A Philosopher's Blog

Trigger Warnings & Academic Freedom II

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 20, 2014
English: The Forgetful Professor

English: The Forgetful Professor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essay, I discussed the subject of trigger warnings. The basic idea is that a trigger warning is an explicit notification that what a student is supposed to read, view or hear might be upsetting or trigger a post-traumatic stress disorder reaction.

Some universities (such as Oberlin College, Rutgers, the University of Michigan and University of California, Santa Barbara) have considered student requests for these trigger warnings. Oberlin briefly posted a guide urging 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.”

I, as discussed in the earlier essay on this subject, believe that students have a right to know the contents of a class in advance and that I am, as a professor, still bound by the requirements of civility and compassion. As such, I do endorse the idea of professors informing students about potentially upsetting material within their classes. That said, I do have some concerns about the imposition of “guidance” upon faculty by, most likely, administrators.

One point of concern is that the sort of guidance suggested by Oberlin (which might not be representative of the things to come) would strike some as being a manifestation of a “politically correct” ideology that is “fixated” on sensitivity and –isms of various stripes. While claims about the dominance of political correctness in academics is overblown, the imposition of such guides would certainly not help the reputation of the academy in regards to the importance of ideological neutrality in the classroom.

An obvious counter to that concern is to contend that the guides are not politically correct impositions and to see them as such would be a manifestation of the overblown suspicion that preys on those of a certain opposing ideology. Another obvious counter is that such guidance is neutral in regards to ideology and merely aims at protecting students from emotional trauma. A third counter is that the classroom is a suitable place for the imposition of ideology onto a captive audience (though most would not put it quite this way).

While I agree that claims about political correctness dominating the academy are exaggerations, I do think that the sort of guidance presented by Oberlin do send a message about ideology that is not helpful to the reputation of the academic field. I am, of course, opposed to the view that the classroom should serve as a place of ideological indoctrination. As a philosopher, my objective is to teach students how to think and not to preach to them what they should think. Naturally, I do recognize the potential problem with instilling the principles of academic inquiry and learning (honesty, a respect for reason, valuing truth, tolerance, and so on) while maintaining the view that ideologies should not be imposed in the classroom. After all, it might be argued that this is an ideology.

A second point of concern is that while “guiding” faculty in regards to trigger warnings is not imposing a restriction on academic freedom (that is, it does not forbid faculty from including material) it does do at least two negative things. One is that it does make a value judgment of the material and implies that such material is not suitable for all students. As such, it seems to suggest that faculty should, perhaps, not include such material. Another is that it is the first trickle in what might grow into a stream that erodes academic freedom. To lay out the progression, it is not unreasonable to see guidelines gradually evolve into suggestions which then, over a few years, become actual restrictions. As such, it seems sensible to stop the trickle well before the possible flood.

The obvious reply to this concern is that it the feared evolution might never take place—that is, there would be no expansion from guidance regarding trigger warnings to “ism based” restrictions on what faculty are permitted to include in their classes. This is a reasonable point in that to simply assume that the slide must be inevitable would be to fall into a slippery slope fallacy. That said, there does seem to be a clear and reasonable path from guidance to actual restriction and thus this is still a matter of legitimate concern.

A third point of concern is a practical one, namely that students will find ways to exploit trigger warnings in various ways. As some examples, students might use trigger warnings as an excuse to skip classes, as excuses to avoid doing coursework or as a way to wheedle a higher grade (based on an appeal to emotional trauma). It could be rather difficult to prove that a student was illegitimately exploiting trigger warnings. There is also the concern since trigger sensitivity is linked to various –isms a professor who decided to question a student’s triggers could find herself accused of various –isms (such as sexism or racism). Professors also generally prefer to not delve too deeply into the emotional issues of students—we are, after all, generally not trained therapists or counselors and professionalism requires a certain emotional distance.

One objection is that students would not exploit such trigger warnings. The obvious counter is that some certainly would. Another objection is that a system could be created to verify triggers in order to ensure that excuses are legitimate. While this would be possible, this would entail more bureaucracy and still would not do much to deter exploitation.

