Uniting Against the School of Harm

September 22, 2015

Like so many others speaking from within academia during the last year, I am deeply troubled by the recent demand for trigger warnings in university classrooms. I am a senior graduate student who will soon enter professional life, and as of now have limited teaching experience and have not yet had to respond to a student asking for a trigger warning. It is because of this rather nascent position that I am so troubled by the trend, because if it continues to grow it will do so while I am at the most vulnerable stage of my career when I fear that I will be most disposable. Those who have been contributing articles, opinion pieces, and stories about the risks posed by trigger warnings to free speech and sound pedagogical practices are all right. The phenomenon exists at the crossing of a complex set of forces that includes the consumer model of education, the weakening of tenure protections in public universities and the expansion of the adjunct class, popular appropriations of psychological language (what Jeet Heer calls the “thriving vernacular therapeutic culture”), mental health activism, changing concepts of the safe space, identity politics, generational shifts, and the thrall of rhetorics of fear, harm, and injury. But I do not wish to re-litigate these issues here, namely because others have done a thorough job of laying them out online. I wish to raise what I consider to be one of the most important pedagogical conversations we will have on this topic, that is, how we will talk to undergraduate students about demands we see as originating with them.

Trigger warnings are verbal or written warnings designed to flag the mention or representation of content that is likely to trigger flashbacks or other negative psychic symptoms related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They began on the internet as a way to allow readers to mediate their exposure to potentially triggering information, but they are related to a larger family of content warnings that includes those commonly seen on television and those that do not primarily have mental health conditions at stake. Because requests for such warnings in university classrooms have leaked from their unregulated use on the internet, there is considerable disagreement about what they are, when they should be used, and what their use should accomplish. On the internet, for instance, trigger warnings may be used to signal graphic representations of violence (especially sexual violence), the mention or suggestion of violence (such as the theme of rape), the representation of psychic illness, the representation of a wide variety of oppression, or unpopular arguments. Requests for trigger warnings tend to run the gamut of these definitions. When we discuss the demands for trigger warnings and administrators’ reception of those demands, it is important to remember that we are talking (sometimes past each other) about a range of requests on a topic that is at best loosely defined.

So far, we’ve mostly been talking to each other, providing critical perspectives meant to disrupt a conversation largely initiated by students and received more or less warmly and uncritically by university administrators. Very little has been said about how to engage students in the project of challenging trigger warnings and the dilution of critical speech in the university, even though we recognize their role in this movement. Students have been the object of our discussions, yet I see no way to go forward with the kind of robust pedagogical practice we would all like to be a part of if they continue to remain at the margins of a conversation that greatly concerns them. Thinking about what such a conversation would look like, I found Rei Terada’s argument strongly compelling. A professor of theory, romanticism, the history of philosophy, and psychoanalysis at UC Irvine, Terada has participated in and written about student protests over university privatization and other issues that took place between 2009 and 2012. She claims that the demands by students for trigger warnings in the classroom cannot be viewed outside of their emergence in the aftermath of these student protests, in which protesting students were pepper spayed, arrested, beaten, threatened, and more. “The overwhelming majority of faculty,” she reminds us, “remained distant and silent.” After then-UC President Mark Yudof equated political speech with hate speech, as Terada points out, “how can it be surprising if anyone concludes that casting university problems in the terms of hate speech–the only terms it recognizes–might be an effective tactic? It is darkly logical to use the very codes of conduct and safety in the name of which the university represses protest to turn the tables, even as the fact that that is [sic] so sinks in with disappointment and resentment. Returning the rhetoric of the university to itself cannot perform autonomy, but constitutes a bitter reflection on its unavailability.”

Indeed, watching the now infamous footage of UC Davis students being pepper sprayed by their campus police during a non-violent protest makes it impossible to continue believing that it is the students who want to stifle speech on campus. Nor was it students who orchestrated the dehiring of Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the name of campus safety. Commentators who have speculated about the roots of this new rhetoric seem to recognize that mounting student debt and uncertain prospects of employment for this generation of university students is, at least in part, behind their sense of extreme vulnerability and insecurity. And although the wide gap of power relations between students and professors has been emphasized in debates about safe spaces and violating language, the increasingly precarious position of non-faculty professors and even tenured faculty means that the gap is smaller than it ever was, with both students and teachers teaching and learning on uncertain economic ground. We are joined, in a sense, by our shared vulnerability and the claims we make upon it; claims that we “fear” trigger warnings draw upon the same insecure language. Yet, in debates about campus speech, this point of commonality between us has been made into nothing but a source of conflict.

It seems to me that making conversations with students about administrative and pedagogical practices a priority may be an indelible way of showing them that the issues they protested for and the pressures marking their educations matter to us as well, and may help to foster the development of a better language. So far, what commentators have said about students engaging in trigger warning debates has been almost exclusively disparaging. (Notable exceptions include Terada, Korintha Mitchell, Rowan Kaiser, and Malcolm Harris.) Kathleen Parker calls them “babies on campus, ” Chester E. Finncalls them “mollycoddled babies” and “spoiled brats,” Lori Horvitz calls them “coddled,” Harvey Silverglate calls them “entitled,” and Peggy Noonan calls them “snowflakes,” and in each of these articles I sense a patronizing, self-righteous, ugly form of glee. I know that most professors do not share in this language, but we cannot ignore that fact that it has come to characterize much of the public criticism.

Students are now coming into their politics in a time saturated by social media, rising debt, and public enmity towards all manner of teachers and publically-supported teaching, but especially those relating to the humanities. They are watching cellphone videos of young black men and women dying by the hands of police who claim they felt “threatened” and acted in “self-defence,” so is it any wonder that they too have learned how effective the language of harm can be? Further, to borrow some sage wisdom from the “thriving vernacular therapeutic culture,” ridiculing students as babies, wimps, entitled brats, snowflakes, and fragile waifs will do nothing to positively alter their behaviour. Such accusations only contribute to students’ infantilization under the consumerist model of higher education. They are also incongruous with my and I know many of my peers’ experiences of teaching students who are by and large intelligent, thoughtful, and brave individuals. For university privatization, tuition hikes, the devaluation and undercompensation of teachers, and the criminalization of political speech affects us all, and alienating students with such vitriolic language not only misses the point but further fractures our shared bonds. Students may need a new kind of language, but so do we. Perhaps that language could be one of alliances rather than new conflicts with the people who share our interests in a robust and sustainable system of public education and a thriving critical citizenry.

But just because we are compelled to understand their positions does not mean we are required to accept the language or organizing ideas of trigger warnings. In fact, I think it is our duty as educators to refuse to set a precedent whereby students are empowered to dictate how texts are taught in the classroom. Talking with students about how the demand for trigger warnings fits into a larger movement that threatens the university and developing with them a language for our shared, if not identical, experiences of education strikes me as being a far more productive way to counter the trend. I know many of my teachers and colleagues are already doing this. One professor with whom I worked as a TA last year talked to our third-year undergraduate class about why trigger warnings in the classroom were not an effective means of mental health support and explained why she would not be using them. She also told students what kind of support she was able to offer instead. There are others for whom discussions of critical pedagogy are necessarily part of their students’ degrees. This opinion piece, then, is directed to undergraduate students as much as it is to grads and faculty. You are not babies, snowflakes, or wimps, and your political speech has not gone unheard. As people who have chosen a career with the responsibility to help you become strong critical thinkers, we want you to develop a new language with us, and be open to the concerns we have about using trigger warnings in the classroom as we will try to be open to what you have to tell us about learning in the twenty-first century.


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DisruptED: Education Interrupted Copyright © by Paul R. MacPherson Institute for Leadership, Innovation and Excellence, McMaster University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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