by Massimo Pigliucci
There has been lots of talk about so-called “trigger warnings” lately. Although they originated outside the university (largely on feminist message boards in the ‘90s, and then in the blogosphere ), within the academy this is the idea that professors should issue warnings to their students about potentially disturbing material that they are about to read or otherwise be exposed to. The warnings are necessary, advocates say, because such material may “trigger” episodes of discomfort, emotional pain, or outright post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This is clearly a crucial issue for a teacher such as myself, who is responsible for contributing to the education of scores of students every semester, and who is of course also concerned about their welfare and their thriving as human beings. So I read a lot, and widely (meaning both pro and con), about the issue, and have talked to colleagues and a number of students, in order to make up my mind not just in a theoretical sense, but also as guidance to my own actual practice in the classroom.
One of the most recent episodes concerning the controversy over trigger warnings (henceforth, TW) featured four Columbia University students belonging to the local Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board, who wrote a letter to the Columbia Spectator  arguing that exposure to the writings of the classic Roman poet Ovid should have come with TW because they contain references to rape. Referring to the experience of another student in a Literature Humanities course, the letter reads, in part:
During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.
As far as I can tell, this is pretty representative of some students’ point of view on the issue. Let me now give you a taste of how some faculty responded to this sort of argument. (I will ignore the more brash and insensitive commentary that has come especially from some conservative and libertarian quarters, because I don’t think they help the discussion move forward. If you really wish to have a taste of them, read through a partial compilation published by The Washington Post .)
For instance, a group of seven professors who teach in some of the fields most often targeted by advocates of TW — gender studies, critical race studies, film and visual studies, literary studies —listed a number of reasons why TW are a bad idea , among which:
Faculty cannot predict in advance what will be triggering for students.The idea that trauma is reignited by representations of the particular traumatizing experience is not supported by the research on post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma.
There is no mechanism, in the discourse of ‘triggering,’ for distinguishing material that is oppositional or critical in its representation of traumatizing experience from that which is sensationalistic or gratuitous.
PTSD is a disability; as with all disabilities, students and faculty deserve to have effective resources provided by independent campus offices.
Faculty of color, queer faculty, and faculty teaching in gender/sexuality studies, critical race theory, and the visual/performing arts will likely be disproportionate targets of student complaints about triggering.
Trigger warnings may provide a dangerous illusion that a campus has solved or is systematically addressing its problems with sexual assault, racial aggression, and other forms of campus violence, when, in fact, the opposite may be true.
These two excerpts already lay out much of the meat of the discourse on TW. On the one hand, faculty ought to be sensitive, rather than dismissive, to students’ concerns. This is our duty both as teachers and, simply speaking, as human beings. On the other hand, there are several reasons to think that requiring formal administrative policies about TW (as a number of students are now requesting, and universities are considering) is likely to have a good deal of negative consequences, not only for faculty, but for the students themselves.
Indeed, some students are pushing back against their own colleagues. Here is a number of comments collected during a survey on TW by a faculty who wished to explore the issue with her own students :
“I would like to experience the novel without warning beforehand.”
“I think one purpose of triggers is to face deep trauma and to hopefully grow from it.”
“This is the real world and bad things happen. Caring for those affected by these topics is also a necessity.”
“If someone is so shocked that they couldn’t deal with readings, they should really be seeking help professionally and not take the class at this time.”
The same faculty, Lori Horvitz, points out that she feels unjustly attacked when students who push TW imply (or say outright), that she is simply unconcerned about their welfare: “I want to scream: ‘I care! This is why I have chosen to teach difficult material, about the oppression of women and minorities, in the first place.’”
The American Association of University Professors has also tackled the issue, and it has come down squarely against TW , for many of the same reasons listed by the multi-faculty op-ed mentioned above. The report begins by noticing how the range of subject matters that have been put forth for TW is vast, covering pretty much every potentially controversial (and educational) topic within the academy: racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. The authors of the report mentioned a specific incident in which students at Wellesley College objected to a sculpture of a man in his underwear on the grounds that it might be a source of triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault, even though the artist wanted to represent sleepwalking.
Here are some of the most salient points of the AAUP report:
* The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.
* [TW] single out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention. … If such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether.
* Administration regulation constitutes interference with academic freedom; faculty judgment is a legitimate exercise of autonomy.
* Trigger warnings conflate exceptional individual experience of trauma with the anticipation of trauma for an entire group.
* A trigger warning might lead a student to simply not read an assignment or it might elicit a response from students they otherwise would not have had.
* Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered.
* Trigger warnings reduce students to vulnerable victims rather than full participants in the intellectual process of education.
* The classroom is not the appropriate venue to treat PTSD, which is a medical condition that requires serious medical treatment.
* Trigger warnings are a way of displacing the problem, however, locating its solution in the classroom rather than in administrative attention to social behaviors that permit sexual violence to take place.
Again, while students’ concerns should never be treated lightly, the above list also raises a number of crucial objections to TW which go right to the core of what it means to engage in higher education, and they too should not be dismissed as simply a parochial attempt by faculty to retain their “privilege,” or simply to save their ass from being sued. (To achieve the latter goal, actually, it would probably be easier to just slap a generic label on every syllabus and be done with it. Though of course that would hardly do anything useful for anyone.)
One of the recent contributions to discussions about TW that I found most compelling, however, is an article by Todd Gitlin in Tablet Magazine . Gitlin doesn’t provide a systematic list of concerns, he simply begins by recalling a stark episode that occurred during his own education, when one of his teachers exposed the class — needless to say, without warning — to two films about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The first one was Triumph of the Will , often considered the “greatest” Nazi propaganda movie ever made; the second one was Night and Fog, by Alain Resnais , the first ever documentary about the Holocaust. This is Gitlin’s commentary on the episode:
The juxtaposition of the two films was, of course, no accident. They were programmed in sequence to make unavoidable the sense of a causal vector running from the submissive ecstasies of Nuremberg to the horrors of Auschwitz. You didn’t need a diagram. It was a shattering afternoon. The audience left in dead silence.
I’ve not forgotten the shock and logic of the segue. (Neither has a classmate I checked with, who was there as well.) Those images were engraved into our souls. The cinematic double whammy certainly made me, to use the current euphemism, ‘uncomfortable.’ Oh yes, to put it mildly, it made me very uncomfortable. That was the point. Mission accomplished, Professor Sam Beer of Harvard’s Soc Sci 2. You impressed upon this 19-year-old soul an unbearable, ineradicable warning about mass rallies and mass murder. You didn’t draw me a diagram. You burned into me that more powerful thing: a synapse.
Gitlin then recounted his very recent encounter with journalist Charif Kiwan, who introduced — at Columbia University — a documentary about the ongoing destruction in Syria with the following words: “We want to haunt your imagination. Please be disturbed.”
So, what is there to be done about trigger warnings? On the one hand, we have a strong push by (some) students for a fairly broad application of the concept to an extensive variety of subject matters and individual texts or other materials that are often used in academic settings. The rationale behind this push is a series of concerns, ranging from not wanting to experience discomfort in class to wishing to avoid episodes of PTSD in people who are prone to them.
On the other hand, we have a pretty strong push back by a number of faculty, and one of their leading organizations. Here too the rationales are varied, from issues of academic freedom to the lack of empirical support for the effectiveness of TW, from the possibility that they offer a false sense of security (and, mostly, cover for the administration) to the risk of invalidating precisely what is most precious about higher education.
There is one concept that seems to have eluded the majority of articles and interviews on TW, though (of course, I haven’t done an exhaustive search, and I would be stunned if nobody has brought this up before!): the idea of best practice, on the part of faculty.
University faculty are professionals who develop fundamentally two skills during their careers: scholarship and teaching (either in that or in reverse order of importance, depending on the institution at which they work). Both of the corresponding activities inevitably present ethical issues. A faculty qua scholar, for instance, knows (or should know) that it is not acceptable to plagiarize other people’s work, or to fabricate data, or to take unfair advantage of the work done by junior colleagues and students. This doesn’t mean, of course, that these things don’t happen. But when they do, both the University and professional organizations already have tools to act appropriately to redress the wrong and punish the offender.
Similarly, when it comes to teaching, my colleagues and I know that certain things are unacceptable. Students’ complaints should not be dismissed out of hand; students should not only be allowed, but encouraged, to analyze critically not just the materials they are given, but even the very structure of the courses they are taking, no holds barred. Again, when faculty fail to do so there are already mechanisms at the professional and administrative levels to deal with it (I know because I was a Department Chair for five years, and I have dealt with some pertinent cases).
When it comes to the issue we have been tackling, then, best practice most certainly includes the idea that one doesn’t spring shocking material on students for the sake of shock: it has to have pedagogical content. It is not okay, say, to start a class on human anatomy by showing a video of a beheading carried out by ISIS. There would be no point at all in doing so, other than a perverse delight in disturbing one’s students. But such a video may very well be pertinent in a class devoted to the study of terrorism, for instance. Should it be accompanied by a warning that potentially disturbing material will be shown? Hell yes, but that’s just commonsense (and, again, good practice), as the material is disturbing quite irrespectively of whether it triggers memories of one’s own experiences (not many students have that particular kind of memory, after all). What about something like Ovid’s description of rape in the Metamorphoses?  I’m not a classicist, but that does not sound to me like it requires a special warning, although it would be good — in the modern classroom — for the faculty to lead a discussion not only about the poetic language (which is, indeed, beautiful) but also the cultural and historical context that made rape the subject of poetry to begin with.
