Friday, May 23, 2014

Trigger Warning

For the past little while, academics have been getting snarky about trigger warnings.  Exhibit A is Laurie Essig's piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education linked here.  Essig complains "It was my duty, apparently, to make sure no one was ever disturbed by my class." And she's also pissed that students didn't laugh at her Abu Ghraib joke.  Around the same time, Oberlin released institutional guidelines about classroom materials that should have a warning, and then backed down on those guidelines: coverage here.

As a college lecturer for some number of years, I do understand faculty discontent on the subject.  Faculty meetings, random service, mentoring, prep, research, incomprehensible administration, and then you have an 18 year old complaining that you're a jerk because you taught standard texts in your field.  It's understandably a "how long was I in school and how much debt did I rack up for this?" moment.

That said, I think I'm with the students on this one.  I've taught many classes about horrifying topics, and I've never had a student complain about the way I presented those materials.  I've rarely censored my choices (I thought about assigning the novel Precious one semester, but decided I just couldn't stomach it).  Instead, my classes are generally one long trigger warning-that is an extended meditation on what it means to read and think about painful topics.  

One the first day of class, I usually talk about how personally painful it can be to study topics like racial discrimination and violence.  How, as a scholar, I find the need to balance empathy with the people I study (trying to imagine what they thought and felt) with the protective qualities of intellectualizing when feeling the pain of my research starts to weigh on me.  I encourage my students to both try and feel what they study at an emotional level, and understand that sometimes, particularly in heated classroom discussion, they need to set that emotion aside and speak from the head.

Texts and topics I've warned my students about reading include, but are not limited to: Native American genocide and removal, anti-gay propaganda, Lincoln's speeches, Civil War poetry, lynchings, most topics in African American history, the books Native Son, The Street, The Women of Brewster Place, and Narrative of Frederick Douglass.  As I've grown as a teacher, I've done more work to prepare students to engage with the painful themes in these texts.

I don't necessarily seek to protect my students from pain, rather I want to prepare them to sit with that pain.  I want to encourage them to develop a radical empathy.  For me, that is the point to teaching history to future doctors, teachers, government officials, and lawyers.   I encourage my students to see history as a discipline that teaches humility, as we see very smart, well intentioned people make choices that sometimes have terrible unintended consequences.  As we study history, we have the privilege of see the past from multiple points of view, and understanding history from the point of view of historical losers can teach us empathy.  I hope that those perspectives with make my students more complex and compassionate thinkers in their professional and personal lives.  

I like to think that my students have been willing to engage with difficult materials because I've made my classrooms a place where that discussion is always on the table.  I can't fix the individual traumas that my student bring the classroom, but I can make my classroom a reasonably safe place to wrestle with pain.  In one of my first years teaching, I assigned a group of students to watch a viciously anti-gay propaganda video and analyze if for the class.  None of those poor gaybies complained, but if they had they would have been right.  Not that I had given the assignment, but that I hadn't given them any preparation for what they were about to see and what they should do with their feelings.  I came to my own realization of my error after seeing their presentation about the video, and it changed the way I taught.

For me, the point is to channel students' pain as they encounter painful subjects into reflection.  There are students who will not be able to engage with some materials because they bring experiences that make that engagement too difficult.  Now, if a student is unable to engage with topics of racial violence and discrimination, they probably should not take an African American history class, but if they don't want to look at a lynching photo (which has happened) or don't want to read a chapter in book with a rape scene, that is not a problem for me as an instructor.  It's easy enough for me to find work arounds for those students.  I think the most problematic issue with trigger warnings, is that they may discount the everyday triggers that people with PTSD or other trauma disorders may experience, and they reduce and simplify the complexities of trauma.  And, there is little I can do protect students from those everyday triggers.  

“You know what’s worse than images of torture? Being tortured.”   That was Laura Essig's Abu Gharib joke.  I think that some of the young professors who are most dismissive of trigger warnings are operating under a very old school model of education.  If one chooses to pour knowledge into students, who am I to say that's wrong, but professors in that mode need to expect push back.  Student have been actively fighting to engage in the classroom since sometime before, say, 1968, and I see the current discussion of trigger warning as an extension of that fight to be in a conversation with faculty.  Personally, I don't particularly want to encourage students to see terrible images and then "put on their big girl panties" and push their emotions away.  I want them to be moved and horrified, and to say "a person did that to another person."  That's the lesson of history.  If they don't like what I assign.  If they think my class is turning into trauma tourism.  If they think I'm too glib or the text don't add to their knowledge, I want them to say that--preferably in class and to my face--so that we can have a discussion about it.  At the beginning of each semester, I tell my students that our class is now an intellectual community.  We need each other, we learn from each other, and that's why I require attendance.  If I truly expect students to contribute to the classroom, I also need to be prepared for their critiques of me.  That's not to say that I will always find those critiques compelling, but I do need to engage with them.

[Aside: A story from an older faculty member: he was teaching at a big state school in the late 1960s.  One day in a big lecture class a hippie girl raised her hand and he called on her.  She said, "This class is a bunch of bull and you are totally out of touch man! " He replied: "Young lady, if you are going to say something like that you need not raise your hand first."]

In closing: the kids are alright.

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