Cam­pus trig­ger warn­ings aim to shield sen­si­tive stu­dents

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but Christina Hoff Som­mers is ap­par­ently the kind of speaker whose very pres­ence on col­lege cam­puses is so alarm­ing that stu­dents re­quire ad­vance no­tice, also known as a trig­ger warn­ing.

At least, that’s what hap­pened when the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute scholar spoke this month at Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity and Ober­lin Col­lege. Cam­pus fem­i­nists kicked into high alert, warn­ing stu­dents that her lec­ture on fem­i­nism and crit­i­cism of the col­lege “rape cul­ture” could make them “feel un­safe.”

Mon­day’s Ober­lin event came with a “safe space” for peo­ple to gather dur­ing and af­ter her talk. One stu­dent warned be­fore­hand that there would be “gate­keep­ing” to en­sure that no­body en­tered who might be a “toxic, danger­ous and/or vi­o­lent per­son.”

All this may sur­prise any­one who hasn’t vis­ited a col­lege cam­pus in the past few years, but for those who have, trig­ger warn­ings rep­re­sent a familiar and in­creas­ingly vis­i­ble part of the uni­ver­sity cul­ture.

The height­ened fo­cus on sex­ual as­sault has cam­pus fem­i­nists on the look­out for speak­ers, lec­tures and even books that could trig­ger trau­matic mem­o­ries for sur­vivors and force them to re­live the ex­pe­ri­ence.

The warn­ings al­low such stu­dents to pre­pare for sen­si­tive sub­jects, say ad­vo­cates, thus in­creas­ing their chances of aca­demic suc­cess. But crit­ics, in­clud­ing some pro­fes­sors, ar­gue that the prac­tice is rife with prob­lems for aca­demic free­dom and free speech.

Not only do trig­ger warn­ings threaten to limit the scope of ma­te­rial that can be taught in the class­room, thus de­grad­ing the ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, but the phe­nom­e­non has be­gun to morph into a kind of aca­demic witch hunt.

“We are cur­rently watch­ing our col­leagues re­ceive phone calls from deans and other ad­min­is­tra­tors in­ves­ti­gat­ing stu­dent com­plaints that they have in­cluded ‘trig­ger­ing’ ma­te­rial in their cour­ses, with or with­out warn­ings,” said a let­ter last year from seven hu­man­i­ties pro­fes­sors to In­side Higher Ed. “We feel that this move­ment is al­ready hav­ing a chill­ing ef­fect on our teach­ing and ped­a­gogy.”

An­gus John­ston, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at Hos­tos Com­mu­nity Col­lege in New York City, may be the best-known pro­fes­sor to de­fend trig­ger warn­ings. He in­cludes such a warn­ing on his syl­labus.

“His­tory is of­ten ugly. His­tory is of­ten trou­bling. His­tory is of­ten heart­break­ing,” he said.

“As a pro­fes­sor, I have an obli­ga­tion to my stu­dents to raise those dif­fi­cult sub­jects, but I also have an obli­ga­tion to raise them in a way that pro­vokes a pro­duc­tive reckoning with the ma­te­rial,” Mr. John­ston said in a May 2014 op-ed for In­side Higher Ed.

“And that reckoning can only take place if my stu­dents know that I un­der­stand that this ma­te­rial is not merely aca­demic, that they are com­ing to it as whole peo­ple with a wide range of ex­pe­ri­ences, and that the jour­ney we’re go­ing on to­gether may at times be painful,” he said.

Ms. Som­mers posted an April 15 video on her Fac­tual Fem­i­nist blog ar­gu­ing that trig­ger warn­ings are cre­at­ing “a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment for crit­i­cal think­ing and free ex­pres­sion.” She cited an anony­mous pro­fes­sor on the web­site White Hot Har­lots who said “lib­eral stu­dents scare the sh-- out of me.”

“All it takes is one slip — not even an out­right chal­leng­ing of their be­liefs, but even mo­men­tar­ily ex­pos­ing them to any un­com­fort­able thought or im­agery — and that’s it, your class­room is trig­ger­ing, you are in­sen­si­tive, kids are bring­ing mat­tresses to your of­fice hours and there’s a twit­ter pe­ti­tion out de­mand­ing you chop off your hand in re­pen­tance,” said the March 19 post.

De­spite the watch-your-back at­mos­phere, no uni­ver­sity has for­mally adopted trig­ger warn­ings as a re­quire­ment.

Ober­lin ad­min­is­tra­tors backed off a pro­posal last year af­ter an out­cry from the fac­ulty, while ef­forts at Rut­gers and the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Santa Bar­bara have won stu­dent sup­port but not ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­proval.

Still, that hasn’t stopped stu­dents from cre­at­ing a de facto pol­icy on some cam­puses, said Greg Lukianoff, pres­i­dent of the Foun­da­tion for In­di­vid­ual Rights in Ed­u­ca­tion.

