Do Trigger Warnings Change Anything?
In one of my favorite books, Gloria Anzaldúa compares the efforts of race-sensitive white feminists to a Sufi story about a monkey and a fish. The moral is fairly clear: the monkey, wanting to help the fish whom it thinks is drowning, snatches the fish from the water and carries it high up into the tree. The fish of course dies and the white feminists, thinking that they are helping women of color, too often end up invading safe spaces and taking control of causes that were not meant for them in the first place.
As I think about the debate surrounding “trigger warnings” in higher education, recently reignited by Jack Halberstam’s viral blog post “You Are Triggering Me: The Neo-liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger, and Trauma,” I can’t help but worry that Halberstam, and I too for that matter, are weighing in on an issue which we have no right to discuss. It feels outside of my adjunct faculty pay grade to evaluate and treat traumatic experiences amongst my students—especially when a simple note on a syllabus seems like such a small concession. That said, Halberstam has tenure and earns substantially more than I do.
As a rule, my default position is to side with victims when called upon to do so, and in every class I make an effort to discuss potential triggers– but I’m uncomfortable actually writing trigger warnings onto my syllabus. Why is this? Admittedly, some of my discomfort is selfish. Adjunct teaching positions are tenuous, and writing down anything remotely political adds a degree of culpability that necessarily gives me pause.
More than that, I worry about what trigger warnings imply about the state of university classrooms. In graduate school, students are rarely surprised by material on a syllabus. Between the gossip of our more advanced peers, and our regular interactions with faculty members, there isn’t much room for surprise. In many instances, professors treat the syllabus itself as a living, collaborative document. When graduate students are co-designing our courses, any unwanted surprises are on them.
In our fantasies of the academy, this type of community exists amongst undergrads, too. My undergrad friends and I (long ago, but not TOO long ago) joked that we “minored” in classes taught by our favorite professors. When shopping for courses, we shared syllabi, talked about expectations for assignments, and strategized ways to best manage our course loads (that professor never tests on secondary reading!). When I hear about trigger warnings, I worry that colleges have lost these archives of experience, or that these archives have entrenched themselves amongst privileged students who do not need to weigh in on this issue.
Halberstam’s blog post, if we can move past the shortcomings highlighted throughout the blogosphere, makes trigger warnings feel like an important change in discourse; it feels like we might never think about lived experiences, identity discourse, political activism, and Monty Python fandom the same way! He writes, “and so, while in the past, we turned to Freud’s mystic writing pad to think of memory as a palimpsest, burying material under layers of inscription, now we see a memory as a live wire sitting in the psyche waiting for a spark.” Freud, it seems, finally bought himself a Kindle!
But, what sparked this “spark”? Why now? Any professor worth her or his pedagogical salt can tell you that debates over best practices concerning trauma and privilege in the classroom are old hat. Many of us can quote parts of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and bell hooks Teaching to Transgress from memory. But something has changed in our current discourse, and our students are telling us that our old practices no longer work.
While Freire and hooks build theories that empower students and undermine authority, trigger warnings depend on the professor’s largesse to deliver insight down from the podium. Every time I discuss a trigger warning with my students, I wince; just as I worry about my capacity to determine how best a student might work through traumatic experience, I also worry about the expectation that I define how and what might be considered a trigger. This requires too much mind-reading and asserts too much professorial authority. I’m Professor Nelson (call me Matthew!), not Professor Charles Xavier.
What space is there for the active learning classroom, the individual student, against such authority? The point of trigger warnings is precisely to make space for students whose experiences might exclude them from difficult material, but the best of us professors are worried about saving these spaces for the long-haul. In an age where governments are looking for any reason to cut humanities programs, professors are increasingly sensitive towards pushes to teach or assign materials differently—and these “trigger” recommendations are too easy to co-opt at the moment. If every text about racial inequality requires a trigger warning, what’s to prevent the “sensitive” government official from suggesting that we teach less “potentially harmful” critical race theory?
I have no guide to measure what is and is not traumatic right now. Hell, I’m uncomfortable that I have the authority to make this measurement. I’m a leftist queer literature teacher from after the canon wars, and I’m winging it. A lot of opponents worry about the absurdity and potential abuse of what might constitute a “trigger,” especially when student resolutions call for excused absences and alternative assignments. I know that type of skepticism re-victimizes victims, and I try to give students the no-grade-penalty benefit of the doubt, but we have to worry about our jobs here. What will these classrooms look like after we give out our warnings? The student resolutions I’ve read from Oberlin and UCSB portend university laws more than pedagogical theories. Let’s make some theories and have these conversations hasten towards something other than Halberstam’s apocalypse where we, “find fault with each other instead of tearing down the banks and the bankers, the politicians and the parliaments, the university presidents and the CEOs.”