I have a new piece up on CNN on Trigger Warnings in the Classroom. I make two arguments.
1. Psychological disability involving trauma is serious and should never be dismissed. However, we have a mandate through the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities. Let’s increasingly support, fund, and use those services, make them more robust.
2. Let’s practice good teaching. Good teaching involves preparing students for their homework, not springing things on them. All the people who study reading and learning focus on scaffolding (as one metaphor) so that students know what they are reading for. It definitely helps my students.
I would never want my students to be surprised by something horrific in their reading, whether the “Red Wedding” on “Game of Thrones” or the rape of Philomena in Ovid. Instead, I want them ready to work with challenging texts so they learn. Spoilers might be bad for entertainment, but they are good for education.
Once most students know what they are likely to encounter in their work, the surprise factor in triggering situations ought to be mitigated.
So I am coming out against mandatory trigger warning policies, but I also think that some of the demand for trigger warnings might be alleviated by scaffolding readings in advance. Why try and shock your students?
I see the issue linked to multiple factors, including the corporatization of the academy. It makes universities and faculty risk adverse, turning the syllabus into a EULA, and worried about being sued. In that context, a warning label on Shakespeare makes sense, so that if a student is upset, you can say, “warned you! Can’t sue!” This is not good teaching, like so much else linked to the arrival of a corporate mentality in higher education.
That said, I really do not like the language that equates requests for trigger warnings with fragility, with being “special snowflakes,” with “helicopter parenting.” I put a big list of resources on trigger warnings in the classroom here. Both in some of the published pieces and in lots of academic conversation, I sense some scorn for students asking for these policies.
We can argue against trigger warning policies without dismissing the students asking for such policies. Instead, think about what they are really asking for and how, in responding, we might focus on learning.
Ultimately, when as academics we ask – what is the best decision we can make to enhance the opportunities for learning? – we usually make good choices.