What You Should Know This Week

“Trigger Warnings” on College Syllabi: Each week, Educating Modern Learners will pick one interesting current event – whether it’s news about education, technology, politics, business, science, or culture – and help put it in context for school leaders, explaining why the news matters and how it might affect teaching and learning (in the short or in the long run). We’re not always going to pick the biggest headline of the week to discuss; the application to education might not be immediately apparent. But hopefully we can provide a unique lens through which to look at news stories and to consider how our world is changing (and how schools need to change as well). This week (the week of May 19), Audrey Watters looks at recent demands by some college students (and the response by the media) that professors place “trigger warnings” on their syllabi.

Last week the student senate at the University of California, Santa Barbara passed a resolution to mandate that syllabi carry “trigger warnings.” Professors whose classes contain “content that may trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” will be required to alert their students and let them skip those classes.

The story has “gone viral,” with commentators across news sites weighing in largely to decry the students for their demands. Chester Finn Jr, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, for example, published an op-ed in Politico yesterday headlined “America’s College Kids Are a Bunch of Mollycoddled Babies.” The LA Times’ Jonah Goldberg called trigger warnings a “peculiar madness.” The New York Times made the topic the focus of its Room for Debate feature, tying trigger warnings to a recent spate of protests against the speakers at college graduations.

The idea of placing “trigger warnings” before content has its origins — online at least — to placing a note at the beginning of posts on discussion forums and the like, warning readers that the contents might be difficult for survivors of various forms of abuse or violence to read. (It’s worth pointing out, that according to the Pacific Standard’s Richard McNally, research has found that “confronting triggers, not avoiding them, is the best way to overcome PTSD.” If nothing else, “triggers” are incredibly complex and certainly not predictable.) Yet the practice of labeling things with a “trigger warning” has spread. According to Jennie Jarvie in The New Republic, “The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense.”

Many professors (at least those cited in the spate of articles about trigger warnings and syllabi) question the practice and see it as a threat to academic freedom. Will professors, particularly those without tenure, find themselves in administrative hot water for assigning challenging texts? As PhD student Tressie McMillan Cottom writes on her blog, “Trigger warnings make sense on platforms where troubling information can be foisted upon you without prior knowledge, as in the case of retweets. Those platforms are in the business of messaging and amplification. That is an odd business for higher education to be in…unless the business of higher education is now officially business.”

Alan Jacobs, a literature professor at Baylor College, offers a particularly thoughtful response to the notion of trigger warnings, suggesting that broaching difficult subject matter in a college classroom requires a certain amount of trust between and among the students and the teacher:

There’s only so much you can do in advance. You can offer some kind of abstract description of what’s in a book, but such descriptions are necessarily inadequate at best and at worst profoundly distorting. So I wasn’t altogether surprised when, as the time for discussing Fun Home drew closer, that I had a couple of students expressing some anxiety about whether it was the kind of thing they wanted to read. (I might add that this was a course in Baylor’s Great Texts program, which students sign up for because they want to study the lastingly great, not the trend du jour.) And while I tried to reassure them, I knew that, in the end, the proof could only be in the pudding: it would only be after they had read the book and discussed it, under my leadership, in class that they could know whether the book was worthy of their time, and any discomfort it might cost them.

Just as important as what you read is whom you read it with — the social and personal context in which you experience and discuss and reflect on a book – Alan Jacobs

Jacobs continues, arguing that this “shows how hopelessly misbegotten the whole idea of ‘trigger warnings’ is. Even aside from the widespread failure, in discussions of this topic, to distinguish between (a) triggers experienced by people who have undergone severe trauma and (b) the discomfort experienced by anyone who’s encountering new and challenging ideas, there is a still deeper problem: a failure to realize that just as important as what you read is whom you read it with — the social and personal context in which you experience and discuss and reflect on a book.”

Trigger warnings on syllabi — something that despite all the media furor this week is only being pressed for on a handful of college campuses — were mostly meant to be a gesture aimed at fostering empathy and helping institutions recognize the varied and sometimes traumatic experiences of its students. Instead, the story has become something else, particularly now that it’s been picked up by so many news outlets: just another example of intolerance and out-of-control political correctness, and a reason to fear if not deny or dismiss student voice. And in the end, that seems like a loss all around.

Image credits: Ian Sane

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Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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