Trigger Warnings & Academic Freedom II
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.