“Whether this be­comes a cul­tural norm or whether it’s im­posed from above on cam­pus, it re­ally is a for­mula for mak­ing uni­ver­si­ties hes­i­tant to teach con­tro­ver­sial ma­te­rial, which sort of de­feats the point of the uni­ver­sity,” said Mr. Lukianoff, who dis­cusses the sub­ject in his book “Free­dom From Speech.”

That mes­sage was driven home in De­cem­ber by Har­vard Law School pro­fes­sor Jean­nie Suk, who wrote in The New Yorker that law stu­dents have called for trig­ger warn­ings in the teach­ing of rape law.

“One teacher I know was re­cently asked by a stu­dent not to use the word ‘vi­o­late’ in class — as in ‘Does this con­duct vi­o­late the law?’ — be­cause the word was trig­ger­ing,” Ms. Suk said in her Dec. 15 ar­ti­cle. “Some stu­dents have even sug­gested that rape law should not be taught be­cause of its po­ten­tial to cause dis­tress.”

Mr. Lukianoff said the Har­vard case demon­strates how trig­ger warn­ings can work against the best in­ter­ests of rape sur­vivors.

“You need the lawyers trained in the law re­lated to rape in or­der to help rape vic­tims,” he said. “And the idea that some­how we’re achiev­ing any good by shield­ing lawyers from the ugly truths of crim­i­nal law is crazy.”

Trig­ger warn­ings orig­i­nated on the fem­i­nist bl­o­go­sphere to warn about ar­ti­cles with graphic con­tent about sex­ual as­sault. Af­ter a few years, how­ever, even some fem­i­nists be­gan com­plain­ing on­line about trig­ger warn­ings, say­ing they were overused.

De­spite that, trig­ger warn­ings some­how made the leap from the In­ter­net to uni­ver­si­ties, where they have been em­braced in par­tic­u­lar by fem­i­nist groups. At the same time, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has put pres­sure on uni­ver­si­ties to demon­strate their com­mit­ment to curb­ing cam­pus sex­ual as­sault.

“It is prob­a­bly not co­in­ci­den­tal that the call for trig­ger warn­ings comes at a time of in­creased at­ten­tion to cam­pus vi­o­lence, es­pe­cially to sex­ual as­sault that is of­ten as­so­ci­ated with the wide­spread abuse of al­co­hol,” the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of Uni­ver­sity Pro­fes­sors said in a state­ment call­ing trig­ger warn­ings “in­fan­tiliz­ing and anti-in­tel­lec­tual.”

Ex­am­ples of ma­te­ri­als cited by stu­dents as po­ten­tially trig­ger­ing in­clude “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzger­ald, which has been crit­i­cized for por­tray­ing misog­yny and abuse, and such sui­cide-in­volved nar­ra­tives as Vir­ginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dal­loway” and Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.”

At Welles­ley Col­lege, stu­dents in­sisted last year on mov­ing a statue of a man sleep­walk­ing in his un­der­wear, call­ing it in a pe­ti­tion “a source of ap­pre­hen­sion, fear and trig­ger­ing thoughts,” ac­cord­ing to The Bos­ton Globe.

Stu­dents at Ober­lin who ad­vo­cated last year for a for­mal trig­ger warn­ing pol­icy in­sisted that it would not im­pinge on free speech or aca­demic free­dom.

“Trig­ger warn­ings ex­ist in or­der to warn read­ers about sen­si­tive sub­jects, like sex­ual vi­o­lence or war, that could be trau­matic to in­di­vid­u­als who have had past ex­pe­ri­ences re­lated to such top­ics, not to re­move th­ese sub­jects from aca­demic dis­cus­sion,” said an April 2014 ed­i­to­rial in The Ober­lin Re­view.

En­thu­si­asm on cam­pus for trig­ger warn­ings isn’t go­ing away. Ms. Som­mers said stu­dents are now ask­ing for trig­ger warn­ings on class­room ma­te­rial that deals not just with sex­ual vi­o­lence, but also with top­ics such as colo­nial­ism and racism.

Ul­ti­mately, the larger prob­lem isn’t with trig­ger warn­ings, but with ef­forts to im­pose po­lit­i­cally cor­rect cen­sor­ship on cam­pus on the grounds that “it’s a duty by the uni­ver­sity to pro­tect and shield stu­dents from speech that might make them un­com­fort­able,” Mr. Lukianoff said.

“You do oc­ca­sion­ally get peo­ple say­ing that this is a silly idea that’s go­ing to end up go­ing nowhere. And that’s not what I’m hear­ing from pro­fes­sors,” he said. “I def­i­nitely hear an in­crease in re­quests for trig­ger warn­ings. So I think this is a story that’s just be­gin­ning, not one that’s nearly over.”


At Welles­ley Col­lege, stu­dents in­sisted last year on mov­ing a statue of a man sleep­walk­ing in his un­der­wear, call­ing it in a pe­ti­tion “a source of ap­pre­hen­sion, fear and trig­ger­ing thoughts,” ac­cord­ing to The Bos­ton Globe.

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