The debate over trigger warnings in literature classes

trigger warningsIn today’s Morning Links, I posted a story from Nate at The Digital Reader, which reminded me I was overdue to cover a story which is getting a lot of press lately. The short version is that students at several US universities are campaigning to have professors add ‘trigger warnings’ to the syllabi of college classes, to warn students about potentially upsetting or offensive material.

Nate’s story looks at the ‘slippery slope toward censorship’ argument against this, which is a valid angle. But I have a different take on this story, and it’s this: as a teacher, I have watched the coddling of children slide steadily upward, age-wise, over the years. And it worries me that this is another brick in THAT potentially dangerous wall.

Let me give you an example of the kind of trend I am seeing. I have been at my present school for about 7 years, and in that time, we have awarded prizes in the annual science fair every year—until this one. Amidst concerns over parents doing all the work for the kids in pursuit of the coveted prize, the format was changed so that all participants went into a draw, and the winners of the draw got the prizes.

There was considerable debate over this, about whether 7-8 year-olds could handle the world of merit-based competition or not, about whether—if the answer was ‘not’—it was our place as teachers to teach them that, and so on. But to me, the real story was the parents. Why were they doing these projects anyway? My mother never did any homework for me. She never even looked at it, unless a teacher phoned home to tell her there were problems. It was MY business.

In today’s climate, that would practically be child abuse. Parents are expected to coach spelling words, read a weekly reader to their children every day, and be involved in every aspect of their schooling. And that’s fine when they are seven years old. But at some point, the kids have to learn to stand on their own two feet and be responsible.

And…well, they aren’t doing that. My own alma mater, way back in the salad days of 1996, invited me to an orientation weekend wherein my parents drove me up there, dropped me off, and then went shopping for a couple hours and picked me up at the end of the day. And now? They have added new orientation sessions for the parents too, to teach them how to not hover over their college-aged kids.

Meanwhile, I took a course a few summers ago—a professional development course, at a well-known Canadian university—that had decided to do away with the deadlines. Deadlines stress people out, the professor told me. We should feel free to hand in the course work whenever we pleased. I was appalled.

My issue is that the real world doesn’t work that way. I can’t tell my boss that deadlines stress me out so I would prefer to hand in my report cards whenever I choose. I can’t do that because there IS a deadline. They get distributed to the kids on a specified day and they have to be done by then. Actually, they have to be done before then because other people need to check them before they go out.

Similarly, real adult life doesn’t always come with the luxury of content warnings. For instance, I have had two occasions, as a teacher, where we have had to have a serious conversation as a group about calling child protective services for a child. In one instance, the child transferred schools before we did so. In the other, the call was actually made, the child’s life was uprooted and we all had to deal with the fallout. You can’t excuse yourself from that just because it’s upsetting to you!

So, that is my issue with this whole trigger warnings debate—-if university is too early to stop the coddling and treat people like grown-ups, then when do we propose to start doing it? If you get to that level of life stage—the university degree—and you still need the kid-glove handling, then how can you expect to graduate, get a job and go out there into the real, messy world?

I do understand that in certain situations, sensitivity is called for. One article I read on this story gave the example of a class at a school which had a large refugee population, many of whom had been victims of war. Of course, a good teacher would be sensitive to that! But to institutionalize that sensitivity strikes me as the wrong path to go down.

13 Comments on The debate over trigger warnings in literature classes

  1. ” the coddling of children”

    That is a concern. I could easily see the same misguided parents arguing for the need to protect kids from the bad content.

  2. It’s not just books on the syllabi, but the content of lectures too. As an example, I read a history of WWII and, in part, there was a discussion of occupying soldiers raping nearly of the town women. The commanding officer denied his soldiers raped and it became an offense for a woman to make the accusation. People do bad things in war, but if this were taught in the class the history professor would probably have to issue a trigger warning if the details were mentioned.

    I would think that students at a university should be prepared to read, see, and hear things are potentially upsetting. Most people, in fact, would find stories of mass rape disturbing, not just victims of sexual abuse, but it is part of history. I fail to grasp how a warning before hand would ease someone’s concerns about disturbing topics.

    I believe if trigger warnings ever became de facto practice at universities, the professors would be told to just play it save and skip the stuff the might upset a student.

  3. This has been a hot topic on the Chronicle of Higher Education too. A sampler:

    This one is hilarious but managed to earn a few objections in the comments:
    http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2014/05/20/my-syllabus-with-trigger-warnings/

    A more analytic piece:
    http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2014/03/10/trigger-warnings-trigger-me/

  4. Susan Lulgjuraj // May 23, 2014 at 8:51 pm //

    One of the things in here reminded me something recently. My brother and sister-in-law asked me to babysit one night because their orientation at the middle school their oldest is entering next year. I assumed it was the parents and child, and I was watching the younger kids. Turned out, it was all of them because the orientation was for just for the parents. For some reason, it just struck me as odd.

  5. @Greg m. The point of trigger warnings is not to somehow magically render the topic completely palatable and comfortable. The point is to give rape survivor’s the heads up they might need to mentally and pyschologically prepare themselves to deal with the subject and the resulting discussion so they can respond on the same level as everyone else. Many survivors suffer from PTSD following their assault and having the topic (or god-forbid) the details sprung on them can induce (or “trigger”) incapacitating flashbacks werein they relive their own assault.

    That’s how a warning which causes little to no inconveince to the unaffected, can go a long way towards making someone’s life a whole lot more bearable.

  6. “Many survivors suffer from PTSD following their assault and having the topic (or god-forbid) the details sprung on them can induce (or “trigger”) incapacitating flashbacks werein they relive their own assault.”