The issue, then, is: can we come up with general, encompassing rules for what requires a warning and what doesn’t? And who is to make the relevant decisions in practice?
The answer to the first question seems clear on empirical grounds: no. There are too many situations and materials, and too varied students’ experiences for it to be possible to arrive at operationally useful rules. And a simple generic label won’t do the trick, in fact likely having negative pedagogical consequences, making a mockery of the whole idea of TW.
The answer to the second question is: not students, and not administrators, but faculty (though with input from both students and administrators). Why? Because, as hard as it seems to understand for the American public these days, teachers are professionals, who are therefore much better positioned than either students or administrators when it comes to decide what and how to teach.
Administrators these days tend to think of themselves as the real owners of universities, but in fact they are by far the least important component of all: both research and teaching is done by faculty, and the major point of a university is to teach students. Administrators are there to, well, administer, i.e., to do their best so that the people they serve — the students and the faculty — can respectively learn and do their jobs. Period.
Students, for their part, are not “customers,” as they are often portrayed nowadays. And they are not equal players in the classroom either. There is a (good) reason why I’m standing in front of the class and they are lined up on the other side, just like there is a reason why you sit on the table while the doctor examines you, not the other way around. That said, of course, students (like patients) have rights, which include being heard by the faculty (doctor) with the expectation that their point of view will be taken into due consideration, and that if it isn’t, they have further recourse (to the university’s or the hospital’s administration).
Best practice, then, means that we should reject the imposition of official policies about TW, but also that faculty have a (moral, pedagogical) responsibility to conduct themselves in the classroom in a way that serves their students to the best of their abilities. And this may include occasional warnings for specific instances of potentially disturbing material. But bear in mind the conclusion of Gitlin’s essay mentioned above: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free” Not comfortable — free.”
Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).
 How The “Trigger Warning” Took Over The Internet, by A. Vingiano, BuzzFeed, 5 May 2014.
 Our identities matter in Core classrooms, by K. Johnson, T. Lynch, E. Monroe, and T. Wang, Columbia Spectator, 30 April 2015.
 Columbia students claim Greek mythology needs a trigger warning, by M.E. Miller, The Washington Post, 14 May 2015.
 Trigger Warnings Are Flawed, by E. Freeman, B. Herrera, N. Hurley, H. King, D. Luciano, D. Seitler, and P. White, Inside Higher Education, 29 May 2014.
 Life doesn’t come with trigger warnings. Why should books?, by L. Horvitz, The Guardian, 18 May 2015.
 On Trigger Warnings, by the AAUP Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, August 2014.
 Please Be Disturbed: Triggering Can Be Good for You, Kids, by T. Gitlin, Tablet Magazine, 13 March 2015.
 You can watch the full Nazi propaganda movie (1hr 44m) here.
 Here is Resnais’ documentary (about 32m).
 Which you can check out for yourself here.
50 thoughts on “The false dichotomy of trigger warnings”
For many years, I was extremely upset by any display of material showing Third Reich rallies. I eventually overcame this, with a bit of professional help..
I feel sure that triggers warnings would have made matters worse, becoming, in turn, things I needed to watch out for, then secondary triggers in themselves. Thus phobias are born.
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Excellent presentation of the points pro and con, complete clarity of language and precision in evaluation of their merits, and no ambiguity in the decisive conclusion.
Has the tremendous advantage of being based on a full concrete and direct experience of the question’s opposite issues, strengthened by a thorough review of the key scholarship on the subject.
I take exception to your link , which has a tagline of, “Triggering Can Be Good for You, Kids”.
As a basic, definitional matter that’s false. To be psychologically triggered is to have an episode—a panic attack or a flashback—brought about by some stimulus. They reach the level of disorder, again as a matter of definition, when they impact the person’s ability to live their life. It is nigh impossible to develop positively during a panic attack, trust me. These episodes are the opposite of rational thought and discourse and so students cannot generally be helped by having them, at least without intense work by a therapist.
That the author (and most people) weren’t personally triggered is the case for bold instruction. But if someone were triggered by exposure to holocaust imagery, this would be counter-productive. I’m sympathetic to the argument that this should be handled in ways other than trigger warnings, but not to the argument that giving students panic attacks and flashbacks is good pedagogy or helpful to them. This kind of equivocation is the ableism that trigger warning-aligned people such as myself are so uncomfortable with:
“The pedagogical tactic was precisely to produce discomfort; to wound us; to crumple our innocence.”
Psychological triggers aren’t merely uncomfortable, they are extraordinarily damaging experiences. They are also extraordinarily limiting—they will not make you free. So while I share your ambivalence on how best to ensure a good education with best practices, conceptualizing the trade-off in terms of discomfort seriously understates the challenges of access those with triggered disorders face.
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If trigger warnings are merely a request for fore-warning then to some extent that is reasonable, so long as they don’t get rule-bound and procedural.
Are they, though, fronts for censorship, or might they end up resulting, de facto, in censorship?
There has long been requests for “warnings” and “disclaimers” about the teaching of evolution and similar topics in schools, and those are certainly requests for censorship. Some take the attitude that nothing that discomforts a student’s religious faith should be allowed.
Currently, there are widespread demands that university campuses be “safe spaces” where students don’t encounter speech which conflicts with their ideas, with such speech often being labelled “hate speech”.
A common flash-point is Islam, where criticism of Islam, in a style that would be quite normal if directed at, say, capitalism or communism, is disallowed as “Islamophobia”.
There needs to be a general presumption that university students are adults who should be robust enough to encounter ideas they don’t like, and who don’t need censored “safe spaces”.
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One imagines that students with triggers know what those triggers are. Why not ask the student to anonymously convey those triggers in advance? This enables the teacher to issue appropriate warnings without invoking a TW on every mildly controversial passage.
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My concern expressed above is that the more we make an issue of warning, the more risk of creating greater vulnerability. This proposal would require students to become aware of and specify their triggers in advance, which seems bound to make their problems worse.
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R. A. Stark,
The only instance of ‘triggering’ I’ve actually seen in a class-room, was in a biology course. The trigger was a lecture on sexual reproduction among lower mammals. The student suffered a nervous break-down in class; apparently his parents were undergoing a particularly vicious divorce – who knew?
It would be wonderful if we had the resources for students to be taught individually, but that’s wishful thinking. In the context of contemporary educational systems, a generalized curriculum has to be developed towards providing the greatest opportunities for inquiry and knowledge acquistion for an admittedly generic ‘model’ student. Unfortunately, there are no model students, only individuals. Even if we classify students into fairly precise psycho-social diagnostic groups, we’ll never be able to predict possible responses of individuals to challenging material embedded with perceived threats.
There’s no growth possible without challenges – even those embedded with threat. Often our worse imagined scenarios are the ones we need to confront. Life is messy; history is filled with horror stories; literature is not about pretty language.
I was in nursing for 12 years. I had to treat bed-sores that were to the bone and filled with maggots. I had to clean feces out of the mouths of demented residents. More than one patient died in my arms. Learning this would happen in school wasn’t adequate preparation for living it.
‘Well, but nursing was your choice.’ Yes, and taking a literature course that includes stories about rape, murder, dismemberment, incest, infanticide, etc., etc. – all the possible horrors that actually do occur in the human experience – is also a choice.
Pretending that our journey through life can be cushioned by administrative intervention is not a meaningful choice. Do we really expect to cloister students from unhappy reality in the classroom, when we know they go home to watch brutality live on cable news?
There’s not a single interesting work of literature that isn’t threatening to someone in some way. “Tom Sawyer” has long been considered a good read for young people; smack in the middle of it is one of the most cold-blodded murders ever written about. “Alice in Wonderland” is charged with disturbing images of bodily distortion, loss of control, and threats of mob violence. Setting aside the various acts of sadism and murder that stain Shakespeare’s tragedies with blood, let’s consider his ‘light-hearted’ comedies – filled with implicit adultry, occasional suggestions of possible incest and pedophilia (that notorious ‘changling’ boy in Mid-Summer’s Night’s Dream’), verbal and psychological abuse (poor Malvolio!), and out-right monsters (eg., Caliban).
Bad things do happen; learning to live with that is what life is about. Exposing us to this truth is what literature is about.
I’ve had a very rough life. Literature is one of the experiences that helped me learn to live through it. I sympathize with those who have suffered traumatic experiences; but I think it shameful to warn them away from what might possibly help them recover from such experiences.
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I’m with Massimo on this. As someone who taught Classical Mythology at the university level for years, I can tell you that I never felt the need for some sort of trigger warning, other than telling them at the beginning what kind of material we’d be covering and why it was important. The notion of some sort of administrative CYA clause would not even have occurred to me. Ejwinner is spot on- if this is now to be expected, then most literature courses worth a damn will have to have them. Which then f
Which then frames the whole thing in a manner that works against substantive engagement.
