Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Trigger Warnings Continued

I have a new piece up on CNN on Trigger Warnings in the Classroom. I make two arguments.

1. Psychological disability involving trauma is serious and should never be dismissed. However, we have a mandate through the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities. Let's increasingly support, fund, and use those services, make them more robust.

2. Let's practice good teaching. Good teaching involves preparing students for their homework, not springing things on them. All the people who study reading and learning focus on scaffolding (as one metaphor) so that students know what they are reading for. It definitely helps my students.

I write:
I would never want my students to be surprised by something horrific in their reading, whether the "Red Wedding" on "Game of Thrones" or the rape of Philomena in Ovid. Instead, I want them ready to work with challenging texts so they learn. Spoilers might be bad for entertainment, but they are good for education.
Once most students know what they are likely to encounter in their work, the surprise factor in triggering situations ought to be mitigated.
So I am coming out against mandatory trigger warning policies, but I also think that some of the demand for trigger warnings might be alleviated by scaffolding readings in advance. Why try and shock your students?

I see the issue linked to multiple factors, including the corporatization of the academy. It makes universities and faculty risk adverse, turning the syllabus into a EULA, and worried about being sued. In that context, a warning label on Shakespeare makes sense, so that if a student is upset, you can say, "warned you! Can't sue!" This is not good teaching, like so much else linked to the arrival of a corporate mentality in higher education.

That said, I really do not like the language that equates requests for trigger warnings with fragility, with being "special snowflakes," with "helicopter parenting." I put a big list of resources on trigger warnings in the classroom here. Both in some of the published pieces and in lots of academic conversation, I sense some scorn for students asking for these policies.

We can argue against trigger warning policies without dismissing the students asking for such policies. Instead, think about what they are really asking for and how, in responding, we might focus on learning.

Ultimately, when as academics we ask - what is the best decision we can make to enhance the opportunities for learning? - we usually make good choices.


Spherical Time said...

I don't think that trigger warnings are quite possible. As was mentioned in the comments on this topic in Seattle's The Stranger, triggers are intensely personal things that are often completely innocuous to most people. The example there was the smell of lavender. But that is just one person's trigger, and another trigger might be the smell of paper or the way that the light filters through a certain kind of window treatment.

I haven't seen any examples of the kinds of requested triggers that wouldn't themselves be triggered by the warnings: "This book contains depictions of child assault" would seem to conjure up the same sort of triggering feeling as the statement that "she was a child, and she was assaulted at an early age."

The former examples are what are so painful as to be debilitating, but they are also completely beyond our ability to control. We can't ban lavender or those window slats, but we can recognize that some people are hurt by them and that if necessary we can try to make arrangements to accommodate them while they learn.

The latter examples seem more easily controllable, but a lot less helpful to those seeking them. And it seems to me that setting out a rule that "professors should make reasonable accommodations for individual students sensitive to specific subjects" would be more helpful than requiring trigger warnings on any text that a professor wants to use in a class.

Kirk Murphy said...

But how do you know which kids are triggered by what? I see the importance of "general" triggers. Incest, rape, etc. Then depending on age group I might add in others for sexual content and drug use..

Let's face it. A warning in Kite Runner, for a senior in high school, would be a good thing. It's traumatic in points.

Spherical Time said...

I'm saying two things. The first is that we can't know which kids have which serious triggers, and trying to control for all the variables is impossible.

The second thing is that "general" triggers are just content warnings, and that we expect people in college to be able to handle the adult themes of college level material. If they can't handle the very sheltered exposure to these topics at a college, then chances are even better that they won't be able to handle a less controllable exposure outside of college, and that is likely a serious problem that they will need to work through.

I do think that colleges should expect their adult enrollees to be able to handle adult themes, especially in an academic way. College attendance is a choice, after all.