Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Left and Higher Education Slouches Towards Self-Parody (Again): Should Lynching Photography be Accompanied by 'Trigger Warnings'?

So many questions...

Is truth-telling not inherently a practice which is dependent on discomfort?

Some on the "left", as well as those others who count themselves among "progressives", are at risk of becoming the very parodies and caricatures that conservatives mock and imagine them to be.

The New York Times' piece on "trigger warnings" offers up a troubling picture of "political correctness" run amok at some colleges and universities:
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Should students about to read “The Great Gatsby” be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Things Fall Apart” — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label? 
Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans. 
The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University,the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools. 
In a college and university educational environment where learning has become secondary to pleasing the customer as measured by inaccurate and disingenuous student evaluations, the increasingly ubiquitous trigger warning threatens to stifle learning in the interest of preserving the (emotional and often narcissistic) peace.

The Times continues:
Meredith Raimondo, Oberlin’s associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the guide was meant to provide suggestions, not to dictate to professors. An associate professor of comparative American studies and a co-chairwoman of the task force, Ms. Raimondo said providing students with warnings would simply be “responsible pedagogical practice.” 
“I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up,’ ” she said. “That absolutely misses the reality that we’re dealing with. We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously.” 
But Marc Blecher, a professor of politics and East Asian studies at Oberlin and a major critic of trigger warnings at Oberlin, said such a policy would have a chilling effect on faculty members, particularly those without the job security of tenure. 
“If I were a junior faculty member looking at this while putting my syllabus together, I’d be terrified,” Mr. Blecher said. “Any student who felt triggered by something that happened in class could file a complaint with the various procedures and judicial boards, and create a very tortuous process for anyone.”
The classroom ought to be a space of mutual respect where students are taught to dialogue with one another and the instructor in the pursuit of empirical and philosophical Truth. We should also be mindful of the various experiences that all of us bring to a given learning space. On practical grounds this raises some questions and challenges. Do we teach to the weakest or the strongest in the room? Should instructors teach to the "median" student with the hope that the best students are not too bored and the weakest students not discouraged?

And how do those of us who teach "sensitive subjects" (this is a term I have become increasingly familiar with--and one that I think is pretty damn accurate--in the post civil rights era, neoliberal classroom where "diversity" and "multiculturalism" are dealt with as obligations and obligatory requirements and hurdles, akin to getting one's drivers license when a teenager, as opposed to rigorous and potentially transformative topics embedded within serious and established fields of study) perform that balancing act?

I, like many of you who work in higher education, have witnessed how the best intentions which led to "trigger warnings" (in the classroom and online) can do a disservice to students' (and the general public's) emotional and intellectual growth. Instead of dealing with challenging speech, I have seen students retreat to specially prepared "safe rooms". Challenging speakers and guests are not approached on their own terms; rather, they are judged to be dangerous and uncomfortable for the university community, the mere presence of the former is a threat to the "learning community".

This move to protect students from "discomfort" is part of a larger phenomenon.

Modern, Western, "First World" society, is typified by the many ways that the state shields its members from "unpleasantness" and "filth".

For example, death has been taken out of the home and is now handled by funeral homes and the mortician. We go to supermarkets to buy our meat so that the industrialized killing that produces it can be separated from the end result, i.e. our meal. The United States' military apparatus of the United States kills people everyday, and its own soldiers suffer, in order to secure resources under the lying banner of "democracy" and "freedom"--what is really wasteful consumerism in which capitalism and democracy are made the same thing--and the American people are shielded from both the process and the outcome of Imperial Violence. Thus, when blowback arrives, they look on like ignoramuses, complicit in their own suffering, mouths agape, asking "why do they hate us so?" "Why do they hate our way of life and our freedoms?" as the towers fall.

For those individuals who are willing to agree to basic principles of good governance and comportment, civil society should be based on mutual respect among its members. Trigger warnings, when taken to extremes, threaten to be devices of censorship which circumvent the difficult conversations and discomfort that are necessary for citizens to fight and advocate for the Good Society in a proper (communicative) democracy.

Schools are where citizens are socialized into a society's norms and values.

Subsequently, what type of students are being created when difficult conversations are prefaced by a "warning", and then said students can then find a way to remove themselves from that unpleasant interaction?

