Don’t Tell Me What’s Best for My Students

September 28, 2015

Since I published an essay, "In Defense of Trigger Warnings," in The Chronicle about 18 months ago, such a defense has become even harder to mount. Though the much ballyhooed fear that faculty would soon be required to issue trigger warnings has failed to materialize (the one college that proposed such a requirement, Oberlin, has withdrawn it), public attention to the topic has resulted in a frenzy of too-easy condemnation and ridicule.

Millennials are increasingly portrayed as too delicate to live in the world, too ideologically rigid to survive exposure to opposing political opinions. Even President Obama has weighed in, arguing that students shouldn’t "be coddled and protected from different points of view." Trigger warnings are the new fish in a barrel.

The most persuasive argument against trigger warnings usually goes something like this: A liberal education requires freedom of thought and expression. Any limits on thought and expression short-circuit the search for truth and keep us from developing the capacities necessary for critical thinking.

Just such an argument sits at the root of a recent resolution unanimously approved by the Faculty Senate at American University. It begins: "For hundreds of years, the pursuit of knowledge has been at the center of university life. Unfettered discourse, no matter how controversial, inconvenient, or uncomfortable, is a condition necessary to that pursuit."

It’s hard to imagine an argument against such a claim that wouldn’t draw immediate ridicule.

What’s ironic, and deeply troubling, about the resolution is the extent to which it quickly loses sight of its own core principle, doing so even as it seems to guarantee freedom of faculty expression. Before inveighing against trigger warnings, the resolution declares that "Faculty may advise students before exposing them to controversial readings and other materials that are part of their curricula."

Were I on the faculty at AU, my first thought would be, "Gee, thanks!" My second would be: "But what makes you think I need your permission?" This assurance from the AU Faculty Senate is not only unnecessary, but it proceeds from the implicit assumption that such a body has some control over what faculty say and teach in the classroom. By giving its permission, the senate assumes that such permission is its to give. It isn’t.

When the senate resolution turns to the specific issue of trigger warnings, it works hard to avoid language that would infringe upon faculty autonomy, skirting an outright ban. Rather, "the Faculty Senate does not endorse offering ‘trigger warnings’ or otherwise labeling controversial material in such a way that students construe it as an option to ‘opt out’ of engaging with texts or concepts, or otherwise not participating in intellectual inquiries" (emphasis added).

The senate’s refusal to endorse (a refusal "to support" or "to approve," according to Webster’s) seems to leave the decision completely up to the faculty. But I wonder how the AU faculty members feel when the resolution later "affirms that shielding students from controversial material will deter them from becoming critical thinkers and responsible citizens."

Does this not lead to the conclusion that teachers who use trigger warnings are bad teachers? That teachers who issue such warnings will have neither the senate’s approval nor support when they’re subject to various personnel processes? That the faculty senate somehow knows better than any individual professor the best approach to difficult classroom materials and moments?

In my original essay, I told the story of a student who was hospitalized after reading a novel I assigned in a class on LGBT literature. The book dealt with incest and sexual abuse, and my student — a survivor of both — was traumatized by her experience reading the book. And when I say "traumatized," I mean it literally. She wasn’t, to borrow the senate resolution’s language, made "uncomfortable." She didn’t find the process "inconvenient." She wasn’t productively forced to reconsider her own ideas. She was traumatized, and she was hospitalized for a week as a result.

In that essay, I tried to draw a distinction between difficulty and trauma. Difficulty, I argued, is a crucial aspect of the learning process. I would never encourage my students to shy away from it, nor do I sympathize with those students asking to be protected from it. Trauma, on the other hand, does nothing to enable the learning process. It works, I would argue, precisely against that process.

As a professor, I’ve decided that I will issue trigger warnings for material dealing with rape, sexual assault, and incest. I will, when the situation warrants, offer creative opt-out assignments. Other professors will surely draw the line differently.

But what seems crucial to assert is this: I know my students and their needs better than any faculty senate. I know my material — its power and its effects — better than any representative body. Any resolution that claims to know what’s best for my students is substituting ideological generalities for the granular specificity of the classroom, for the particularities of disciplinary knowledge.

I would resist a resolution condemning trigger warnings as vigorously as I would a resolution requiring them. The only way to cut through the straw-man caricatures that dominate this debate is to rely on the expertise and sensibilities of individual faculty members, as they develop an improvisatory relationship to knowledge, to difficulty, and to their students.

Mason Stokes is an associate professor of English at Skidmore College. He is the author, most recently, of Saving Julian: A Novel.