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Hi Massimo, that was a more reserved analysis than I was expecting, or perhaps hoping for. Not saying it was bad at all, but I have less tolerance for this trigger warning stuff. It seems directly counter to what education is supposed to be about, if one is getting set to live in a real world.
Within your comments about TWs, I didn’t see you mention the point that avoiding potential “trigger” experiences is actually not good for people with phobias/traumas (the very people claimed to need protection). Perhaps during some very sensitive periods it is, but then that is a medical issue and perhaps school is not the place to be at that time. Outside of that, people have to get used to living with exposure to such events, dealing with their feelings about them. Otherwise they reinforce their hypersensitivity. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I would also second Paul Braterman‘s point that this kind of thing creates secondary triggers… the TWs themselves. I read some review which said that TWs unrelated to one’s own sensitivity can actually come to upset individuals because it reminds them of TWs which reminds them of their specific sensitivity.
I also agree ejwinner regarding the value of literature (and I would add other methods of discussion) in helping people recover from traumatic experiences.
Clinical cases aside (diagnosed PTSD), exposure that leads to understanding and willingness to take on the difficult is actually psychologically beneficial and not harmful. I agree with Massimo that there can be things professors could do to warn students when appropriate but the larger project of trying to protect people from all or any discomfort, even when that is personal to the individual, is actually psychologically damaging as it promotes avoidance.
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In the 80s there were some similar arguments against the introduction of parental advisory stickers for music. Eventually the stickers became so commonplace that no one pays attention to them anymore. Some bands even started using the sticker as a badge of honor.
The major difference between TW and parental advisory stickers was that parents wanted a way to make an informed decision about the type of music they were buying for their children; mainly in reference to violent imagery or profanity. That seems to be a pretty intuitive and commonplace concern that adults have in regards to their children. There’s no such commonsensical adulteration when it comes to TWs, as any negative human experience can be potentially “triggering”.
If trigger warnings become more popular, they will probably descend to the same state of banality as the parental advisory stickers. There will probably even be a band that names itself “Trigger Warning” in the near future, if that hasn’t already happened.
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Trigger warnings continue to strike me as a mechanism for the complete homogenization of a society into a diaphanous blob of irrelevancy. I cannot understand its use in a purely academic setting and will continue to discount its value as being anything more than mundane faux sensitivity with a pretense of “hurt feelings”.
A. I am not trying to be cheeky here, but I sincerely wonder whether the most recent (and emotional) reactions are “triggered” by the terminology itself. Have we not been dealing with content warnings for decades now? Consider movies:
> How often do we get to watch a movie that has *not* been rated for sexy content, violence, naughty words, consumption of tobacco/alcohol/illegal substances, … and so on? Almost all of us (who can go to a theatre without needing adult supervision) are quite happy to ignore these warnings. What’s the big deal? In fact: how many of you still notice them?
I still, after many years, feel sick when I think of “Passion of the Christ” (I almost threw up), “Monster” and “Antichrist.” I am not against violence in general (I absolutely love a good action/fight scene!), but I have no need to *casually* watch such realistically depicted, extreme violence ever again. It would not make me a better person in any way, and I don’t think anyone should have to become numb to violence of that kind. I might still decide to do it for good reasons, but I’d like to have the opportunity to make that decision for myself (and brace myself).
And there surely are many more examples of content warnings. (Even for food!)
B. What makes the following introduction so absurd?
> “The texts we will be studying are 2000 years old and I will have you know, if you do not already know this, that they reflect a society that is very different from our own. Slavery and all kinds of violence, including sexual violence, are treated in the most casual of ways. Many differences between the two societies are important; they may be unsettling to some, and in a sense, they should be unsettling to all of us. But these problematic aspects cannot be separated from the text and I would argue that we shouldn’t try to either. Please do not hesitate to contact me after class if you have further questions about this.”
C. Has anyone *really* discussed and investigated the connection between trigger warnings and self-censorship? I may be slightly naive, but don’t TWs just give a warning? As in: brace yourself, in case you are the kind of person who may be triggered by the material. Why do so many assume that this will, *automatically* lead to self-censorship?
Are the people who are currently complaining very loudly possibly suggesting that an *acceptance* of TWs would grant students an automatic *exemption*?
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I am a university student myself, I am perceived to be part of a minority sexuality and I believe in radical left politics, so I would ordinarily be associated with these ideas, but in reality I find them contemptible.
Your approach to the idea of trigger warnings is admirably level-headed but it makes me wonder what we’re dealing with as a cultural phenomenon. For example, consider a standard undergraduate course in literary history and all the texts that it might entail – now, for our generation of internet natives, what would be so hard about setting up a website that consists of a list of all the books that could be covered in such a course together with their associated triggers? A link could be circulated by student welfare representatives and anyone interested could make it their OWN responsibility to check a text before they read it.
The reason why I suspect this has not even been considered is that trigger warnings are not really (or only) meant to protect individuals who may have had traumatic experiences. Rather, they are an attempt at the socialisation and politicisation of trauma and anxiety. Consider this handy quote from Wikipedia, attributed to Professor Angus Johnston: “[trigger warnings acknowledge] that the journey we’re going on together may at times be painful.” This group-based language shows that trigger warnings are a manifestation of identity politics rather than a tool for psychological well-being. There are many ways of helping students to combat their problems privately, and the brazen, group-facing explicitness of trigger warnings is not accidental.
It is my feeling that we should be respectful and caring of anyone who has or wishes to share their private grief and trauma – using exactly the best practice guidelines you wrote about – but no student should feel entitled to have the reception of a text become contingent on their own personal experiences by forcing their classes and professors to engage in a social and political acknowledgement.
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Or on Game of Thrones. =) (Which I think there’s a parallel discussion here on sexual assault, but that’s a different conversation)
Very seriously though, I agree. I think that some level of warning isn’t a bad idea, but I largely agree with Massimo on both counts: Adding further layers of administration is not a successful manner of dealing with these situation, and it is best to leave it up to the professor’s discretion (or the department’s, if there’s serious student criticism). But trying to add lots of layers of “protection” for students is not going to be effective.
Apologies: part C of my last comment may not have been sufficiently clear. I wanted to say that it is important to carefully discuss how the following three topics are related:
a. Teachers being asked to be considerate of their students’ inner emotional lives by issuing a TW,
b. The prevalence of self-censorship (as a “typical” reaction to TWs),
c. Whether points “a” or “b” will lead to an exemption of some kind, in one way or another.
A lot of words have gone by to say, very simply, “There aren’t mental health accommodations in the real world, so those with mental health problems should be at the mercy of their professor’s good graces, at best.”
At this point, I would settle for recognition that the consensus on this thread is that psychological episodes aren’t a big deal when compared with making sure the literary canon is uniformly read. (!!!) I am, ultimately, against trigger warnings for classrooms. Despite the access problems with formal diagnosis and disability services, this should be dealt with the same way physical disabilities are. But that people on this thread are willing to do harm because they fear professional oversight speaks volumes to me.
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“As a basic, definitional matter that’s false. To be psychologically triggered is to have an episode—a panic attack or a flashback—brought about by some stimulus.”
Well, no. “Triggering” isn’t a recognized mental condition, and the term has been used widely and loosely, which is one of the major issues. If a student does have an actual, certifiable condition, like PTSD, then there are already mechanisms in place to deal with that sort of issue, and the student may, in fact, be excused from certain classes, the faculty is usually contacted by health services, and so forth. But to claim “trigger” any time someone is reminded of bad or discomforting thoughts is just not helpful, and indeed deleterious to the educational experience.
“I’m sympathetic to the argument that this should be handled in ways other than trigger warnings, but not to the argument that giving students panic attacks and flashbacks is good pedagogy or helpful to them”
I don’t think anyone has suggested that, though “flashbacks,” again, isn’t a medical term. Panic attacks are certifiable and treatable, and they fall into the category mentioned above.
“A lot of words have gone by to say, very simply, “There aren’t mental health accommodations in the real world, so those with mental health problems should be at the mercy of their professor’s good graces, at best.””
This is simply false. For one thing because there are accommodations made for mental health on university campuses. The issue is that discomfort isn’t a mental condition, and should not be treated as such. Presumably, the number of students with PTSD or similar conditions is relatively small, so they need to be handled case by case, using the same channels that allow faculty to accomodate disable students. To impose a TW on an entire class instead seems entirely unnecessary and, again, counterproductive.
“I would settle for recognition that the consensus on this thread is that psychological episodes aren’t a big deal when compared with making sure the literary canon is uniformly read.”
I doubt that sort of caricature helps the discourse.
“Despite the access problems with formal diagnosis and disability services, this should be dealt with the same way physical disabilities are.”
That’s precisely the suggestion here.
“that people on this thread are willing to do harm because they fear professional oversight speaks volumes to me.”
I seriously think you are being ungenerous to people on this thread, and to me as the author of the post.
“If trigger warnings are merely a request for fore-warning then to some extent that is reasonable, so long as they don’t get rule-bound and procedural.”