And are so-called liberals and progressives aware that they are giving conservatives, especially racist reactionary white conservatives, a loaded gun that will inevitably pointed at their foes with the defense that "talking about racism and white privilege makes me upset or uncomfortable and I don't want to be in this class!"

Or in the worst case scenario, what will liberals and progressives do when conservatives, being far better organized on the collegiate level than their peers, conspire to use "trigger warnings" as a way of bullying faculty who they have targeted for dismissal in a moment where too many administrators are cowards, mere cogs in the corporate university?


jemand2 said...

Honestly I prefer something like a "content note" to the "trigger warning" because it doesn't assume a particular response, i.e., that something is going to be triggering.

I don't think the material should be changed or the expectations lowered, but I do think letting students know the subject that will be under discussion may allow some who need to be able to psych themselves up and mentally prepare for the topic to fully participate in discussion. This doesn't really need a specific format, like a "content note" per se, a reasonably detailed syllabus is plenty.

For reading material, again, perhaps the syllabus or assignment could include a description of the broad type of content, so if a particular student had a particularly difficult day with this type of mental symptoms, they could prepare and read on the next day.

But I think trigger warnings in some contexts have changed from the original purpose, which was not to *stop* discussion on specific subjects, but to *prepare* people so that when they do discuss them they are able to *fully* engage, the same as anyone else, instead of trying to deal with the unexpectedly discovered left-overs of trauma which makes logical and nuanced thought difficult. In a college class context, a detailed syllabus, and some pre-class readings, would completely cover that purpose.

DanF said...

At what age do you stop treating people like infants? As a parent of sub-teen children, I appreciate the PG-13 warning with a description of why it's PG-13, but for fuck's sake ... you have to turn the filters off at some point. Experience it people. If you sign up for "Soc 210: Poverty in America: A course that examines the historical contexts and competing theories on the causes of poverty in the United States", the prof. shouldn't have to warn you that there will be some pretty disturbing images - that America today may not be the America you think it is. He/She doesn't want you to opt out on that experience just because you think you might be grossed out or shocked or have your world view drastically altered. That's the point.

Hell ... Maybe it'll be like cigarette warnings and cause more students will take the course. "Warning: This class will change the way you view the world. You will want to rip the heart out of banksters and capitalist tools. You will howl at the moon about systemic racism and email volumes of relevant, peer-reviewed data to your relatives who will refuse acknowledge what is an obvious truth - that it pays to be white in America. Don't agree? Bring it. You will learn to despise simple explanations and people that offer them as solutions to complex problems. Prepare to see the world as it is."

chauncey devega said...

I agree. But because of the please the customer business model many students will actually retaliate against the professor/instructor because they were made "uncomfortable" or their priors were challenged. A small number of mature and open-minded students will learn and grow, the rest will be resentful. We wonder why the world is as it is, no?

chauncey devega said...

I think that college students are adults. The should be treated as such. I am not one for hand holding or coddling. Here is the material, what we are going to do, you may or may not like it, your choice. The only times I have ever prefaced something is when I showed some images of nude adult film stars during a talk about gender, race, and representation. This was more to protect myself from grief later on if a prudish/religious student somehow found the human body offensive.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Just go whole-hog and put this warning label in everything: "Caution--the following book contains language."

I mean, where did these young folks get the idea that college is supposed to be an ego massage, anyway?

James Estrada-Scaminaci III said...

I used to teach overseas for the University of Maryland. If I were teaching today, I would not give a "trigger warning" for a reading assignment. If a student cannot handle classic writings and challenging ideas, then they have no business being at a university or college. Maybe they should attend a for-profit rip-off industrialized college where there are no liberal arts or hard sciences and you learn how to be a mindless drone.

But, just to toy with the idea--how about multiple "trigger warnings" for the Bible. Caution, massive drowning; Caution, genocide; Caution, planetary homicide; brotherly homicide; regicide; lying and cheating; crucifixions; fabulously impossible miracles, etc etc.

Students are just being ridiculous and so is the management that fosters this idiocy.

James Estrada-Scaminaci III said...


James Estrada-Scaminaci III said...

Or, how about real trigger warnings: Caution, life causes death. Caution, war may be damaging to your health and psyche. Caution, science will expose you to radical ideas that will challenge your concept of reality. Caution, courses in Sociology will challenge your conceptions of justice, racism, sexism, genderism, consumerism, etc etc. Caution, the university is here to challenge every fundamental belief you have that you think, up through high school, is correct--Enter at your own risk.

joe manning said...

