My first week of law school I got into a debate with a new classmate about rape laws (pro tip: if you want to make lots of friends, definitely blog about your arguments with them). As they tend to do, things got heated. “Calm down,” he told me. “It’s not personal.”
I wish I could say that first fight was an aberration from my experience as a student, but it was instead an all-too-accurate harbinger of things to come. In classroom discussions and casual debates over drinks a certain divide has manifested: those of us who understand ourselves as governed by the law and those who understand themselves as floating above it. Of the former category, some of us can imagine ourselves targeted by the law, some of us can imagine needing the law to protect our rights, and some of us could imagine ourselves in both positions at the same time — and, either way, know we’d likely be let down by the system we’ve decided to study. We see ourselves in the plaintiffs and defendants described in the cases we read. And we stand in stark contrast to those who can’t imagine needing much of anything and see themselves only as judge or the invisible lawyer in the casebook.
In short, there are those of us who take our classes personally, and there are those who don’t. The race, class, and gender lines are drawn exactly as you’d expect.
I’ve been thinking about this divide since reading Jenny Jarvie’s piece on trigger warnings in university syllabi. Condemning the practice in The New Republic, she writes:
On college campuses across the country, a growing number of students are demanding trigger warnings on class content. Many instructors are obliging with alerts in handouts and before presentations, even emailing notes of caution ahead of class. At Scripps College, lecturers give warnings before presenting a core curriculum class, the “Histories of the Present: Violence,” although some have questioned the value of such alerts when students are still required to attend class. Oberlin College has published an official document on triggers, advising faculty members to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly” contribute to learning goals and “strongly consider” developing a policy to make “triggering material” optional . . .
What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off. The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense. And yet, for all the debate about the warnings on campuses and on the Internet, few are grappling with the ramifications for society as a whole.
The larger should-we-or-shouldn’t-we trigger warning debate has been recycled many times, specifically on the topic of trigger warning use in the feminist blogosphere, and I have neither a definitive stance nor anything new to add to the macro question. I’m not wholeheartedly convinced either way in the syllabi context, either. In general I think helping some people feel safe at the cost of annoying others is worth it, though I understand the concern that trigger warnings reinforce the already marginalized as “weak, vulnerable and ‘other.’” I’m also intrigued by Tressie McMillan Cottom argument that these university policies may have more to do with the corporatization of higher ed than social justice: schools want to keep consumers happy and comfortable (until that costs more than your tuition check, of course).
I definitely disagree with Jarvie, though, that there is something particularly noteworthy about the expansion of trigger warnings from the blogosphere to the academy. There are certainly significant differences between “Internet forums” and classrooms, but we bring our histories and our responsibilities to one another into both. Only if we accept my classmate’s view that a subject is depersonalized because it is studied is there any reason to believe otherwise. People read about upsetting, unproductively destabilizing things on blogs. They also read about them in textbooks. And we certainly owe survivors of trauma no less because we see them in a classroom than if we see their avatars on comment boards.
At the Guardian, Jill Filipovic argues that classrooms are different for another reason: “Students should be pushed to defend their ideas and to see the world from a variety of perspectives. Trigger warnings,” she says, “don’t just warn students of potentially triggering material; they effectively shut down particular lines of discussion with ‘that’s triggering.’” I’ve definitely seen the claiming of triggers abused in organizing circles to avoid uncomfortable conversations, but I’ve also seen groups effectively agree to responsible use, deciding beforehand that they want to use warnings to facilitate preparation for–not avoidance of–difficult topics. And maybe recognizing that classmates will have different relationships to the material, some more visceral than others, is part of learning to “see the world from a variety of perspectives.”
At the end of the day, the fact that a tool can stymie conversation when used irresponsibly doesn’t mean it can’t be used productively. Trigger warnings don’t need to censor and could, I think, have the opposite effect. Jarvie worries that the spread of trigger warnings signals “the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university.” Oberlin’s recommendation that teachers “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals” does worry me: that directive could be read as a call to empathy or as corporate double-speak to keep the freshmen happy. But warnings could also provide professors with greater space to include potentially disturbing content by providing students and faculty with an easy shorthand to acknowledge potential harms. I’d rather a professor give me the chance to decide whether and how to approach an assignment than leave it off the syllabus altogether.
More broadly, though, Jarvie’s worry reminds me of a common but fallacious trope I see in “anti-PC” critiques: the belief that acknowledging the effects of speech is somehow counter to its free movement. Jarvie’s charge that trigger warnings indicate a “precautionary approach” calls to mind the image of a professor too afraid of negative reactions to assign a book or publish a paper, raising concerns of academic freedom. But don’t we study because we believe in the power of ideas? Don’t we research and write and edit ferociously because we recognize the material impact of words? We can distinguish, then, between a university that fires professors who publish controversial ideas and one that urges them to recognize the effects of their assignments on their students and offer warnings when necessary.
To me, it is a mark of respect for the academy and its projects to acknowledge that what we read in class could make us feel or act. That’s the whole point.