Trigger Warnings, Academia, and the Fallacy of “Hiding from Scary Ideas”

March 23, 2015

CW: addiction, drug use, sexual assault, sexual abuse, intimate partner violence

My first introduction to the trigger warnings was through friends on Facebook.  A few of those friends, many who work in fields such as health care and counseling and who have personally experienced sexual assault and intimate partner violence, began prefacing some of their posts with a TW or CW (content warning) and a mention of the potentially triggering topics included in the post or article they shared.

I am a PhD student at Tulane University.  My program requirements include teaching experience by serving as an instructor.  As of March 2015, I have taught Introduction to Cultural Anthropology five times and (the poorly-named) Anthropology of Women and Men once.  I am in the instructor of record; I develop the syllabus, write and present every lecture, and grade all work that students turn in.

My syllabus for Introduction to Cultural Anthropology has stayed fairly consistent with its texts, although the supplementary readings vary each time I teach it.  They include Nuer Dilemmas, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El BarrioNuer Dilemmas, written about Nuer communities in South Sudan, is inevitably shaped by the long-lasting civil war and current violence in the area.  In Search of Respect, as is probably obvious from the title, deals with drug use, addiction, and in addition, sexual assault and intimate partner violence.

The first time I included a version of a trigger warning on my syllabus was in fall 2013.  Two weeks before, my friend Hunter passed away.  He struggled with addiction for years, and after 6 months of sobriety overdosed on my birthday.  He graduated from Tulane that spring.  And I had no idea he’d struggled with addiction until after his death.

Over those next two weeks, I thought a great deal about my class, my students, and my friend.  Tulane is a large enough university, and enough students pass through Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, that I never had any advance knowledge of who my students were – their life experiences.  I thought about what could have happened if Hunter took my class.  Maybe he wouldn’t have been affected by reading about intense addiction.  Or maybe he would.  I couldn’t answer that question, and I wouldn’t be able to answer it for any of my other students.

At that point, I decided to start including a version of trigger warnings on my syllabi.  These sentences, included in the course policies section, note that the class material would cover topics such as addiction, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault.  I read them aloud when going through the syllabus with students on the first day of class.  I note that students have the option to speak to me about alternative assignments for those readings.

Each time I have included this warning, I’ve had students come speak to me.  They’re not students who are uncomfortable with talking about “controversial” or “provocative” subjects.  They’re not students who want to avoid thinking about difficult topics or ideas.  They are students who have lived through sexual assault.  Who have seen addiction ravage their small town, with friends and family members dying.  It’s not easy for them to share their stories with me (and I don’t require that they do, but many of them feel pressure since they are asking for alternate assignments despite my reassurances).  And some students choose not to.  There are students who speak openly in class about their histories of sexual abuse, who never ask for alternate assignments.  What the trigger warnings on my syllabi do is let them make a fully-informed decision.

Recently, it’s in vogue to critique trigger warnings, safe spaces, and associated practices in the university environment.  The article “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas” by Judith Shulevitz for the New York Times is only the most recent example.  Another person in my program shared it, and I read it, because I’m a sucker for reacting in anger.  There are some ridiculous aspects to this article that aren’t included in other articles arguing against safety practices in universities.  For instance, quoting Wendy Kaminer’s (“free-speech advocate”) dismay at students supposedly not being able to distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech.  Kaminer came to this conclusion because students publicly objected to a white woman arguing that the full n-word (rather than the euphemism I use here) should be part of teaching American history and/or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Shulevitz also has veiled criticism for students who demonstrated against the work of a Northwestern University professor who ridiculed “the sexual paranoia pervading campus life” and called for the creation of spaces that would address victim-blaming, and the efforts of a Campus Task Force at Brown University to create an alternative safe space for anyone who needed self-care during or after a debate on campus sexual assault, in which one of the debate parties would deny that rape culture exists.

Most of Shulevitz’s article critiques the incorporation of safety practices in university campus environments for the same reasons many other people have.  I want to go through them, because they’re poorly thought-out arguments that are also insulting and infantilizing in and of themselves to college students (the very process they claim to be critiquing).

First, it’s argued that safety practices (my shorthand for trigger/content warnings, safe spaces, and other such practices) are an attempt to shelter college students from the realities of life – “hyper-sensitive” and “coddling” are the most common descriptors I’ve seen in this discussion.  In my personal experience, this is a ludicrous claim.  The very inclusion of trigger/content warnings and safe spaces is taking place because students and faculty are forced to grapple with these realities of life in a classroom environment: misogyny, racism, ableism, classism, heterosexism, transmisogyny, cissexism, etc.  As far as I know, I am the only person in my department who includes trigger warnings in her syllabi.  I’m also one of very few people who is introducing in-depth conversations and education about racism, transmisogyny and cissexism, and sexual assault and intimate partner violence in my classes.  In other Introduction to Cultural Anthropology classes or Anthropology of Women and Men classes, those conversations are not taking place to the same extent and in many cases are left off the syllabus altogether.  The idea that because I incorporate safety practices, my students are coming out of my class more sheltered than students in other instructors’ or professors’ classes is laughable.

Shulevitz also makes the discussion generational, at one point stating students a few generations before were “hardier souls” and arguing that students today are “self-infantilizing,” in part because of their parents.  These claims have some really troublesome overtones; it’s because of dominant ideology and oppression that the “-isms” weren’t covered or addressed for so long in academic environments and students who had lived through, for instance, sexual assault had far fewer resources at their disposal for support, healing, and recovery.  Students today are demanding oppression be called out, that it be challenged when it’s put forth with institutional power, and that the voices of those who have experienced it be heard and respected.  To me, that sounds a great deal less like students “self-infantilizing” and much more like students empowering themselves and others to create spaces that haven’t existed before in order to take care of themselves and other members of their communities and to put decisions about their well-being in their own hands.

