May 27, 2018
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Warning: This education might trigger trauma. Are we coddling college students?

By Christopher Burns, BDN Staff

A “trigger warning” informs readers who have experienced trauma — be it war or sexual assault — that content in an article or book may “trigger” them and cause them to re-experience that trauma.

That doesn’t sound too threatening, but a September article in the The Atlantic magazine argues the use of these content advisories, taken to the extreme on college campuses, effectively “coddles” students by shielding them from ideas and words they may find unpleasant. Oberlin College in Ohio, for example, had recommended that professors include an advisory when assigning Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” because students may be triggered by its depictions of “racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence [and] suicide.”

Brian Grasso, a freshman at Duke University, wrote in a recent Washington Post OpEd he objected to reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir “Fun Home” because of what he deemed to be, based on his research, its “pornographic” content. He called on the university to include a trigger warning so students know to avoid it.

Jessica Miller, a professor of philosophy and ethics at the University of Maine, doesn’t include trigger warnings on her syllabi but does see some value in informing students before assigning material they may find difficult, or in some cases, triggering. She spoke recently with the Bangor Daily News about why a trigger warning or content advisory may be needed and whether such warnings undermine a student’s education.

Do you use trigger warnings when you assign potentially difficult or troubling material?

Well, I teach contemporary moral problems, and in that class we read first-person accounts of abortion, lethal injections, physician assisted suicide. So I definitely know the class can be challenging for many students, however, I do not use trigger warnings on my syllabi. Informally, I do like to give students a heads-up about what we’re going to be doing, and if that includes really emotionally challenging material, I’ll mention that usually.

Have students ever confronted you about material they see as objectionable?

I did have a student in a feminist theory course object to an article I assigned about female genital cutting, which attempted to understand the practice from the perspective of the culture in which it was taking place. The student felt I should be teaching [that] it’s wrong, and we disagreed on that.

What was your response when the student raised these objections?

The objection was raised in class, so the entire class was able to contribute to the discussion. I defended my choice of material. I also reminded him and the rest of the class I was exposing them to different viewpoints and that I’m not teaching them what to think about any of these issues. I hope they have strong opinions, but they need to understand different approaches.

Is this something you’ve encountered often?

It’s been very infrequent. I’ve been teaching for 15 years and teach difficult material, and I’ve only had one student who was a survivor of trauma come up to me and ask to be excused from an assignment.

So what is the value in engaging with controversial material and viewpoints?

As a philosopher, I think it’s tremendously important to engage with material that you might consider challenging or objectionable. It helps us to understand the perspectives of other people. The more we can understand where other people are coming from, the less likely we are to resort to violent or other destructive methods of engaging with them, and the more likely we are to find common ground. I think that’s really valuable.

Can trigger warnings or content advisories be beneficial in the classroom?

Trigger warnings are widely used in the blogosphere, and that’s where I’ve seen them the most. What I’ve observed in this context is that the trigger warning doesn’t close the conversation, but provides information to potential readers so they can engage with the material in a knowing way and on their own terms.

So it’s not that mentioning to students before I assign a difficult book will coddle them or shield them, it’s giving them information so they can decide how they want to engage with the assigned material.

The authors of The Atlantic article are concerned that trigger warnings take away the intellectual rigor of the college experience. Do you think this a problem?

I understand the concern that trigger warnings on college campuses insulate students from these kinds of intellectual challenges. But I think there is a difference between those broad concerns about infantilizing students and the more narrow and technical meaning of “trigger warning” that comes out of the PTSD literature.

In another case, I was teaching a novel — “To Have and To Hold” by Patricia Gaffney — in an ethics and literature class. The novel included many graphic descriptions of rape. As I always do when I’m introducing material, I said “This book contains multiple scenes of graphic sexual assault.”

In that class I had a student who was a recent survivor of sexual assault. She approached me privately and said, “I’m not ready to experience this material. I’m afraid it will trigger me.”

The idea of triggering is that when re-exposed to certain stimuli, memories can be caused to come back with all the emotional pain they caused initially. In that case, I was very happy to offer her an alternative assignment and excuse her from the class period when we discussed the book.

Now that’s very different from cases like Brian Grasso from Duke University, who objected to reading “Fun Home” for religious and ideological reasons.

I’m glad you said that because articles like The Atlantic are lumping all of these student objections together. It’s one thing to say, “I’m a conservative Christian, and I don’t want to read about lesbians,” and it’s another to say, “I’m a survivor of sexual assault, and I don’t think I can handle a graphic, detailed description of sexual assault.” To me, those are very different things.

How would you have handled Grasso’s objections?

I would want to be open and attentive to his concerns. I would try to educate him of the differences between pornography and a graphic memoir. I would encourage him to do the work and engage with the text, and hope that would allay his concerns. I think listening, talking, educating could potentially help.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think one good thing about the discussion about trigger warnings is that it’s opening a space for talking about student engagement with assigned material. Often we think about assigned material from only the perspective of the instructor and his or her pedagogical goals. So I think it’s eye-opening and important to be aware of the different experiences that different students might have with the same material.

 


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