Trigger Warning Redux

Academic Freedom

By: Jamie LaRue

The University of Chicago’s letter to incoming freshman got a lot of play. (There are almost too many links to mention. But this one has the letter of the text.) As happens entirely too often, some people are outraged on one side (the U of C totally does not get what’s going on) or the other (good for them not coddling over-sensitive students).

I’ll offer a few more links. The first concerns a Chronicle of Higher Education piece about how three college professors are currently using trigger warnings. I would argue that it’s perfectly sensible. If you’re a professor about to talk about something that is unexpectedly explicit or graphic (photographs of amputations, descriptions of child abuse, etc.), take a moment or two to let the students know you’re covering some tough topics, what those topics are generally about, and give them a chance to get ready. It’s not censorship. You’re going to talk about them. But some people might well need a moment to prepare.

On the other hand, it’s not hard to find lists of what can “trigger” some kind of trauma that seem a little over the line. For instance, tumblr has some tags here and here. I can understand someone saying to a class with former veterans that you’re going to show a film featuring footage of urban warfare. I’m not sure I would expect a professor to say “this short story has a scene in which there are spiders.”

In other words, let’s assume that people of good will want to show compassion for students who have suffered. Taking a moment to be polite is a good thing. But, like many other things, it’s possible to go overboard, where the content warnings eventually become so comprehensive that you’d spend more time warning than teaching.

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