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Campus grapples with trigger warnings

<eg Lukianoff, attorney, writer, and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), spoke to a room filled with students at Convocation on Friday, April 1. He extolled the virtues of free speech and described instances when FIRE had determined that free speech was being restricted, such as when a student was told he could not hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day.

While much of Lukianoff’s speech was targeted at college administrations, the final section, based largely on the Atlantic cover story “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which Lukianoff co-authored with Jonathan Haidt, was directed more at students and included an indictment of trigger warnings.
Trigger warnings, or content warnings, are notices before potentially sensitive material that includes content some individuals could find distressing. Over the last several years, a national movement has developed on college campuses to include trigger warnings before potentially upsetting material.
Lukianoff argued that trigger warnings prevent traumatized students from healing by treating them as fragile, and, as he and Haidt wrote in the Atlantic, “may also foster unhealthy mental habits in the vastly larger group of students who do not suffer from PTSD or other anxiety disorders” by creating a culture of fear.

Kat George ’16 is the author of Stripped, performed last term, which is a series of gender-and sexuality-inclusive monologues written in response to perceived shortcomings of the Vagina Monologues. They have a different view of trigger warnings.

“I think trigger warnings allow for better discussion or open discussion,” George said. “It allows a person who may have had a traumatic experience with the material to prepare themselves, so that they can face the material rather than avoid the it. I know that a lot of arguments against trigger warnings are about if you have anxiety it’s better to face the anxiety-inducing problems rather than avoid them, and I think trigger warnings are a catalyst for that.”

And indeed, the debate over trigger warnings has been percolating around campus. The Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching (LTC) has held information sessions for faculty and staff about trigger warnings, including one last term that, according to LTC Director Fred Hagstrom, was “very well attended.” According to Hagstrom, these sessions, as well as other LTC programs and materials about trigger warnings including reading groups and articles on the LTC website, are meant to be purely informational, so that “faculty and staff can use them to make their own decisions” about trigger warnings. Hagstrom added that from what he has seen, professors do care about creating safe classroom environments but do not want to prevent important material from being taught.

“[Faculty] want their class to be a good environment,” Hagstrom said. “They also want to be able to use occasionally difficult material, not to censor out material, and everybody is trying to figure out how to accomplish those two things.”

Even when professors do include trigger warnings, however, some students say they are not always helpful. Jess Ibri ’16 said that in one of her classes, a trigger warning was given for scenes of explicit sex when in reality the scenes depicted rape. She sees this mistake as underscoring the need for further education about trigger warnings on campus.

“I think teaching profs how to even have those conversations in the first place is really important,” Ibri said.

Hagstrom said that in his capacity as a Studio Art professor, he will occasionally give a trigger warning for sensitive material, particularly in his off-campus studies trip to the South Pacific, which deals with violence against indigenous peoples. Hagstrom also emphasized that this material is important to the course.

“I’m aware that students are in part on the off-campus trip because it’s fun, and so I caution them that some of the material that we include is very sad but important to know about the area we go to,” Hagstrom said. “We still learn about these difficult subjects. I don’t leave it out.”

Some professors, however, say they only integrate trigger warnings into their curricula because they feel obligated to do so. History professor Harry Williams said he gives trigger warnings in class for select images, such as Robert Mapplethorpe’s Man in Polyester Suit, which depicts graphic male nudity, even though he would prefer not to.

“I don’t want to get sued,” Williams said. “I don’t like posting trigger warnings because I think that in the context of a classroom where virtually every idea should be subjected to rigorous criticism … Trigger warnings are inappropriate.”

Even so, Williams said, he is still sensitive to creating a safe environment in the classroom, and this desire leads him to give a verbal warning to students about material that may affect their own lives.

Gayl Jones’s Corregidora describes the abuse of a woman by a black man and a white slave owner. “I’m not going to teach the novel cold,” Williams said. “I’m going to say a week or so before that this is what Corregidora is about, from a historical perspective, and it may have implications to what’s happening to females on campus, in the United States, [and] transnationally.” On the other hand, Williams said, he is concerned about how the use of trigger warnings affects students’ resiliency after they graduate.

“We are creating a cohort of students who may only be described as being weak,” Williams said. “What informs my perspective is this – for African-American people of my generation, the world has always been dangerous. My parents, and grandparents, my teachers in a Jim Crow high school in Richmond, Virginia, had to teach me how to operate and to deal and to stand in a difficult world where there were very few safe spaces. They prepared me for the danger zones. I’ve been able to survive at Carleton for all these years in some part because of the preparation they gave me.”

Jess Ibri sees trigger warnings differently. “Trigger warnings are preparing us to have these hard conversations,” Ibri said. “I don’t see trigger warnings and the real world as clashing in that way.… If we can create safe spaces for students to talk about hard issues, they’ll be more prepared to talk about hard issues.”

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