Right, and I, for one, do alert my students when I think it necessary. However, in some cases that kind of defeats, or takes away from, the pedagogical purpose. One of the essays I link to, for instance, mentions that the faculty did not warn about an attempted rape scene while screening the movie Thelma and Louise. On purpose, since that was part of the intended dramatic effect.
“Are they, though, fronts for censorship, or might they end up resulting, de facto, in censorship?”
That, of course, is one of the dangers pointed out particularly by libertarian commentators. I think it’s a real one, and it’s one of the main reasons I’m against TW (but, again, in favor of best practices).
“there are widespread demands that university campuses be “safe spaces” where students don’t encounter speech which conflicts with their ideas, with such speech often being labelled “hate speech”.”
Right, I do worry about those as well. Campuses should be safe in the same sense as society at large should be safe: one shouldn’t be afraid of being physically assaulted. But being safe from ideas one finds disgusting, revolting, threatening on a psychological level, no — again, with the exception of documented cases of PTSD and similar.
“There needs to be a general presumption that university students are adults who should be robust enough to encounter ideas they don’t like”
“One imagines that students with triggers know what those triggers are. Why not ask the student to anonymously convey those triggers in advance? This enables the teacher to issue appropriate warnings without invoking a TW on every mildly controversial passage.”
Right, but that mechanism is already in place: the student can approach health services and ask them to notify the faculty and suggest the best course of action. However, that can’t be done anonymously, because the faculty has to know which student can be excused from certain classes, needs special accommodation, and so forth.
“Perhaps during some very sensitive periods it is, but then that is a medical issue and perhaps school is not the place to be at that time.”
Right, again I draw a distinction between verifiable medical issues and a generic sense of malaise or discomfort.
“The major difference between TW and parental advisory stickers was that parents wanted a way to make an informed decision about the type of music they were buying for their children”
The other major difference is that college students aren’t children…
“Have we not been dealing with content warnings for decades now? Consider movies”
Right, but going to see a movie is a personal decision. What to be taught in a college class isn’t, and shouldn’t be. Students aren’t “customers,” as much as that seems to be the increasingly preferred lingo of some administrators.
“I am not against violence in general (I absolutely love a good action/fight scene!), but I have no need to *casually* watch such realistically depicted”
Absolutely, but the keyword there is “casually.” I don’t introduce material in my classrooms casually. Everything has a very specific reason for why it’s in the syllabus. And the same goes for my colleagues, of course.
“What makes the following introduction so absurd?”
That you would have to put it everywhere. A generic, all-purpose warning serves, in my mind, precisely no purpose. Other than giving excuse to some students who may not like context X to complain about being exposed to content X — (generic) TW notwithstanding.
“Why do so many assume that this will, *automatically* lead to self-censorship?”
Because that’s the feelings of faculty who have to deal with these issues. See the very carefully written essay I linked to by seven colleagues who teach the type of course that is particularly prone to complains about triggers.
“The reason why I suspect this has not even been considered is that trigger warnings are not really (or only) meant to protect individuals who may have had traumatic experiences. Rather, they are an attempt at the socialisation and politicisation of trauma and anxiety.”
Yes, there definitely is that danger.
“This group-based language shows that trigger warnings are a manifestation of identity politics rather than a tool for psychological well-being.”
Again, yes, at the least in part.
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@Massimo: thanks for taking the time to engage. A few more remarks to your comments:
You wrote, “Right, but going to see a movie is a personal decision. What to be taught in a college class isn’t, and shouldn’t be. Students aren’t “customers,” as much as that seems to be the increasingly preferred lingo of some administrators.”
I agree with that, but this is not the point I was trying to make. I wanted to say that we happily accept the imposition of content warnings in a situation as trivial as going to the cinema / or purchasing food.
1. Why would we then not take these content warnings seriously in the much more important context of education, where students have much less control over what they will be exposed to?
2. I have not yet read the studies you cited (I will try to get to that asap), but again: I do not see why “putting some labels on a course” implies “students (de facto) picking and choosing what will be in the curriculum.” Is this implication really that obvious? Are there no other “legal or practical situations” we could imagine? Just to be difficult, and to give an extreme theoretical example: “I’ll warn you if you like, but the content of the curriculum will not be influenced by your requests.”
3. You wrote, “Absolutely, but the keyword there is “casually.” I don’t introduce material in my classrooms casually. Everything has a very specific reason for why it’s in the syllabus. And the same goes for my colleagues, of course.”
And again: I agree. But I meant *casually* also in the sense of “being unprepared for what is to come.” This can make a big difference for those with a serious amount of baggage. Wouldn’t you agree?
4. You wrote, “That you would have to put it everywhere. A generic, all-purpose warning serves, in my mind, precisely no purpose. Other than giving excuse to some students who may not like context X to complain about being exposed to content X — (generic) TW notwithstanding.”
I disagree because I believe your approach to the question of the usefulness and appropriateness of TWs may not be very practical. We don’t have to catch *every* possible trigger warning in *every* text in order to make a big difference. Sexual trauma is, I strongly suspect, already the bulk of what “requires” a trigger warning. Might we be slightly too idealistic here?
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Just to clarify my last point with food: (acknowledging that the comparison only makes sense up to a certain point)
We have no problems with putting allergy warnings on food.
a. Some people need to be hospitalised after the consumption of certain nuts or shell-fish, for example. But we don’t have to list every allergen known to science in order to save lives (or to avoid many trips to the ER).
b. Some people are lactose intolerant (non-persistent*), a condition which is typically far from deadly. But the condition is common enough, and it can be mediated by taking an enzyme with the meal. And it takes a few seconds to slap a lactose warning on a restaurant’s menu, and it needs to be done only once.
Again: people who have been warned in advance, can make sure that the material will be processed without too many unwanted side effects.
These two points are meant to illustrate that it doesn’t have to be “all or nothing.” (I know that sounds a tad dramatic, ;)).
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I’m pretty much with your approach to TW. The question that hasn’t been addressed is “what happens next”. Sadly, it’s inevitable that some students on some occasions will be precipitated unexpectedly into a traumatic reaction to material that most of their fellow students absorb without decompensating. Also, students *may* be becoming more sensitive to difficult material.
I’m a psychotherapist dealing with complex traumatic disorders and what disturbed me most about the triggering episode you described was the prof’s reaction to her.
Teachers/professors, in my opinion, need to be prepared to offer acceptance when it happens and to take care that the student is connected, as immediately as possible, with psych support. The denial of the significance to the sufferer of the episode has the strong potential to exacerbate and generalise the sufferers trauma.
So, I agree that we cannot distort the teaching environment with the clutter of hundreds of “just in case” warnings, but it would be a symptom of psychological and empathic enlightenment were teaching staff prepared for the infrequent but potentially serious occasions when acute psychological reactions do occur.
Kind Regards, and I very much appreciate this blog.
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Question: Do you think trigger warnings and safe spaces are part of the same general phenomenon as puppy rooms, or are puppy rooms addressing an altogether separate kind of issue?
Following up on our discussion on twitter: I’m unclear on what you mean by best practice. In other contexts, it usually refers to people getting together to decide on a common approach to a problem/situation. As part of our conversation, you are clearly not in favor of even a voluntary faculty initiated group that generated ‘best practices’ of how to deal with TW.
Are ‘best practices’ defined solely by the individual prof? This doesn’t seem right as how could multiple different standards used by different profs all be ‘best practices’?
Are the standards generated by professional organizations, fellow faculty or admins? If so, then these standards don’t seem less problematic in any obvious way from what a voluntary group could come up with.
You said, “if individual faculty don’t do best practice there are standard recourses for the students already in place, all the way through the administration if need be.”
Is ‘best practice’ here an informal set of rules? Or is it just another way of describing formal policies for which there are already specific rules and procedures?
You clearly want the decision of how to handle TW to remain with individual faculty alone. I can respect that, but I think your use of best practices obscures that point, since it’s not what best practices usually mean in most other contexts in which they are used.
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You know, this comment (as well as ejwinner and Callum Hackett:‘s) sort of sealed the deal for me: I think you’re absolutely right. This is not about protecting students, because the protections are already in place. Perhaps there are people who aren’t diagnosed with panic disorder or PTSD, but there’s not a lot that can be done for them without the appropriate mental health intervention. However, to the TW idea, I would basically phrase this as “Feeling uncomfortable or depressed that you’re watching (for instance) a rape scene is not the same thing as actually having a panic attack due to PTSD.”
In fact, as someone who has suffered from panic attacks in the past, I think it’s actually offensive to try to equate these things. I can tell you first hand that I’ve had panic attacks and I’ve been made uncomfortable in classes. Neither are fun, but they are not comparable. A panic attack is not even in the ball part of simply being made to uncomfortable. For instance, you can actually gain insight and understanding from being made uncomfortable, but I can’t really say that about a panic attack.
Again, if you are dealing with a person with a diagnosed mental health problem, then that’s a whole different story. And as you say, there are policies at (presumably most) universities to handle these situations. But under no condition –especially in academia– should we afford people the right to not be offended out of some misguided comparison between offense and legitimate mental health problems. It’s not just deleterious to education and infantilizing students, it’s also trivializing mental illness.
To the other non-American readers (and Massimo) I like to pose the question whether TW is a “thing” anywhere else? I certainly haven’t heard about anything of the sort here in Germany (not many of my son’s friends study humanities, though – law and natural sciences should automatically have less of these issues).
On the general issue of TW, Massimo’s view makes a lot of sense. But: we are talking about adult student, i.e. in college, right? Having read Ovid in 9th or 10th grade (in the original though – I started Latin in 5th) I found the introductory example quite absurd…
“Why would we then not take these content warnings seriously in the much more important context of education, where students have much less control over what they will be exposed to?”
Because one of the crucial aspects of education is precisely to expose students to unwelcome or even disturbing material, so long as the process serves pedagogical purposes.
“I do not see why “putting some labels on a course” implies “students (de facto) picking and choosing what will be in the curriculum.” Is this implication really that obvious?”
Yes. That’s why students are asking for the labels, so that they can avoid exposure to said materials.
“”I’ll warn you if you like, but the content of the curriculum will not be influenced by your requests.””
That’s a different issue, since a student could request to be excused from material X without asking that material X be excised from the course. But of course faculty will then feel the pressure to do precisely that, as explained very clearly in the letter by seven of my colleagues referenced in the essay.
“But I meant *casually* also in the sense of “being unprepared for what is to come.””
That’s not “casually,” on the contrary. See the example above of a faculty who did not warn her students of an attempted rape scene in a movie, because being surprised was part of the point.
“We don’t have to catch *every* possible trigger warning in *every* text in order to make a big difference. Sexual trauma is, I strongly suspect, already the bulk of what “requires” a trigger warning.”
Again, if a student suffers from certifiable PTSD or similar, then there already are mechanisms in place. But are you suggesting that we should excise, or warn of, anything that might remind someone of sexual trauma? As others have pointed out, that pretty much takes care of most literature, movies, a bit of poetry, and even a certain literature in social and psychological science.
“We have no problems with putting allergy warnings on food.”
Ideas aren’t allergens. You are supposed to be exposed to them, that is the point of college education. The only exception can be, again, people with certifiable mental issues. But even those are hard to actually deal with, since all sorts of things can “trigger.” Triggers are nowhere as specific as allergens.
“Teachers/professors, in my opinion, need to be prepared to offer acceptance when it happens and to take care that the student is connected, as immediately as possible, with psych support”
Correct, I would count that under the rubric of best practice. Just like it would be to send a student who injured herself physically to health services immediately.
“I’m unclear on what you mean by best practice. In other contexts, it usually refers to people getting together to decide on a common approach to a problem/situation”
Not necessarily. It also simply means to abide by ethical and professional standards that are set in broad terms by your employer. All universities already have those. (My faculty handbook is pretty thick, and it does contain plenty of advice on how to treat students, colleagues, etc.)
“Are the standards generated by professional organizations, fellow faculty or admins? If so, then these standards don’t seem less problematic in any obvious way from what a voluntary group could come up with.”
The problem with a voluntary group is that this introduces a lot of variability, across departments, schools, campuses, etc.
“Is ‘best practice’ here an informal set of rules? Or is it just another way of describing formal policies for which there are already specific rules and procedures?”
It’s both. Again, all universities have specific rules and policies of conduct. On top of which individual employers, not just faculty, add their own interpretation of how to best conduct themselves in the exercise of their profession.
“”Feeling uncomfortable or depressed that you’re watching (for instance) a rape scene is not the same thing as actually having a panic attack due to PTSD.””
Correct. And this recognition doesn’t diminish the importance of actually helping people with PTSD.
“It’s not just deleterious to education and infantilizing students, it’s also trivializing mental illness”
Agreed. As I said above, I think of campus life as a microcosm of the world at large. In the latter, we definitely have a right not to be physically harmed, or psychologically abused. But no, we don’t have a right to be protected from discomfort. And of course in normal life we get no protection from potentially PTSD-triggering episodes either, except for the opportunity to seek a therapist, assuming we can afford it.
“I like to pose the question whether TW is a “thing” anywhere else?”
Not that I know of, though I’d be curious if other international readers have come across it.
“we are talking about adult student, i.e. in college, right? Having read Ovid in 9th or 10th grade (in the original though – I started Latin in 5th) I found the introductory example quite absurd…”
Indeed. In fact, it sounds to me like the student group that wrote the editorial for the Columbia paper had not actually read Ovid. His poem doesn’t contain anything like “vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault.”
Could there be a meta-TW? Example: “I’m about to issue a TW for the content that follows. If you find TWs offensive in any way, please feel free to ignore the prefacing TW.” Or would that meta-TW be objectionable?
I’m with EJ on the basic issue of trigger warnings versus “living life.”
I’m with DBHolmes in thinking Massimo is a bit too generous on this, too.
To me, this seems to fair degree to be a spinoff of “helicopter moms,” mixed up in some cruel mash-up with the SJW world — which I’m surprised Massimo didn’t mention.
As for that? To riff on what Capt. Kirk told Lt. Sulu when he worried about being too bored about life: “You can always phaser yourself and die.” Ditto if the fact that you can’t control any and every single thing in life upsets your emotions.
Oops! Should that last paragraph have a trigger alert? Maybe like this:
Warning: The material contained herein is known to require critical thinking, self-reflectiveness and other advanced psychological skills and attributes. If you refuse to want to further develop these traits, the Tea Party sign-up sheet is down the hall.
And, yes, I think things like this are part of a new outbreak of American anti-intellectualism. And that’s never been limited to “the right” politically.
I’m also with DB on this issues of warnings themselves being triggering.
Callum, thanks for an “on the ground” perspective.
WoMoe I have to stay with Massimo on this. Warnings on movies and music are designed to give parents advice relevant to their minor children. Collegians aren’t minor children by chronological age. But, per my comments above, I’m less and less sure about their psychological age.
Having had an “unhappy childhood,” I can otherwise agree with EJ, FieldTheorist and others. The attitude of a lot of people about being afraid of being “triggered” is actually more than just “trivializing.” It’s thoughtless and narcissistic.
And, as I also Tweeted Massimo, per the question from Chbieck, as this Telegraph piece notes, the “trigger warning” menace is starting to spread to the UK: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/11106670/Trigger-warnings-more-harm-than-good.html
And, where’s Dan? As a college grad student, I’d like to see his comment, too.
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Unfortunately Dan has publication-time stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his job which is characterized by, among other things, a decreased amount of time.
On this topic, though, you aren’t missing out on much by not getting a lengthy comment from me. Honestly I have only mildly been aware of this issue and haven’t looked into it as much as I should. At NYU I never experienced first-hand any situations manifesting some of the themes which massimo touched on, so I also can’t offer interesting anecdotes either. Additionally i wouldn’t want to make an opinionated comment on this as I haven’t researched it well enough to feel comfortable doing so. My prima facie reaction is to agree with what massimo has said in his essay.
The only thing I can do is recommend reading this article on an overlapping issue: http://chronicle.com/article/My-Title-IX-Inquisition/230489/
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I find Massimo’s take very reasonable and well-stated. I agree down the line.
Some here have suggested that politics might lie beneath TWs. As I follow free speech issues, campus issues, and the war between feminists/SJWs and their critics/opposing movements, I think there may be something to this. A rather extreme view would be that TWs are part of a conscious program to control social discourse. The steps would be these: 1) normalize a culture of hyper-sensitivity; 2) use claims of sensitivity-violation to shut down unwanted speech.
While this picture might be extreme, we do have cases in which people have been silenced on the grounds that it makes some feel “unsafe.” An example is the case in the UK where an event in which two men where to debate abortion was canceled on the grounds that such a debate would make women feel unsafe.
Whether this new culture of hyper-sensitivity is a conscious plot or not, it’s power to undermine free speech and to enshrine a specific ideology shouldn’t be underestimated.
I would be interested in a Philosophy of Psychology approach to this issue. Not just triggers, but the very notion of trauma should be scrutinized. My parents spent a ton of money doing Primal Therapy, which I think is pretty clearly debunked at this point. Not only is it not therapeutic, it’s harmful. Recovered Memory Syndrome, Multiple Personality Disorder — the field of clinical Psychology is littered with bad but catchy notions. They tend to be ideas that make for good TV shows and movie scripts. Witness the finale of MASH, one of the most watched episodes of television ever, which has the (trigger and spoiler alert) big final act reveal being a recovered memory (“It wasn’t a chicken; it was a baby!”) There’s a fairly short distance from the sudden epiphany moments in our popular culture and the Satanic Panic, which ruined so many lives. Yet the idea persists that when bad things happen, they reside in our consciousness like dirt in a wound (Scientology makes a lot of this model, btw, despite their vilification of Psychiatry) The idea that we must dig in our past to either wash out the wounds or “reincorporate” the trauma makes for plenty of therapy sessions, but, I think, bad science. I would also lump Psychopathy (No thanks to Jon Ronson) and PTSD, as notions that don’t stand up to scrutiny.
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Fully agree with the content as far as universities go.
