Every semester on the first day of my classes, I explain to students that at some point during the semester, the material that we cover will fundamentally challenge their thinking in some area that they hold dear, particularly their beliefs about race, gender and sexuality. I also explain to them that these challenges are less about making them change their minds, although I do hope that they will discard some particularly retrograde and unhelpful beliefs, and more about making them refine their opinions, while becoming clear and informed about what they think. If a student has not been challenged to fundamentally rethink the beliefs they hold dear, they have not been to college.
Therefore the growing national conversation, buttressed by demands from students, that college professors place trigger warnings on their syllabi to alert students to uncomfortable and traumatic material gives me great concern. While I care about my own academic freedom and the ways that trigger warnings impede my ability to teach course materials in the ways I deem most appropriate, I care far more about educating students who can entertain a range of competing views, wade through those beliefs, and come out on the other side with clarity and the capacity to articulate their position.
Yet, those of us in the academy are now encountering the generation of students educated under the high-stakes testing model of both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. They are a generation of students who are uncomfortable with being made uncomfortable. They are a generation of students who want the right answers, and the assured A, rather than the challenge of thinking and writing their way through material that is more complex than the multiple choice answer requires. To me, such an orientation to the world – the desire for endless comfort – is an untenable educational proposition. Encountering material that you have never encountered before, being challenged and learning strategies for both understanding and engaging the material is what it means to get an education.
But in this era of the corporate university, the belief in educating students to be something other than laborers in the capitalist machine is increasingly obsolete. In many respects I understand this position: In a time when good public education is increasingly difficult to access at reasonable prices, creating strategies for making university education economically feasible guides policymaking at many universities. The reality is that parents want their children to be able to get out of school and get jobs that will offer them an economic livelihood. In that kind of environment it becomes harder to justify a robust humanities education focused on thinking about questions of power, the nature of human relationships, literature, history and politics.
In this broader context, some students find it reasonable to request that they not have to encounter material about gay, lesbian, queer or trans identity. At the University of South Carolina Upstate, the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies was recently stripped of funding after a statewide uproar over the teaching of texts with gay and lesbian characters and other programming dealing with gay themes. I have had colleagues at institutions from around the country discuss the uproar they get from students of certain religious backgrounds when they are asked to engage with sexually explicit material in the classroom. By sexually explicit, I mean something as basic as talking about sex and sexuality or reading about characters who have sex. In graduate school one of my professors told us a story about students who started bringing the Bible to her women’s and gender studies class whenever the class talked about homosexuality. As a person of deep faith, I remind my students that religious belief and critical thinking are not incompatible.
Helping students to think differently about these kinds of questions is among one of the important tasks that university professors do. Yet this call from students to censor their own education before they even receive it is designed to keep them from being challenged. And it should matter to us because it means that we are creating a generation of students who don’t know what it means to be challenged, and are therefore ill-equipped to confront the challenging times in which we are living and prevail.
As a person trained in feminist pedagogy, I’m clear that good teachers spend a lot of time thinking about power dynamics in the class, ways to ensure effective and productive responses to challenging material, and ways to make classrooms the safest spaces they can possibly be. Those of us who teach about traumatic material – say, war, or the history of lynching, or rape and sexual assault, or domestic violence – usually alert students if they are going to encounter violent material. But all of these materials are not the same. Showing a rape scene, particularly in gender studies courses that are often appealing to students who are trying to make sense of some personal experience of sexual violence, does require sensitivity and a willingness to provide alternative assignments.
But all trigger warnings are not equal. Showing lynching photographs or the movie "Fruitvale Station," a film about 22-year-old unarmed Oakland resident Oscar Grant who was gunned down by a BART police officer in 2008, might “trigger” my African-American students who have relatives who were lynched or who have experienced violent encounters with the police. But having the space to encounter those images in a class with a professor trained to deal with such material sensitively and rigorously also helps black people who often feel invisible in course curricula. The same is true when encountering LGBTQ topics in the classroom: Having the discussion may be difficult for students but it creates a context for inclusion that is absolutely necessary, especially in a nation so deeply invested in understanding itself as democratic.
And part of what we as educators, parents and students have to recognize is that classroom spaces in which difficult topics like trauma, rape, war, race and sexuality are discussed are already unsafe. When students of color who have endured racism have to hear racially insensitive comments from other students who are in the process of learning, the classroom is unsafe. The classroom is unsafe for trans students who are often referred to by the wrong gender pronoun by both students and teachers. The classroom is unsafe for rape survivors who encounter students in the process of learning why getting drunk at a party does not mean a woman deserves to be raped.
But learning about these topics are all necessary forms of education. And trigger warnings won’t solve or ameliorate the problems that open, frank, guided discussion by well-trained, competent instructors can. Every semester, I gird up my loins to address the range of defensive and uncomfortable reactions that students have to material they have been taught never to discuss in polite company.
Their responses range from nervous fidgeting, laughter and downcast eyes to vocal anger and confrontation. It’s uncomfortable. But I stand my ground and teach the material, because that is what I am there to do. And then I create the context for students to work through it. Overwhelmingly students let me know at the end of each semester that though the discussions were hard, they are glad we had them. Trigger warnings might have scared these students away from participating in discussions that they were absolutely capable of having. And in that regard they do more harm than good. So for the sake of my students, you won’t find them on my syllabi.