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Dangerous Education May 28, 2014

Posted by Julie in Thoughtful Ramblings.
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I just read an article about college students expressing concern about their course content. Students are worried about someone who has experienced trauma being exposed to something in class that may remind them of that experience. They are asking that “trigger warnings” be put on syllabi so that students can prevent trauma as a result of reading or watching any potentially sensitive material a professor is using to teach a subject.  For example, before a professor could show a film with a scene involving rape, she would need to have a warning on the syllabus so that a student who has experienced sexual assault could opt out. That doesn’t seem so out of line, but then I wonder, where do you stop?

According to the NYTimes article, a guide written by students at Oberlin College to help professors understand possible problems says this would include anything that might:

“disrupt a student’s learning” and “cause trauma,” including anything that would suggest the inferiority of anyone who is transgender (a form of discrimination known as cissexism) or who uses a wheelchair (or ableism).

“Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” the guide said. “Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.” For example, it said, while “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe — a novel set in colonial-era Nigeria — is a “triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read,” it could “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”

I wonder how this would affect professors. Would they self censor, knowingly or unknowingly, because of concerns of backlash? How would you teach about war, oppression, psychological disorders, feminism…

I thought college was a time for young people to be exposed to new ideas, see the world in a different way. Also become more responsible for themselves – including speaking with a professor if there are things they can’t be dealt with in a course. It seems like it would be difficult to learn about what mistakes we make as countries, cultures, human beings without studying them.

I actually found the above story as a result of looking at this blog posting proposing warnings for children’s books. Why wait until college, let’s start ’em young!

– Julie

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Comments»

1. survivingtillsunday - May 29, 2014

Thanks for this! I’m not entirely sure about where I stand on this issue. I do think that trigger warnings can sometimes scare people away from useful, challenging work… but I also understand that revisiting trauma can be extremely painful. I wonder if part of the debate is happening because we’ve forgotten that professors are all aware of the material they teach (be it sometimes violent, sensitive, strange, or otherwise potentially triggering). I have a background in feminist and queer theory, and I’ve never had a professor expose me to something really challenging without giving some kind of explanation, a kind of warning-meets-context to drive home why something is important to a field, even if it is uncomfortable. Not sure that trigger warnings are as sophisticated as that.

2. Julie - May 30, 2014

I also would be concerned that these types of warnings wouldn’t be as sophisticated and, as Professor Lisa Hajjar put it in the article, would be a “one-size-fits-all approach” that could cause more problems than it solves. I think you’re right that professors understand the material they are teaching and that being exposed to it can very difficult, or worse, for some students. But perhaps if there are teachers who aren’t aware, this debate will help. Thank you for your comment!


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