As far as the warning on blogs, however, I wonder if part of it is simply to highlight points of outrage. Every other day I see on my facebook feed, for example, a link with a [trigger warning] attached to it. Given the frequency of potentially triggering material, does the use of it actually do anything beyond inviting the individuals to get outraged?
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With this comment I have used up my 5-comments-per-article, unfortunately.
Thank you again, Massimo, for replying. But I fear we are talking past each other (which I understand is at least in part a natural consequence of having a conversation with a few dozen people.)
I am at this point not sure whether TWs are on the whole a good or a bad thing; I merely wanted to express that some of the arguments against TWs just don’t make sense to me because they seem to make ,b>assumptions, conflate certain ideas, and suggest implications that smell rather fishy. I will try to be as structured as possible, while addressing only some of these points:
1. “The implementation of TWs is fundamentally incompatible with academic freedom.”
I do not understand why universities could not possibly come up with a policy that defends academic freedom and at the same time allows students to ask “does the course have rape in it?”.
2. “TWs are an obstacle to emotional and intellectual growth because of systemic self-censorship.”
The business model of the university here may not be too far off: students are not forced to “buy” our courses, but we don’t have to “sell” them a passing grade if they don’t do what the curriculum requires of them. (This is related to the first point.) I am sure this paragraph alone, could already lead to an interesting, difficult and nuanced discussion of personal responsibility, tenure and many other topics.
3. “TWs are an obstacle to pedagogy by taking away the element of surprise.”
I have to admit the example of the instructor with the surprise rape scene made me rather upset, and not just because it is callous. It is also based on a mountain of ignorance.
3.1 Shock and the element of surprise can be a good educational tool, of course. But those who “need to be surprised with rape” are most certainly not those who have been raped. Think about it: no one thinks more about rape (and how many rapes are “expected/planned”?) than those who have been raped.
3.2 Giving trauma victims the opportunity to inquire about rape content is not incompatible with educational surprises. For example:
Why could the instructor not simply say, in the beginning of the semester: “For those who feel that they need to be warned for specific content: there is a file on my home page that lists topics that are generally known to be problematic. If you have questions about the occurrence of these topics, or other topics that may not be covered, send me a quick e-mail.”
This is similar to “rated movies” and “spoilers.”
4. “The implementation of TWs is hopelessly impractical.”
Students already ask whether they need to have taken course X before they can take course Y; or need to be able to improve their serious or probability or genetics skills before they can begin with course Z. The instructor shouldn’t need hours to answer the question “does the course contain rape?”, and possibly a couple of follow-up questions.
And I repeat: the instructor needn’t preemptively consider every possible trigger known to exist in order to significantly contribute to the well-being of students.
5. “TWs may lead to self-censorship, which is bad, and that is what matters to me.”
Fair enough. But TWs also lead to good things, and I have the impression many are ignoring those benefits. And many may also make (unjustified) assumptions about the prevalence of good and bad consequences. For example:
Students asking for an exemption are very visible, but what about the students who are warned and then brace themselves and then use this warning to find the strength to work through the material anyway? (Students that might have been overwhelmed and disengaged otherwise?) These data points are almost completely invisible in our discussion. What does the scientific literature have to say about the data?
Are we going to assume the only thing that happens and the only thing that matters is self-censorship?
6. “Faculty are not mental health workers.”
Of course they are not. But if you see a human being about to fall into a manhole, are you going to shout “Look out!” or mumble to yourself “it is the city’s responsibility to keep their holes covered”? I hope you’d do the former, and then write to the city’s representatives to tell them they have to do a better job of protecting their citizens.
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Aaron Shure I think you’re a mix of right and wrong on your observations. Unfortunately, the parts where you’re wrong are more damaging, whether or not there’s a “tough it out” angle behind some of your observations or not.
You’re right about Scientology, ritual satanic abuse and similar. That said, Scientology is not a school of psychology, as you note. Ritual satanic abuse, while it got plenty of airplay, only got acceptance from a relatively small number of counselors. And, while the whole issue of dissociation is hard to define, MPD has been redefined as DID. The whole DSM and attempts to precisely define different psychological syndromes has its share of difficulties, but the psychological world does make efforts to improve and better.
You’re dead wrong about PTSD. First, whether under that name, or previous ones like shellshock, or battle fatigue before it, for military combat veterans, it’s been known to modern civilization for a century. Actually, depending on your definition of “modern,” if you read classical Hellenistic writing on war and warriors, it’s been known for 2,500 years.
More recently, it’s become known and diagnosed, for other victims of trauma. And, given that we can find specific changes in the hippocampus and amygdala of victims, it has specific physiological symptoms in the brain. So, from the observational world as well as the professional world, it (sadly) stands up to scrutiny pretty well.
On the issue of memory, you’re a mix of half wrong and incomplete on this specific issue. No, memories aren’t “repressed” in a classically Freudian sense, but more and more memory research demonstrates the ways that some memories can become fragmented, or have their “bare bones” separated from emotional associations and more.
And, to anticipate a possible objection? Please don’t bring up Elizabeth Loftus. She’s not all she cracks herself up to be, as, notably, among other things, lawyer Pat Fitzgerald demonstrated in the Scooter Libby trial. She also has a vested financial interest in her take on memory issues, as she’s served as an expert witness in more than 100 court cases, and probably made a few hundred thousand dollars for this.
I’ve written VERY extensively about this: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/08/did-elizabeth-loftus-watch-clockwork.html
Massimo, I forgot to note on my first comment how well written in general this piece is. Observations from people on the ground, professional background, analogies to doctoring and more.
Paul and Kelskye, yes, I mentioned control issues, along with anti-intellectualism, in my first comment. Outrage itself can be feigned, not real. Let’s not forget that, either. Or, it can be outrage against a construct, not a reality.
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I am not sympathetic to the need for trigger warnings for college course materials. Your essay did, however, did trigger memories of an event that occurred when I was a sophomore at St. John’s College in Annaoplis: the suicide of Sherry Windt. We were all shocked the next day when we read in the newspapers that she had murdered her mother four years earlier. As freshman, she was reading The Oresteia by Aeschylus for seminar. There was some speculation that this reading may have had some role in her decision. There was even an article in the Washington Post in which, among others, her psychiatrist is quoted (Wash. Post, 10/26/1979, section B, Page 1, “Windt’s Death Echoed Greek Tragedies”). The psychiatrist said that he did not think the reading could have been the sole factor. He never mentions PSTD or triggers. She had attempted suicide the previous year without having ever read about Orestes. But my only point here is that back in 1979 at St. Johns we were talking about the same issues regarding Sherry Windt’s death: how does what we read affect our thoughts and deeds.
I did cast a wide net, didn’t I? No surprise I caught some objections. And I may go fishing for some more.
Thanks for your patience. Your blogpost was very interesting. And I agree with your critique of the DSM, though I would be harsher. I think the DSM is long overdue for the dumpster. But then how do you figure out what to put on the insurance claims?
You’re right that I don’t believe there should be a “tough it out” response to people who want help under the rubric of PTSD (or DID or really anything). And I wouldn’t raise this issue in mixed company (even if I had done enough research to actually support my claim). I don’t want to shame sufferers of PTSD. I do, however, want to shame most psychotherapists.
I have no doubt that war is damaging to people’s well being, no doubt seeing or doing horrible things will have lasting effects on most people. No doubt being attacked can affect you greatly, and apparently some people more than others. However, Is there something more to PTSD than that? PTSD seems to me like an ill defined catch-all which is now being appropriated by, for instance, spouses who want to claim they have PTSD from seeing their loved one’s porn browsing history.
I mean, yes, there are images of the hippocampus and amygdala. OK, so how is that not just the neuro correlate of having been messed up by war, or, if you like, seeing your spouses porn predilection? If slapping the label PTSD on that concept is what it takes to get people help, then I guess I’m going to have to stand down.
But, since this is a forum for critical thinking, I’m risking bringing up these issues here. IMO psychotherapy is, god willing, in an embarrassing infancy. And it remains hard to distinguish from pseudo science, even today.
Why don’t therapists apportion their fees or their promises to the actual benefit they can provide? Case in point: my parents spent their retirement savings on now debunked therapy. I’m afraid people are being similarly bilked today. Mostly under the questionable notion of trauma being a thing that is “stored in the body” or that what happens in your childhood utterly forms who you are as an adult.
In this light, your critique of Loftus making money in the court seems a little nitpicky in comparison to the entire industry of psychotherapy that we know in the past has utterly wasted people’s time and money. I know you are optimistic that the field is somehow self-correcting and increasingly evidence based. I would like to share your optimism, but I fear that most therapy is still a waste of time and most therapists are working under philosophically ill defined models.
For instance, if you think trauma can be “somaticized” you are making an assertion of dualism, which is hardly a settled issue. Similarly, your claims that images of the hippocampus and amygydla are telling us more about the PTSD claimer than, say, a photo of their face. This sort of statement begs the mind/body question. “People who cry have tears coming out of their eyes.” “People who are stuck in a bad experience have brains that are also stuck in a bad experience.” These are equally tautological statements.
An interesting read.