A third objection is that allowing some students to exploit the system is an acceptable price to pay to allow students to avoid triggering material. This might be true—although it does raise the obvious question of whether avoiding triggering material is even a legitimate reason to miss class, etc.

It could also be countered that the avoidance of trigger material would not provide a legitimate excuse for missing class, avoiding certain coursework, etc. While this is certainly possible, this would cause one to wonder about the value of trigger warnings—that is, there would seem to be something odd in acknowledging that something is potentially traumatic enough that people must be warned while also holding that students are not excused if they elect to avoid the potential trauma. It could be countered that the purpose of the warning is not to allow avoidance but to allow students the chance to be prepared for the incoming trauma. This could be good enough, although it does invite a debate about the value of trigger warnings.

In closing, I do agree that students should be informed about course content and that a professor should be polite and compassionate in regards to letting students know about potentially traumatic material. However, I do have concerns about administrators imposing guidelines and mandating trigger warnings.


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3 Responses

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  1. KimBoo York said, on June 20, 2014 at 8:43 am

    One of my ongoing frustrations in this dialogue is the general hazing of the line between “trauma” and “offense.” As a staff member of the student disability resource center, I see what genuine trauma can do to a student, from fleeting but strong panic attacks to the onset of clinical depression. This is not in any way, shape or form related to a student being offended by the inherent social racism discussed during a class on slavery in the US South. One the of big tenets of my work is that the student is responsible for self disclosure (I’m sure you are familiar with this!), which can bring it’s own stress to a student with, for instance, anxiety disorder. But still, we encourage students to self-disclose at least enough for professors to be aware of issues (such as whether the student is susceptible to seizures). The student has a responsibility here, and if they don’t own that, there isn’t much my department can do to help them.

    Which is my way of circling around to the fact that “triggers for offensive material” and “triggers for traumatic material” are not one and the same, and should not be treated as such. A general disclosure “this class deals with homophobia” could be adapted or even mandated without much pause in the academic process, IMHO. But it should also be mandated that students with /specific/ triggers (rape, suicide, body horror, etc.) should meet with the professor privately to find work-arounds/solutions to dealing with that material. This will dramatically decrease the number of students exploiting trigger warnings as an “out” for class attendance or assignments, because they would have to go f2f with their instructor and explain, if not their personal story, then at least the fact that they /have/ a personal story.

    Mandates for faculty from administration should, at the very least, be flexible in that regard. Like you, I’m wary of across the board, inflexible mandates around course content, but unfortunately as long as people confuse “being traumatized” with “being offended” I think Oberlin’s example is where we are headed. :/

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 20, 2014 at 12:37 pm

      Your distinction between the two triggers is an important one. While professors should avoid being offensive (like swearing at students), students in higher education should be prepared that they might be offended by some views. That is, they might not approve and agree with what they hear.

      But, things that could really traumatize a student should come with warnings. I don’t actually teach classes extreme enough to traumatize a person, but some professors do cover topics that can be very traumatic and do so in ways that are very vivid (pictures, videos and such). They certainly have a moral and professional obligation to let students know what they will encounter in the class. After all, while a student should expect to encounter new ideas, she would probably not expect a class on film and literature to automatically feature vivid rape or murder scenes from movies. A little heads up on that sort of content would be a reasonable expectation.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 21, 2014 at 3:09 am

    I think “trauma”, “traumatize”, and “PTSD” are being misused here. One cannot be traumatized or develop PTSD via a mediated experience. One has to have the actual experience. Perhaps we need to come up with a new ailment, such as Post Mediated Traumatic Distress Syndrome (PMTDS)? There’s a big difference between a 20 year old personally experiencing combat in Iraq and a 20 year old looking at photos of combat in Iraq from the safety of his university classroom 10,000 miles away. I’m beginning to think college is for pussies. I’m glad I didn’t bother going. 😛

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