Monday, September 26, 2016

The Rape of Lucretia: How Trigger Warnings Work

I am teaching of version of Western civilization which my students meet in person about 75% of the time and about 25% of the time online. I love it. I use that online time and space to build connections among the students that in fact it might not happen in class and also to find different ways for students to engage with and process the readings actively. They do a little work in which they read, they do some online discussion, they listen to me give them kind of mini podcast lectures – just 3 to 8 minutes each – on topics to help them with the reading, then they do some primary sources and they come back to class ready to do more active kinds of engagement.

Last week, I was preparing my podcast lecture for Rome. It's not a standalone thing that I can put on the Internet in any open kind of way, but is is the kind of material I would give them if we are meeting face-to-face when they engage with the textbook chapter. Part of the story of Rome is the story of the rape and suicide of Lucretia.

This is a post about content warning, so let me give you a content warning. In the the next paragraph I'm going to describe a story of rape and suicide, but you can just skip ahead and get to the point if that's not something you want to read.

Lucretia was noblewoman in the city of Rome who died around 510 BCE, or at least so the story goes as preserved in Roman memory. She was raped by Sextus Tarquinus, the son of the king of Rome, an event that led to the fall of the kingdom and the establishment of the republic. Lucretia told her husband or father, depending on which legend we're discussing, then killed herself to preserve her honor. The nobles rose up overthrew the Kings, and established an oligarchical republican system.

On the recording, I said: So I'm gonna tell a story now about rape and suicide, it's also in your textbook. You don't have to read it there and if you want to just skip ahead 30 seconds or so in the recording that's no problem. I'm going to tell you that this story, which quite possibly did happen, led to an uprising, the early establishment of their Republic and the general Roman loathing of kings. Then I told the story more or less as I did above.

I don't know if any of my students are going to skipped that 30 seconds. I do know that in a class of 25 students, some of them have almost certainly experienced sexual assault. I'm sad to say that some may have even experienced it on my campus, because I know the statistics about sexual assault on college campuses. It feels to me like a pretty basic best practice to put this in my recording.

At no time did I feel my speech was any less free. At no time did I feel like I am betraying my students by not exposing every one of them to this story. They do need to know there is a myth involving sexual assault that shapes mythography of the Roman Republic. They do not really need to know any details.

There are a lot of problems on a college campus these days. The greatest of them emerge from corporatization and the control the state legislators and governors seem to want to exert over curriculum and employment. But yeah, sometimes students make speech demands that I think might be counterproductive. I'm concerned about the tendency to try to stop controversial speakers from appearing on campuses, for example, even as I sympathize with not wanting to use student fees to pay for hatemongers.

But it strikes me that people who are angry about trigger warnings in the classroom have little idea how they are actually used to create an environment in which we can have the conversation matters – myths about the origins of Rome and their hatred of kings in my example – without needlessly traumatizing someone.

That's not a violation of free speech. It's just, I think, I hope, good teaching.