Massimo : “four Columbia University students belonging to the local Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board [MAAB] … arguing that exposure to the writings of the classic Roman poet Ovid should have come with TW because they contain references to rape”
First, I can’t find were they argued that, though they do speak about informing faculty of the idea of including TWs for students:
MAAB : “First, we proposed that the center issue a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students…”
But their main concern appears elsewhere:
MAAB : “…Next, we noted that there should be a mechanism for students to communicate their concerns to professors anonymously, as well as a mediation mechanism for students who have identity-based disagreements with professors. Finally, the center should create a training program for all professors, including faculty and graduate instructors, which will enable them to constructively facilitate conversations that embrace all identities, share best practices, and think critically about how the Core Curriculum is framed for their students.
Our vision for this training is not to infringe upon the instructors’ academic freedom in teaching the material. Rather, it is a means of providing them with effective strategies to engage with potential conflicts and confrontations in the classroom, whether they are between students or in response to the material itself. Given these tools, professors will be able to aid in the inclusion of student voices which presently feel silenced”
And I feel that ties in well with your concerns and suggestion of best practices.
Second, the quote you included from the MAAB’s letter is more about her negative reaction to the professor’s attitude than about her negative reaction to Ovid’s texts, and it’s not in support of trigger warnings, in that case or in general, but in support for the idea that ‘training’ could have helped the professor help the student, or at least not exarcerbate the situation.
Massimo : “Because, as hard as it seems to understand for the American public these days, teachers are professionals, who are therefore much better positioned than either students or administrators when it comes to decide what and how to teach”
But it seems that when it comes to higher education the US is like Canada and has no requirement for formal teaching expertise. Of course you need expertise in the subject you teach but actual teaching expertise varies greatly form one individual to the next, including the ability to cope productively with all kinds of student problems.
Back to TWs, I think faculty have legitimate concerns but I feel that many of the ones exposed here and in reference are not. To give just one example: I’m sure an extra little disclaimer, if some form of TWs ever became required, would protect everyone from being sued.
Of course, I’m basing the above on very little research, and I’m not arguing that TWs should be required or that no one is taking the idea too far.
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Aaron Shure Thanks for responding. You’re right that, on a variety of issues, insurance has to be billed. So a name is needed. I’ve mentioned elsewhere here and in general, the WEIRD angle of schizophrenia and other modern Western psychology. I think the WEIRD can get overplayed by critics of modern psychology, but I also think there’s a degree of truth.
I still think PTSD is different. As noted, the constellation of symptoms, whatever name it gets, has been known across cultures, and for at least 2,500 years. So, certainly on the military side, I think it’s valid all along. I also think it’s valid as a diagnosis for other significant trauma, in which I would include rape, child sexual abuse, and major natural disasters.
So, again, to me, the issue is don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
As for your rejoinder on the hippocampus and amygdala? We have evidence of the brain being affected by other mental health issues, such as depression retarding neuron generation. I know of no biologically driven syndrome that would randomly halt neuron creation, just as I know of no biologically driven syndrome that would suddenly shrink the hippocampus and/or amygdala.
Occam’s razor thus says the most reasonable interpretation is that the mental health problems actually affect brain structure.
Now, if you have problems with that idea in general, you probably also have problems with things like embodied cognition as part of consciousness and more. I don’t; I think the mind-body and mind-brain causal pathway regularly goes both ways. And, your claim that an assertion of somatized trauma = a belief in dualism indicates that you may indeed be coming from a different place from me on this.
Back to the insurance side. Even with pharmacological psychology, we can’t know how well a particular anti-D will work with a particular person. Yes, psychology is in childhood (not infancy, though, in my opinion). But, it’s not pseudoscience. Would you have called chemistry of 225 years ago pseudoscience merely because it believed in phlogiston? Or physics of 125 years ago a pseudoscience because it believed in ether? Not me.
I don’t know whence your animus toward psychology. I’m going to be open myself and call it that, though, because that’s what it seems to me. Again, it may well be in childhood, but I don’t think it’s in infancy, and I do think it’s generally moving forward.
And, Loftus? Not nitpicky. I’m not alone on questioning her in general, and from a skeptical, not a pro-PTSD or whatever POV. We’ll either agree to disagree, or just disagree, on her. That includes the idea that I think her own ideas and models are at least somewhat ill-defined. And, you don’t think one person perhaps making $500,000 when she’s probably wrong at times, and we know was wrong in one high-profile case, isn’t itself a waste of time and/or money? I do. Even more, I think her attacks on people who have disagreed with her are problematic.
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very thought provoking and respectfully written…and while I agree with a majority of your points…if you are going to liken Professors to Doctors (Medical)…Then, like myself, who is a Psychotherapist specializing in trauma…you need to look at the Hippocratic Oath. If one is comparing teacher to doctor than “First DO NO HARM” Is a critical part of “treatment” or teaching. Trigger warnings, though they may seem too generalized, anti-academia, not a school issue but a medical issue….etc. They also can provide a safety net to our fellow humans who have a story, a life and a history of which Professors may know nothing of. So, while I agree, that teachers should be trusted to teach and to have the common, human sense to provide some level of emotional safety; we all know…teachers are human and not all humans are going to to the right thing. So I suspect, though I don’t know a great deal on the specifics of this debate…That the guideline may provide some accountablity to individuals who will not use common sense or best practice and are in fact quite capable of doing some seriously heavy emotional/ psychological damage. So, First Do NO Harm Comes with the idea of warnings, harm reduction, advising of side effects…using best practice and the idea of being a trauma informed environment. Trigger warnings have saved my clients from unexpected and unneccesary trauma…while giving them time to review and read the material in a way that is safer for them. Knowing something may have a serious side effect… (or has potential to cause harm) is simply just practicing what good clinicians, therapists, doctors and many teachers have practiced for years. If a film or a piece of literature had a potential razor blade or shard of glass hidden in the pages, but only for some students…(and you didn’t know which book it was) but whoever got “that” book, that individual would be sliced by a blade and caused physically harmed…this would be a no brainer. BUT, like the on-going problem with treating mental health as a separate entity, we still argue against a Simple Statement that could essentially protect the vital organ of the human brain and all it’s critical and life sustaining wiring. I say…”First do no harm”…it’s a no brainer…;-)
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Some weeks ago I prefaced a comment as follows: [Trigger Warning, God talk]. That was done for good reason. Atheist fundamentalists show strong emotional sensitivity to God talk, which is sure to inflame their outrage, hostility and aggression. That was done tongue-in-cheek and I expected even more hostility from my provocation. Unexpectedly that didn’t happen. I suspect my TW acted something like a pre-emptive strike, warning them I expected a stereotyped response and they responded to the challenge by showing they were capable of more than stereotypical responses(well done guys). Perhaps that is why TWs are useful 🙂
But that cynical judgement is the result of exposure to atheist fundamentalists and I think the subject deserves better treatment than that. It is fair to say that the overall tenor of the comments is unsympathetic to TWs , with the exception of WoMoe(is that Woe Me?). I also was unsympathetic when I started reading the essay. But, after more thought(and reading WoMoe), I concluded that the subject needs a more thorough treatment. We need answers to the following questions:
1. Are we dealing with a real problem?
What is the real nature of the problem? Related to this, have we over generalised? Are we conflating two or more problems? I presume Massimo carefully surveyed his own faculty and students. What were the results? Has proper research been done to delineate the problem more carefully?
2. How should we respond to the putative problem?
Answers to this question absorbed the bulk of the posting and the comments. This seems short sighted if we have not examined questions 1 and 3.
3. What are the causes of this phenomenon?
Are we dealing with more than one cause? No attention was given to this all important question. Is that because we deny there is a real problem so a search for causes would be fruitless? Are we being insensitive to a real phenomenon?
4. What does this phenomenon tell us about society?
It seems to me, at least, that this subject is evidence of deeper trends in society. What are they? Is society becoming increasingly narcissistic? Have we been over protective and younger generations lack resilience, hardiness? Have older generations failed in their duty of care and guidance? Understanding these questions can be an important guide to our response.
5. What are the unintended consequences of our responses?
Some attention was given to this question, mainly, it seems, to show that trigger warnings are undesirable. Are we revealing our biases?
Finally, we should not confuse this subject with real PTSD. True PTSD is a devastating condition. I cannot condemn enough the way that society responds to these sufferers. These young men, with their still malleable personalities, were exposed to horrors hard to imagine. Their courage and sacrifice deserves better. Please read the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and the fictionalised account of his treatment for ‘shell shock’, Regeneration, by Pat Barker.
I have more questions than answers. I suggest the subject needs a deeper treatment.
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There is a conceptual issue which goes to the heart of this conflict and the complex interactions involved.
We are culturally conditioned to the dichotomy of good and bad as being foundational ideals, but they are really the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken.
Now what truly makes a culture is having a common understanding of what is good and what is bad. All foxes will agree that chickens are good and all chickens will agree that foxes are bad. So there is a very strong political incentive to create these group understandings. Yet the larger, somewhat more objective reality, is that not everyone has the same sets of needs, inclinations, preferences, hopes, etc.
Not to mention that as a bottom up dichotomy, much of reality exists in that spectrum between black and white.
