David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Trigger Happy (Hi)jack

May 29, 2014

Inside Higher Ed today offers some interesting point/counterpoint essays on the idea of "trigger warnings" on college syllabi.  A "trigger warning" is a statement posted on a syllabus that in essence warns students of material that could be upsetting.

The positive take on "trigger warnings" comes from a community college history professor.

The counterargument against such warnings comes from a joint effort of seven faculty members at various 4-year institutions in North America.

(Warning:  This blog is likely to upset traditional tenure-track faculty from 4-year institutions.)

One shouldn't be surprised at the "class" difference between the authors.  Those of us in the community college realm have had to adopt a different mentality to issues like this, which skirt around that wonderful phrase, "academic freedom," for years.  Our student population is more likely to come to us without any real knowledge of what college means, and our fates are so often tied to the agendas of people, usually politicians, but also our local tax payers, who have much more power in the community college setting than in the traditional college setting.  No wonder the community college guy is willing to use these "warnings."

I can't speak for UC-Davis, Princeton, University of Alberta, Bryn Mawr, Georgetown, University of Toronto or Swarthmore (the fine institutions represented by the no "trigger warning" faculty), but at community colleges we are welcoming more and more high school students into our classes.  Giving high school students the opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school is a classic "other person's priority," indicative of the pressures exerted from non-higher education constituencies.

(Warning: This blog is likely to upset proponents of high school dual enrollment programs.)

 Frankly, I would prefer they stay high school students until they graduate and then come to us, but local legislators want these kids to get through their education more quickly and thus placed into the workforce, and the pressures they put on the high school superintendents leads to the pressure that is put on us. 

As a rule, then, at my college we issue "trigger warning" letters to students under 16 (yes, we are getting students that young in our classes) and their parents telling them that their classes may have material that is upsetting.  Given that many of these kids have been partially home-schooled, they have been very sheltered (at least in the parents' minds) from the uglier parts of society.  In fact, these letters are so routinely sent out that I forget we do them.  Just a week ago, I had an adjunct who was contacted by parents asking if their child should switch sections because they had gotten the "trigger warning" letter.  The poor adjunct had no understanding why her syllabus was being targeted.  It wasn't.  We were just saying that a freshmen composition class is likely, no matter what the section, to cover controversial topics as part of the course.

(Warning:  This blog is likely to upset the staunchest defenders of academic freedom.)

I prefer to go with this generic, universal approach to "trigger warnings."  Put a statement on all college syllabi that says material in this class is likely to be upsetting.  If we get any more specific to classes, it is a slippery slope.  What wouldn't need to be labelled?

(Warning:  This blog is likely to upset people with good taste.)

The anatomy & physiology syllabus: Warning--This course discusses both men's and women's naughty bits.

The analytical geometry syllabus:  Warning--This course covers mathematical concepts you are convinced you will never use.

The ceramics syllabus:  Warning--the course will require you to get your hands dirty.

The 18th century literature syllabus:  Warning--the readings in this course may bore you to tears.

The computer systems syllabus:  Warning--this course will not enable you to use your smartphone any better.

The religion syllabus: Warning--this course will expect you to have an open mind about other beliefs.

The geriatric nursing syllabus:  Warning--this course will require you to have a level of empathy toward the elderly.

As we can see, it would be so much easier to just put one blanket statement on our all of our syllabi:  Warning--this is a college course and will likely at some point make your feel discomfort or displeasure with something related to the course.   Get over it.  This is called education.

(Warning:  This blog will make its second usual obscure musical reference.)

College isn't the place to "worry about those censored sequences, worrying about the consequences."*


*Elvis Costello, "Little Triggers"