Last night a a number of past and present colleagues began discussing the pro’s and con’s of the already infamous “new student letter” sent out to the University of Chicago’s incoming class yesterday about trigger warnings.
In the letter Dean Ellison tells students that UChicago, because of it’s commitment to academic freedom…
… does not support so-called, “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces,” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
As a result, most of the major newspapers have gleefully celebrated the letter as a push back against “coddled” millennials.
However, the first thing that occurred to me after reading the letter was the differential in power in defining this debate to the wider public.
By that I mean that it’s relatively easy for faculty from research institutions to get access to various op-ed spaces (Inside Higher Ed, the Washington Post, New York Times, etc…). As a result they can define the terms through which the wider public understands the trigger warning debate. Meanwhile graduate & undergraduate students can have incredibly meaningful and thoughtful debates on social media that may or may not ever see the light of day.
The second thing I’m thinking about is that I don’t fully understand the difficulty folks have with trigger warnings within classroom spaces. I mean I have seen it get ridiculous online where folks ask for trigger warnings for everything this side of the Mississippi. But in the classroom it feels relatively easy to manage (and I recognize that this may also be one of few privileges I have as a young, black, queer, disabled, tenure track faculty member lol).
On my syllabus I clearly state that the classroom material will be difficult to handle. I then instruct students to look through the scheduled topics and see if they can/want to deal with what is coming. I tell them I’m not a therapist and then let them know where they can find the campus therapist. On the first day of class I talk about self-care and that students’ have the right to excuse themselves if they get overwhelmed and I repeat this reminder on days where I discuss rape, abortion or what have you. I don’t have any reason to believe that these practices detract from the intellectual development of my students. I’ve had students crying and/or ratcheting up to a nervous breakdown in class and THAT is what distracts from learning for everybody involved, especially the traumatized student who is surrounded by people who cannot offer them adequate support.
As a sexual assault survivor I certainly appreciate a second to gather myself prior to launching into political debates about rape culture, violence and other forms of brutality. As a result, I’m not quite sure how/why my colleagues around the country continue to conflate giving students a heads-up prior to discussing difficult material and students’ running away from rigorous intellectual inquiry.
“Back in the day,” (keeping in mind that I graduated from undergrad in 2007), we protested the hell out of speakers we disagreed with but we didn’t necessarily block them from coming to campus. In my mind that is part and parcel of rigorous intellectual inquiry. College is absolutely where I began developing my political identity and a big part of that was in the process of bumping up against ideas I found abhorrent. So at the same time that I question the need for this letter to go out to incoming students who are likely unaware of these debates happening on campus. I also understand as a faculty member of color, the fears faculty have about the increasing number of student complaints around political viewpoints they disagree with being present in the classroom. But despite that reality, my pedagogical viewpoint is still under-girded by a foundational belief that rigorous intellectual inquiry can only happen for all students when those present can trust in the health and well being of the folks in the room.