What can be good for the individual, say growth, can be bad for the society as a whole, if there isn’t sufficient room for everyone to grow. As should be evident to anyone with even the most basic sense of what happens in the world. Just as good on one level can lead to bad on another level, so to can bad lead to good. Where would African Americans be today, if not for slavery. Probably with Arab Americans as a percentage of the population and it is doubtful there would be more people in Africa today, just more wars and death in the intervening centuries. Similarly a fair number of people have likely been born of rape and it likely colored their lives, but they, nor their descendants, would be here otherwise.
Nature very much is a process of creation and dissolution. We can’t reach for the future, without letting go of the past. Biology deals with this by having individuals die, as the species propagates, but human culture naturally likes to expand until it consumes all supporting resources and crashes, or disintegrates through internal conflicts, brought about by conflicting interests and goals, i.e., different considerations of good and bad.
Maybe if some college course were to break down this dynamic and explore it critically, it might give individuals some better perspective of the forces at work in society. Though it might make the job of those seeking to direct society more complex in the short term, it might create a more flexible and resilient society in the long term.
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Hi, Socratic. I don’t really know enough about Loftus to have a strong opinion of her. I think getting paid isn’t inherently wrong. Certainly the therapists who implanted false memories and essentially mind-raped (for lack of a better term) their patients, destroying the patient’s family relations, took payment for that service as well. But if you are convinced that she is vilifying legitimate victims, I would understand why you don’t like her. I hope she isn’t doing that.
We definitely need heroically clear headed people to wade into these murky waters. I think a heroically clear headed person would have to recognize that our unsettled issues about mind/body, nature of consciousness, the particulars of memory, warrant much more caution and caveats than those provided by the bulk of clinical practitioners. Most of them blithely offer cures they do not have, such as EMDR (debunked), Psychoanalysis (Pseudoscience). And when our best meds are essentially the same as the ones we had in the 1960’s and when the same class of drug treats the two most distinct and clearly defined diagnoses (Manic Depression and Schizophrenia), when the same “family dynamics” can produce utterly opposite effects in the survivors of that family– then I think it’s warranted to question exactly what the heck is going on here. Perhaps I just have a chip on my shoulder, but implying that critics of psychotherapy are ipso facto in need of psychotherapy themselves is a neat defensive move, but shouldn’t be employed by anyone who actually cares about the truth, and especially anyone who doesn’t want to be exploiting patients for their own benefit.
Here’s a perspective on the broader significance of TWs. It’s illuminating whether one agrees or not. Christina Hoff Sommers is a philosopher, a feminist, and a critic of mainstream feminism.
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This is quite the best article I have read on the subject. I pretty much agree.
I not that some have expressed disappointment that Massimo did not join in with the now familiar Jeremiads on the subject. I am glad he didn’t, although I would have expected nothing else than a balanced considered approach from him.
I didn’t know what a trigger warning was until people started retweeting wails of anguish about them, There was much mention of left wing authoritarianism. Stalin’s name was dropped not infrequently. I was somewhat surprised to find out that they were essentially content advisory notices.
It may be just me, but that doesn’t sound like a wind so mighty that it will lay low the mountains of the earth. More like something that might be fruitfully discussed at the tail end of a staff meeting, perhaps coming to a similar conclusion as has Massimo about the subject.
I can see areas where a little more information upfront about the course would be useful to certain groups, I have made suggestions to my University in the past about some of these.
The problem is that if people take an idea too far then they idea itself becomes discredited. But just because, say, gluten free diets have become a fad, it doesn’t mean that some of us don’t need gluten free food for sound medical reasons. I would say that they same might apply to cognitive disorders.
Hi Paul Paolini,
The Sommers video was quite good, although I would point out that she is more of a critic of radical feminism than mainstream feminism – a point that she herself does not quite seem to grasp.
Also I note that she is criticising the concept of safe spaces from a safe space. So apparently safe spaces are OK for her and people who agree with her, but not for others.
It seems to me that the radical feminists are considerably less radical than back in the 80’s. Back then it was ‘all men are rapist’ ‘all men are participants in every rape’ and ‘rape is a tool by which all men oppress all women’.
But it didn’t seem to matter as the radical feminists were a pretty small proportion of feminists, and a miniscule proportion of the population in general, and nobody of any sense paid any attention to the dafter things they said.
I don’t know if the proportion of radical feminists has changed – they could always seem more numerous than they actually were by dint of furious activity.
But here is the problem. Suppose I were to run around shouting ‘lock up all professors’ or some such. That would not represent much of a problem to society. The problem would happen, though, if someone with some real authority heard me and thought to him/herself ‘I had better do as he says’.
So the criticism would be better directed away from that noisy minority of radical feminists who have been around for decades, and directed towards those with actual authority who seem to think that there is no alternative but to cave to whatever nonsensical demand they make.
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Paul the video you’ve presented was humors, but predictable. We mustn’t make light of the true problems which some encounter given the horrible past circumstances which they carry forward. Massimo I think your position is admirable, and I do hope that your colleagues are just as sensible. But along with the above disclaimer, I have a true sociological question to ask: Has anyone checked the Vegas over/under on the number of months this term has left?
Students are naturally trendy people, just itching to work the latest terms into their discussions. Political groups are no different. Once the saturation point becomes reached however, such terms do fizzle quickly, and with consequences for those late to the party. At some point people will look at you funny and wonder, “Trigger Warning? Are you really still saying that?”
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You very well may be right. My knowledge of feminism and these matters generally is anecdotal at best. I posted the talk because it’s intriguing and squarely on the topic, not to endorse Sommers, though I do admire the value she places on critical thinking and evidence.
That said, I find it interesting that while Sommers seems to be the model of the reasonable feminist–i.e. focused on solidly good things such as gender equality and female empowerment while seeming to be male-friendly–she is considered a pseudo-feminist, or a stealth anti-feminist, by many in the feminist establishment. I suspect this is mainly because she rejects their key doctrines of rape culture and the patriarchy. To me this suggests that it has become mainstream to accept these doctrines, though they were once associated with radical feminism. So it may be that while the super-radical feminists have diminished, the mainstream has moved more in the radical direction.
But again, it seems it would take some good social science to get an accurate picture of what a mainstream feminist believes. At this point, my approach is to listen to everyone on all sides of these issues without coming to any firm conclusions.
Perhaps others would agree that it would be fascinating if Massimo did an inquiry into the scientific status of theories such as rape culture and patriarchy theory. That’s the kind of investigation I would need before knowing what to think.
Some final comments:
You appear to be conceiving of ‘best practices’ as a constellation of formal and informal rules and policies, some voluntary, some mandatory, some generated individually and some by a host of groups both inside and outside of the university.
I have a really hard time seeing how a voluntary group trying to come up with a focused set of ‘best practices’ to deal with TW introduces any more “variability, across departments, schools, campuses, etc” then what you seem to mean by best practices.
If this constellation of ‘best practices’ was sufficient to sort out the central questions of TW (should there by any, in what situations and what should they look like?) then why the current controversy?.
It seems to me to be precisely because there is a serious disagreement about what general rules/policies etc. (i.e. treat students with respect) do or should require in regard to TW. Since the application of the general rules/policies etc. to the specific case of TW is at the heart of the dispute, it seems to me to beg the question to look for answers in the general rules/policies.
So, while I agree that it makes sense to introduce the idea of ‘best practices’ into the debate on TW, I don’t think ‘best practices’ as you appear to conceive of them can possibly do the job. I continue to think that a voluntary group of faculty could come up with a set of best practices that would address how best to deal with the specific situation of TW.
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Hi totherapynback, I respectfully disagree with several statements/arguments made in your reply.
If a student has a medical issue that could be aggravated by exposure to words and ideas then it is their responsibility to research courses in advance, discuss such issues with the professor beforehand, or not attend university.
It is unfortunate that student–teacher relationships have become impersonal and distant, but the solution is not to shift the burden of a student’s own personal responsibilities to their teacher.
I can think of nothing worse than universities turning into “trauma informed environments”. In a functioning society only a very small minority of people should be afflicted with PTSD level disorders.
At university, professors should be presenting students with challenges to strengthen minds through rigorous training, and that should be the expectation of students coming in. Yes, these challenges should not be life or sanity-threatening, but exposure to ideas and events that exist in the world do not constitute such a threat to healthy minds.
This is not to criticize or demean people who have neurological or psychological issues. It is only to note that people with such issues need to take their own situation into account as exceptions and recognize the challenge they are taking on, rather than blaming others for having reasonable expectations for what students should be able to handle.
Universities are places of learning, not healing. Warnings for clients seeking therapy make sense, warnings for students do not.
This analogy is especially problematic. Of course handing someone a book with a blade inside would be unjust, as one would never expect to find a blade inside a book. However all students should expect a book to contain words and ideas which might be controversial, provocative, or upsetting (contrary to the students’ background).
If such things can damage them like blades, they need to take responsibility for their condition.
This seems like people attending a top culinary institute and wanting to be warned if and when they might have to work with meat, sharp instruments, or fire. Just as culinary institutes are not designed to prepare one for play-doh kitchens, universities are not designed to prepare one for Disneyland.
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