I'm a Teacher and I'm Rethinking My Stance on Trigger Warnings After Students Challenged My Ideas
Reading is dangerous, but there's no harm in preparing students for the challenge.
A few months ago, I wrote a rather skeptical post about the increased use of “trigger warnings” on college campuses. A college education is about intellectual, personal, and emotional transformation, I argued, and this kind of growth is not well fostered by requiring professors to warn students before they encounter disturbing texts. Books like Augustine’s Confessions, W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and even Genesis — heck, particularly Genesis — are potentially offensive in all kinds of ways. “If I had to warn students of all the murder, rape, incest, genocide, and betrayal” in these books, I wrote, “we might never have a quorum for a discussion.”
Little did I know I had stepped into a minefield. Comments under the post itself were rather sparse, but my Facebook wall, or whatever that’s called now, sprouted dozens of testy comments on both sides of the matter from friends, fellow teachers, and former students. A few crack recent graduates I greatly respect took me to task for minimizing the trauma that some students might experience when reading certain books and misrepresenting the scope and point of trigger warnings. As one former student wrote, trigger warnings “aren’t necessarily blanket justifications for students to withdraw from their classes.” They are, instead, tools designed to help students who feel excluded or vulnerable prepare to engage with ideas more effectively.
The word “necessarily” gives me some pause: I would hope that these syllabus warnings would never give someone an automatic bye from confronting, say, the colonialism and racism in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or the sexism in Don Giovanni. But as Kate Manne wrote in The New York Times in September, trigger warnings need not release students from their education. She includes disclaimers in her syllabus “to allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to prepare themselves for reading about them, and better manage their reactions.” The downside is minimal: “Those who want to ignore them can do so without a second thought” and the warnings may help other students understand that “some of their classmates will find the material hard going.”
“Once upon a time, paternalistic censors infantilised the reading public by insisting that reading literature constitutes a serious risk to its health. Now young readers infantilise themselves by insisting that they and their peers should be shielded from the harm caused by distressing texts.”
With this revised conception of trigger warnings in mind, I found fascinating the first three-quarters of Frank Furedi’s Aeon post, “Books Are Dangerous.” Furedi begins with the observation that “reading has been seen as a threat to mental health for thousands of years.”:
In accordance with the paternalistic ethos of ancient Greece, Socrates said that most people couldn’t handle written text on their own. He feared that for many — especially the uneducated — reading could trigger confusion and moral disorientation unless the reader was counselled by someone with wisdom. In Plato’s dialogue, the Phaedrus, written in 360 BCE, Socrates warned that reliance on the written word would weaken individuals’ memory, and remove from them the responsibility of remembering. Socrates used the Greek word pharmakon — "drug" — as a metaphor for writing, conveying the paradox that reading could be a cure but most likely a poison. Scaremongers would repeat his warning that the text was analogous to a toxic substance for centuries to come.
Furedi speeds through the ancient world and middle ages citing many examples of attempts to control what people read on the grounds that books can lead to depression, moral turpitude, irrational behavior, and even death by suicide. He then contrasts millennia of biblioskeptism to the rise of the trigger warning. “This self-diagnosis of vulnerability is unlike the traditional call for a moral quarantine from above,” Furedi writes. “Once upon a time, paternalistic censors infantilised the reading public by insisting that reading literature constitutes a serious risk to its health. Now young readers infantilise themselves by insisting that they and their peers should be shielded from the harm caused by distressing texts.”
[R]eading “is indeed a risky activity” as it “possesses the power to capture the imagination, create emotional upheaval, and force people towards an existential crisis.”
It’s a tempting juxtaposition. But the narrative is flawed. Furedi admits that reading “is indeed a risky activity” as it “possesses the power to capture the imagination, create emotional upheaval, and force people towards an existential crisis.” Upheavals can be life-changing for the better, and crises can be productive, but both terms carry rather obvious negative connotations as well. Is it really such a bad idea to give students a heads-up when they may be about to wander into the beginnings of a "crisis"?
No one seems to be urging professors to remove books from their syllabi. Examples of requests for outlandish trigger warnings are, the Ovid episode at Columbia to one side, mostly speculative. And colleges and universities are, quite appropriately, not forcing faculty members to use trigger warnings. In the end, the matter boils down to some students who have endured trauma and request fair warning when a text might trigger them to relive that trauma, and some professors who think that such notice might be a good idea. What exactly is the harm of limiting the harm some students might experience when encountering a text? If trigger warnings turn into coercive demands on professors to change the way they teach, they’re a threat to academic freedom. But if they are a voluntary tool for creating a more inclusive classroom and cultivating a better discussion of a challenging text, what exactly is the problem?
Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. He is author, most recently, of American Justice 2015: The Dramatic Tenth Term of the Roberts Court.
Image credit: shutterstock.com
Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie
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The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity
- Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
- And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
- If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist
Chicagoland is Obamaland
Image: The Pudding
Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.
Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).
The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.
The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.
How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."
‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'
Image: The Pudding
Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.
That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.
Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.
The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.
The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".
Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.
Royals and (other) mortals
Image: The Pudding
There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.
Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.
But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.
Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).
Freaks and angels
The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.
It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.
Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.
As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...
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