Trigger warnings constitute censoring by suggesting that a student is exempted from material that he/she takes exception to. This assault on academic freedom amounts to Orwellian revisionism.

Blackbird said...

I thought trigger warning were for books that used rape or murder as titillation, or included violent or graphic rape or death scenes, as some of the books in my literature classes did? It was my understanding that students who have been sexually assaulted or experienced violence found the material re-traumatizing sometimes. Also, in books like Huck Finn, I've heard of teachers giving (white) students free reign to use the n-word in the classroom and chided black students for complaining. Many of the black students found this humiliating.

But I wasn't aware trigger warnings were even being used things like talking about poverty or discussing class systems or anything like that. If that's what's happening, I don't agree with that, but for the stuff I listed above, I don't see why a trigger warning for that stuff (rape or murder as titillation, extremely graphic movies or media) would hinder learning - the students who are okay reading about that stuff can stay, where the students who might find it emotionally traumatizing can leave. Honestly, if you can't teach a class without those subject, I would probably just drop the class, TBH.

Courtney H said...

Here's another article about trigger warnings:


SabrinaBee said...

Hot dayum, CD. You can tell they dipped a big toe into your territory. I don't think I remember reading this from you:

"... death has been taken out of the home and is now handled by
funeral homes and the mortician. We go to supermarkets to buy our meat
so that the industrialized killing that produces it can be separated
from the end result, i.e. our meal. The United States' military
apparatus of the United States kills people everyday, and its own
soldiers suffer, in order to secure resources under the lying banner of
"democracy" and "freedom"--what is really wasteful consumerism in which
capitalism and democracy are made the same thing--and the American
people are shielded from both the process and the outcome of Imperial
Violence. Thus, when blowback arrives, they look on like ignoramuses,
complicit in their own suffering, mouths agape, asking "why do they hate
us so?" "Why do they hate our way of life and our freedoms?" as the
towers fall."

I like it.

As to the issue, it sounds ridiculous. I have a hard time believing that those that are requesting this are truly progressive. (I know, no true Scotsman argument) Rather, it seems like the flip side of a coin. The other side being the right and their "purity" warriors that censor assigned reading material, by simply banning it. No warning. Just, don't even suggest it. I wonder how religiously inclined these students are?

Well, no one has ever accused American students of being worldly and well-rounded, have they? They put the students of the 60's and 70's, that went up against the war machine, to shame.

SabrinaBee said...

I don't blame you. I don't understand why, if there is a book listed on a syllabus, the student wouldn't look to see what the book was about before purchasing it. The library, Amazon, Goodreads, and a plain old Google search, will give an idea of the contents. The class can be dropped before the start of the semester and weeks into it. It's a simple thing really.

chauncey devega said...

Maybe the thunder and lightning hit me today here in Chicago? Just seemed necessary and had to be said. Where did it come from? Don't known.

SabrinaBee said...

Well, it was refreshing. I am glad it was said because it needed to be. We don't often get a clear picture of what is truly going on, in the world and in our names.

SabrinaBee said...

Here's a recent article on the missing girls. A reporter visited the village they were snatched from.


Courtney H said...

Thank you. And here's yet another article about trigger warnings:


SabrinaBee said...

Thank you, in return.

MaryLF said...

In 8th grade we were assigned "Hiroshima" by John Hersey. It was graphic and disturbing. I can still remember some of the descriptions 50 years later. It lead to some interesting conversations with my family. I do not regret reading it, although I have never reread it. I teach 2nd grade. Each year I introduce a unit on American History starting with slavery and going through the Civil War (briefly) and the Civil Rights movement. Each year I take a deep breath and hope children and parents will not be offended. I have African American and bi-racial children in my classroom and I have to look at their faces as I tell them that people like them were once treated like animals. I've never had a bad reaction from either the children or parents. I have heard many positive comments from parents. People are set free by the truth. As someone else posted, I would think that a detailed syllabus and some research on the students' part should be sufficient.

Arlingtonvirginia said...

I remember Catcher in the Rye was controversial when I was in high school due to sexual topics. But I bet it's banned now because Holden wasn't a big fan of gays. Now the sexuality involved in that story would be considered nothing at all. It's the left now that conducts book burnings.