning argument, citation, not plagiarizing, etc. Instead they're being assigned personal disclosure essays, because it's good for them.
posted by lodurr at 8:50 AM on March 15


(I'm also reminded of a piece I once read by Ken Kesey, where he argued against the conventional creative writing wisdom on this, and his argument was very much like what you relate coming from the poetry teachers: if you were only writing what you knew, you couldn't have enough critical distance from it to really tell if it was working.)
posted by lodurr at 8:52 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]


« Older Late in 2013, Guillermo del Toro released a volumi...  |  At the finish of every race, s... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments