A Philosopher's Blog

Trigger Warnings & Academic Freedom I

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 18, 2014
Cover of "Things Fall Apart"

Cover of Things Fall Apart

A trigger warning, in the context of a university class, is an explicit notification that the content a student is supposed to read, view or hear might be upsetting or even cause a post-traumatic stress disorder response. While the idea of warning people about potentially disturbing content is certainly an old one, the intellectual foundations of trigger warnings lie in the realm of feminist thought.

Some universities (such as Oberlin College, Rutgers, the University of Michigan and University of California, Santa Barbara) have considered requests from students for such trigger warnings. Oberlin briefly posted a guide to this on the college web site: professors should warn students about anything that would “disrupt a student’s learning” and “cause trauma.” The guide also urged professors to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. 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.”

As a concrete example, the guide used Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe as an example. While noting that it is a “triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read,” the guide warned that it could “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.” At Rutgers, a student has proposed that the Great Gatsby be labeled with a trigger warning because of “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”

While I am staunch supporter of academic freedom, I do have sympathy to the notion that faculty should inform students about content that might be traumatic, offensive or disturbing. This, however, does not stem from any commitment to what some might call political correctness. Rather, I base it on two principles. The first my view that students have a right to know ahead of time what is in a class so they can make an informed choice as to whether they want to take the class or not. That is why I make my course material readily available and routinely respond to emails from students inquiring about content. I am not worried that my course content will shock or traumatize students—I tend to use readings from thinkers such as Aristotle, Lao Tzu, Wollstonecraft, King, Plato, Locke, and Descartes. Hardly traumatic or shocking stuff. While I think students should leave their comfort zones, I also believe that students should do this as a matter of conscious choice and not by being ambushed in the classroom because they have no idea what the course contains.

It might be countered that students should be forced out of their comfort zones and that keeping them ignorant of class content is a legitimate way to do this. In reply, while I think education should force students out of their comfort zones, the correct way to do this is not by keeping the students ignorant of what they are getting into. After all, they do have the right to select their classes based on an informed choice.

Obviously enough, telling students what is in a class in terms of content is distinct from providing explicit warnings about the content. For example, letting the students know that the class will include a showing of Deliverance would not inform those ignorant of the movie that it contains a rape scene and violence.

It can be contended that students who have special concerns would need to be proactive about checking the content and that the professor’s obligation ends at listing the content. To use an analogy, food labels should list ingredients but it is up to the consumer to do a little research—especially if they have allergies. As the Oberlin guide notes, professors might have no idea what might trigger someone—and warning about the unknown can be challenging.

The second is my personal commitment to politeness, civility and compassion. While my classes do not contain material that could be sensibly regarded as potentially traumatic, if I were to include such material I would be obligated to warn the students on the grounds of politeness and compassion. To use an analogy, when I have people over for dinner and do not know whether they are vegetarians or not, I am careful to indicate which dishes have meat and which do not. I also inquire about possible allergies. While I have no food allergies and I am an omnivore (with some moral exceptions, like veal), I recognize that this is not true of everyone and being a good and civil host requires considering others. As such, if I taught a class on morality and war and decided I needed to include graphic images or film clips for valid intellectual reasons, I would certainly let students know ahead of time.

It might be countered that a professor is exempt from the normal rules of civility on the grounds that they have a right to push students out of their intellectual comfort zones (as a coach can legitimately push athletes). This does have some appeal—but I tend to think that civility is consistent with presenting an intellectual challenge to the students.

That said, I do acknowledge an obvious problem: what I might regard as non-traumatic and within the realm of civility might be regarded as traumatic or impolite. However, one of the responsibilities of being a professional is being able to make judgments about proper content. I admit that I can err in this—obviously. However, if I am competent enough to teach a class, then I should be competent enough to be able to distinguish what I should warn students about and what I should not. Admitting, of course, that I could get it wrong. While I am willing to seek guidance in this matter from others, I am opposed to such “guidance” being imposed. I will write more on that in another essay.


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