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‘Warning: Literature Ahead’



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I wrote today about the new trend of “trigger warnings.” Here is the section of an Oberlin College document, since withdrawn for more work, dealing with triggers. Read it and weep:

Understand that sexual misconduct is inextricably tied to issues of privilege and oppression.

Educate yourself about racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of oppression. 

Anticipate these issues entering class discussion. Think about how you could support positive ideas and discussions. 

Invite and accept pushback in the classroom. Being engaged or even challenged by a student on these issues is an opportunity to learn, and to model supportive behavior for students. 

Respect students’, colleagues’, and guest speakers’ pronouns.

The Sexual Offense Policy defines sexual offense as “a behavior, which calls attention to gender, sexuality, gender identity or sexual orientation in a manner which prevents or impairs an individual’s full enjoyment of educational or occupational benefits or opportunities.” For many, use of incorrect pronouns calls attention to gender in a very inappropriate way, and prevents or impairs their safety in a classroom.

When possible, don’t call roll using names from Presto or Blackboard — allow students to self-identify using preferred names by asking them to sign in or to speak their preferred names.

On the first day of class, ask all students for their preferred pronouns. Memorize them as you memorize names. 

If you realize you used the incorrect pronoun, apologize to the student in private and take steps to avoid repeating that mistake in the future.

If your class is too large to memorize names and pronouns, avoid using gender-specific language whenever possible. For example, if your instinct is to call on “the guy in the purple shirt,” try instead saying, “you, in the purple shirt.”

Understand triggers, avoid unnecessary triggers, and provide trigger warnings. 

A trigger is something that recalls a traumatic event to an individual. Reactions to triggers can take many different forms; individuals may feel any range of emotion during and after a trigger. Experiencing a trigger will almost always disrupt a student’s learning and may make some students feel unsafe in your classroom.

Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.

Anything could be a trigger — a smell, song, scene, phrase, place, person, and so on. Some triggers cannot be anticipated, but many can.

Remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.

Sometimes a work is too important to avoid. For example, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more. Here are some steps you, as a professor, can take so that your class can examine this source in the most productive and safe manner possible:

Issue a trigger warning. A trigger warning is a statement that warns people of a potential trigger, so that they can prepare for or choose to avoid the trigger. Issuing a trigger warning will also show students that you care about their safety. 

You may hesitate to issue a trigger warning, or try to compose a vague trigger warning, because you feel it might also be a “spoiler.” A trigger warning does not need to give everything away. If you’re warning people about the issue of suicide in Things Fall Apart, you can write, “Trigger warning: This book contains a scene of suicide…” You don’t necessarily need to “give away” the plot. However, even if a trigger warning does contain a spoiler, experiencing a trigger is always, always worse than experiencing a spoiler.

Try to avoid using graphic language yourself within the trigger warning, but do give students a hint about what might be triggering about the material. If you say something like, “This movie might be upsetting to some of you,” that can a) sound patronizing and b) lead everyone who’s experienced trauma to feel like they might have a terrible time. Try instead saying, “This movie contains scenes of racism, including slurs and even physical violence, but I believe that the movie itself is working to expose and stand against racism and I think it is important to our work here.”

Tell students why you have chosen to include this material, even though you know it is triggering. For example:

“…We are reading this work in spite of the author’s racist frameworks because his work was foundational to establishing the field of anthropology, and because I think together we can challenge, deconstruct, and learn from his mistakes.”

“…This documentary challenges heterosexism in an important way. It is vital to discuss this issue. I think watching and discussing this documentary will help us become better at challenging heterosexism ourselves.”

Strongly consider developing a policy to make triggering material optional or offering students an alterative assignment using different materials. When possible, help students avoid having to choose between their academic success and their own wellbeing. 

Bring in a guest speaker who can help you make the conversation productive. The Oberlin College Dialogue Center is one excellent campus resource for facilitating difficult dialogues.

Respect your students’ personal space and bodily autonomy. Physical touch and feeling one’s body controlled is often triggering. 

If it is absolutely necessary to touch a student or direct that student’s body, practice active consent. Always, always, always ask. 

For example, instead of correcting a student’s posture without saying anything, say, “Your posture is a little off, do you mind if I adjust your back?” 

Listen to your students, accept no gracefully. 

A “no” is not a comment on you personally nor on your rapport with the student. 



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