    And where would the warnings stop? PTSD. Rape. Child abuse. Suicide. Murder. Torture. Abortion. Executions. Those are all terrible, and they are a part of what we have to deal with rather than hide from. The list could potentially go on forever because we are living in a “victim” society where discomfort has become equivalent to trauma.

  7. I didn’t mean to imply that abortion itself is terrible. I’m pro-choice, but abortion can be a difficult and terrible choice for some women.

  8. Here is the perspective of a psychiatrist who treats people with PTSD. Note where she says, “One of the cardinal symptoms of PTSD is avoidance, which can become the most impairing symptom of all. If someone has been so affected by an event in her life that reading a description of a rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses can trigger nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks, she is likely to be functionally impaired in areas of her life well beyond the classroom. The solution is not to help these students dig themselves further into a life of fear and avoidance by allowing them to keep away from upsetting material.”

    Source: http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2014/05/23/treatment-not-trigger-warnings/

  9. If you are literally too lazy to copy and paste a couple of words of warning into your syllabus a couple of times for the physiological well-being of another human being I’m disgusted to share a plant with you. It’s not censorship. It’s just better metadata for goodness sake. No one said you couldn’t teach it. Just label it!
    Why all whinging about this topic now? Television has had trigger warnings (I.e. “Some viewers may find scenes disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised. Etc”) FOR YEARS.

    @Frank L. The treatment of someone’s mental health is between them and their health care providers. It’s not some professor of english’s job to judge or decide the pace of their recovery. Also you’re assuming everyone who suffers from flashbacks or other serious negative reactions are at the same place in their recovery. Not everyone is just sticking their fingers in their ears and singing when a triggering topic comes up. Like I said earlier, just removing the element of surprise can make the different between regular discomfort and a traumatic experiance.

    @Catana Granted there will always be students who will use any excuse to skip classes and their going to do that regardless. But saying you shouldn’t have warnings for the affected because special snowflakes who don’t want to feel any discomfort will use it to avoid the real world is like saying buildings shouldn’t have elevators for the handicapped because lazy people might use them.

  10. @Keriann, if you are referring to Sara Roff as “some English teacher,” I suggest you pay closer attention to her bio at the end of the “Treatment, Not Trigger Warnings” article by her that I cited and quoted from. She makes a well rezoned and evidence based case.
    Most universities have an Office of Disabilities that performs critical services for affected students, faculty, staff, counseling services and administration. For faculty, they usually offer the following:
    1) Validation of the disability. This is not simply an anti-malingering activity. It also assures appropriate accommodations, affordances and intervention for the student. Just because a student thinks that they have a specific disability doesn’t mean that they actually do and responding to a mistaken self-diagnosis can do great harm. Actually, this can get quite complicated as in the case of individuals who are ultimately diagnosed as suffering from Münchausen syndrome or their parents from Münchausen syndrome by proxy.
    2) Collaborating with faculty to determine whether and how an accommodation might be made. This can result in a modification of course requirements or the recommendation to the student to defer taking the class. Indeed, some students are advised to defer the entire collegiate experience.
    Most university professors simply cannot anticipate the genuine need to modify course requirements without this kind of assistance. Peppering a syllabus with TWs is a shotgun approach that is likely to do more harm than good. It doesn’t really address these problems with the precision that they deserve and get when professionals in offices of disability are allowed to do what they are trained to do.

  11. I had traumatic stuff happen to me before PTSD was invented. I can read or hear about dead babies, physical assault, infidelity, etc. now without freaking out. Heck, I can even write about it. “Face your fear. It will disappear.” Coddling, yeah, big time. And lots of these victims carry their fancy banners for waaay too long. So I am bitter and cynical. Does coddling these people make them less bitter and cynical? Get out your big girl panties, etc.

    And if any one of you think I don’t know what it is like, I didn’t go through “it”, yeah, I did.

    Yeah. Don’t get me started.

  12. Wasn’t referring to Dr. Roff as some English teacher. I was referring to the hypothetical teacher assigning Ovid. Sorry for the confusion.

    Also mind your quotation marks. I typed “some professor of English”.

    I am aware of such offices. They do excellent work. I was by no means suggesting professors use trigger warnings and then feel free to throw their students to the wolves otherwise. I fail to see how they can’t put in the two minutes to update their, often in my experiance /years/ old, syllabus (Though I admit my discipline was not one prone to constant advances) in addition to co-operating with their office of disabilities.

  13. @Keterian. It’s not about a minute to cut and paste on a syllabus. There is serious doubt to the actual benefit of trigger warnings. The students are there to learn from subject matter experts – not dictate terms.

    There has been no (few?) documented cases – that I have seen – of a student breaking down after reading Sanctuary by William Faulkner – or some other works – or how warning would truly ease the shock if they were about to read the material. Where are the case studies peer reviewed?

    Warnings – for TV, movies, food, books, or anything else – allow people to make judgments – often uninformed – about how to buy or consume goods. And trigger warnings would almost change the course of what is taught or read – and possibly made available. Just think of how it works with TV and the movies. For example, think of a movie with strong rape scene like A Clockwork Orange being made today would be rated R, but PG13 sells more tickets, so the studios leave it on the cutting room floor. I will not say that will or will not make for a better movie, but decision is being made on putting out less “objectionable” material. Ditto for strong language or violence. To quote my little old mother-in-law “No sex, no swearing, no violence – that makes for a good movie.” She’d say the same about books if she read. I don’t think sophomore students have enough of a knowledge base to be making these decisions for everyone.

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