There’s also the usual ignorance of history that focuses on what gets called “censorship” now (which in the cases Shulevitz cites, are primarily dissenting speech) in the claim that universities have been fora for free expression, which is now under attack because of the call for safety practices.  As is clear from the ballooning of administrative staff at universities and the organizing around student debt, higher education in the USA has, for at least most of the 20th century, been integrally tied to capitalism.  Follow the money at Tulane (especially the Stone Center for Latin American Research and the Middle American Research Institute) and you’ll find the banana king, who helped overthrow two democratically-elected governments (Honduras and Guatemala), then at the end of his life donated a great deal of money to provide resources for a predominantly-white student body to study Mexican and Central American anthropology.  And you will definitely see some consequences if you attempt to be public and transparent about those facts.  Is it ideal for universities to function in this way?  No.  But it’s also clearly disingenuous to suddenly become concerned about university free speech when the topic shifts to challenging dominant ideology and oppression.

The most egregious claim, in my opinion, by many people in opposition to safety practices, is that those practices create students who are insular, hyper-sensitive, coddled, and unable to deal with the “real world.”  To me this claim is absurd because it engages in the very process of infantilizing that opponents claim safety practices enable.  Somehow, opponents have missed what safety practices actually do (make sure students are fully-informed and also have spaces for care and support) but also miss who university students actually are.  I’ve only taught 6 times over a three year period; still every time, I’ve had students who have experienced sexual assault, sexual abuse, and addiction and drug abuse.  These are the students for whom trigger/content warnings and safe spaces exist.  These are the students who avail themselves of them if they feel the need to – and who in doing so, are forced to disclose that they’ve experienced extremely personal and traumatic occurrences in their lives and in some cases, the very nature of those occurrences.  They are not self-infantilizing or coddled; the “delicate sensibilities” Shulevitz mockingly refers to were ripped away when they experienced this trauma.  They don’t need to be educated by me about what sexual assault looks like or how people feel when it happens to them because they’ve lived it.  They experience triggers daily; in an article linked below, Roxanne Gay details the ways in which trigger/content warnings are inadequate.  I can’t make sure my students’ experiences are respected in every aspect of their lives.  What I can do is make sure my student who watched her family members and friends pass away from overdoses doesn’t have to listen to yet another group of people talk about how they deserved it or are somehow less valuable as human beings if she chooses not to be there.  I can make sure my students who have experienced sexual assault are aware that if they choose to come to a particular class period, there might be students who will engage in victim-blaming in that space.  I can respect my students as young adults to make the most informed choice they can about whether or not my class on a particular day will be beneficial or deleterious to their processes of recovery and healing.  This does not require that all my students who have experienced sexual assault leave the classroom when the topic comes up; I have students who have chosen to stay in the room and others who have not.  The point is that they have all the information in order to make the best decision for themselves.  They are not slacking or avoiding work; they have alternate assignments, which in many cases detail more work because they have write short responses rather than participate in class discussion.

I’ve never tried to dictate whether or not other instructors should use trigger warnings.  I have suggested to my department as a whole that they consider using them as a tool.  In my experience, if the information I provide has enabled one student to make the best-informed decisions for their health and well-being, it’s worth it.  What is deeply infuriating to me are the attacks on safety practices that infantilize students and erase entire groups of people.  Claiming that students are being “coddled” through safety practices makes the presumption that university students haven’t experienced misogyny, cissexism, racism, classism, ableism, transmisogyny, and heterosexism in their daily lives.  It critiques educational spaces that work to be intentional about how trauma is discussed and handled while ignoring educational spaces that choose not to engage with it at all.  It makes me question: are people such as Judith Shulevitz so insulated themselves that they’ve never encountered people in university environments who have experienced trauma or oppression?

Judith Shulevitz’s article “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas”:

Roxanne Gay’s article ” The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion” (I also recommend reading the comments):


5 Responses to “Trigger Warnings, Academia, and the Fallacy of “Hiding from Scary Ideas””

  1. Thanks for this response. Your thoughts and ideas were really helpful for me when I was beginning to grapple with content warnings myself, and I think you have cogently explained the benefit of them.

  2. Nick Ford said

    Great stuff here. I’m glad someone wrote such a cogent response. I’m still thinking of writing one myself and if I do I’ll definitely mention this excellent piece. 🙂

  3. Stephen Henry said

    Fantastic write up. I have engaged with trigger warnings in my own classes while knowing the critiques, thinking them issues I would continue to consider but err on the side of empathy. Listening to the calls of those asking for trigger warnings has been my dedication, and I wouldn’t leave that unless I had reason to understand the use of them as something other than valuable and necessary. You undermine the arguments. More importantly, you reaffirm my belief in those who ask for trigger warnings and those who find times that avoiding such topics is best for them and their own individual process of healing/coping/LIVING.
    Great work through of the arguments, and such important positioning of yourself in relation to these thoughts. While I know many faculty members in my field (Communication) who do support these safety practices, it is so valuable for us as graduate students or those newly holding positions of power in the academy not to fall into status quos that we find to reinforce violence and harm.
    Thank you for this piece, and I hope you continue to create such safe spaces which value students.

  4. Why no mention of anti-Semitism?

  5. […] they do and don’t do – and some interesting and productive things said about them are here and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: