Re: Kotsko On Trigger Warnings

1

Shakesville calls them "content notes" which seems to me quite sensible. A little overview of potentially upsetting material is not the least bit harmful and may help some people, so why not?

On triggers, the thing about PTSD is that weird things trigger flashbacks. I know a woman who is triggered by Halloween decorations, for example. There's no way to do a comprehensive set of trigger warnings.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:18 AM
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I like being told ahead of time if there's going to be gory pictures of blood and cuts. No thanks!

There are other things that will cause me to quit reading sometimes - descriptions of injuries or children dying - but those usually you can anticipate, whereas a photo can catch you more offguard.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:25 AM
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Content Note: Snape kills Dumbledore.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:38 AM
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Aaaauuuuugh!


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:39 AM
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No, avadakdevra!


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:52 AM
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Warning: Looking at transverse MRI images of human thighs will make it very hard to eat ham steaks for a while because of the great similarity in appearance, especially if the human was a bit on the heavy side.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:01 AM
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I haven't read the Kotsko, but the summary sounds right. TV programs, for example, have been doing "contains content that might be upsetting to some viewers" (not Christmas carols, nooo!) for as long as I can remember, but the aggrandized victimhood of "trigger warnings" really grates.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:08 AM
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Kotsko's suggestion seems totally sensible and is fine, why not as long as its reasonably done and is voluntary, but I am still generally mystified that this would be a big issue for students at all. If you're a traumatized person you must already know that you'll sometimes study or encounter things that might remind you of the trauma. That is especially the case in areas with clear signs that things might come up (eg, criminal law, much literature). If you're not a traumatized person but just squeamish or sensitive, I don't see why you get to demand that your classes have an MPAA-style rating system, and I especially don't get why students are pushing for an MPAA style rating system as a campus activism demand.

The areas where the purported trauma-triggering seems truly assholish and problematic (eg the creepy math teacher who uses a rape analogy to explain calculus for no reason at all) seem like precisely the areas where the whole warning in advance concept would do nothing.


Posted by: R Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:08 AM
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I didn't like his last section about how the thoughtful professors have of course been thinking about this and so stop whining, whiners, but I think his suggestions seem fine.


Posted by: Thorn | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:10 AM
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TV programs, for example, have been doing "contains content that might be upsetting to some viewers" (not Christmas carols, nooo!) for as long as I can remember, but the aggrandized victimhood of "trigger warnings" really grates.

Agreed.
Also, isn't encountering things linked to trauma in safe circumstances supposed to be a good way to get past trauma? As in, if you get kicked by a horse, you will (understandably) become afraid of horses, and the way to deal with this is not to avoid horses altogether, because then you'll always be afraid of horses, but to overprint that association with lots of non-kicking interactions with horses.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:17 AM
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Agree with OP.2 "But an individual cannot arbitrarily decide on the meaning of a word" (in the linked piece) is both true and not what's going on. As fencey as I am about the whole thing, it's language change as it happens, particularly right now, because internet. (See what I did there? God I hate "see what I did there?")


Posted by: Mister Smearcase | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:18 AM
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You should probably go to the ER and get whatever is broken fixed first.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:19 AM
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I am still generally mystified

I especially don't get

I was just telling some friends that I keep thinking things like this and I finally realized that my time as a participant in these debates is over, and I'm a spectator now. I'm not all that old, but I don't really get the issues in any but a reverse-engineered intellectual way, so it's time for me to get on the sidelines and let the kids work it out.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:19 AM
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Aren't your kid like 4 or something?


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:21 AM
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Yeah. They'll be 5 and 3 in a couple of months.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:23 AM
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my time as a participant in these debates is over, and I'm a spectator now. I'm not all that old, but I don't really get the issues in any but a reverse-engineered intellectual way, so it's time for me to get on the sidelines and let the kids work it out

Yup. I was talking about some issue or other to Blume the other day -- I think it was gendered pronouns, maybe? Something about trans issues -- and saying that it felt like one of the first times that my sort of moral intuitions were just from a different time and really shouldn't be relied on.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:24 AM
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(Speaking of which, sort of, the facebook thing I hate-read so productively that I am considering giving it up in the new year has a post where someone offers reiki in exchange for...I forget what, "yummy vegan treats" is the gold standard...anyway, someone responds:

"Please don't use the word reiki, it is neo-Orientalist and has nothing to do with the place it supposedly came from. Energy work would be a more appropriate term."

(not to lump Kotsko in with local idiots. It's just funnily wrong and my previous bloviating about the linked piece reminded me of it.)


Posted by: Mister Smearcase | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:26 AM
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"Energy work" sounds like what a guy says he does when he doesn't want to say "Fracking."


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:28 AM
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13 and 16 = yes. I often end up back at "oh, forget it. I'm just old." One of the interesting things about not having kids is how easy it is to accept my irrelevance. I just don't have an opinion that matters about a lot of things, and it's something of a relief that I can just sit and have my crabby "oh, grow up" response to stuff like the trigger warning thing and it won't much matter to anyone that I'm just saying what old people say in these situations.


Posted by: Mister Smearcase | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:35 AM
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the facebook thing I hate-read so productively that I am considering giving it up in the new year

It's a better way to live.


Posted by: gswift | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:39 AM
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Let's all post our ages and our moral intuitions!


Posted by: fake accent | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:43 AM
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I don't really post anything to Facebook, but I'm thinking of replying to other peoples' posts using zir/ze pronouns.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:43 AM
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The areas where the purported trauma-triggering seems truly assholish and problematic (eg the creepy math teacher who uses a rape analogy to explain calculus for no reason at all) seem like precisely the areas where the whole warning in advance concept would do nothing.

Come to think, and I hadn't thought along these lines at all, maybe I disagree with this and you've actually described a situation where pressure for warnings would be useful? I'm really thinking on the fly here, and I have no idea to what extent there is a 'casually creepy jerks who say disturbing things just because they like seeing their students twitch' problem.

But if that is a problem, and you do have a trigger-warning policy, then either casually creepy jerk has his routine disrupted by eliminating the disturbing stuff, or he has to put in warnings which at least make the fact that the disturbing stuff is unnecessary and fucked up really clear, or is vulnerable to being made to explain to an administrator why he's not warning people before he explains calculus by means of rape. That is, generally, it might control the disturbing stuff to where it's pedagogically appropriate and useful, rather than just weirdos fucking with their students.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:43 AM
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Energy work would be a more appropriate term.

You would be hard pressed to find a petroleum engineer who would work for vegan treats. Although, probably not totally out of the question, given that $40 a barrel oil means tough times for in that line of work.


Posted by: Spike | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:43 AM
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People sometimes say "what will happen when they go out into the real world", but really the situation in college where they make you read a book with potentially objectionable content (and then grade you on it) is odd. Nobody makes you read books with rapes in them in the "real world".


Posted by: lemmy caution | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:46 AM
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I'm not going to cede my moral intuitions to college kids, because college kids are a bunch of idiots. I know I was at their age.


Posted by: Spike | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:47 AM
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They're not yet dealing with moral intuitions, they've got their hands full with immoral tuitions.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:50 AM
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I endorse 26.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:52 AM
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There's something I've been clawing my way toward in thinking about what I'm going to gesture vaguely at and call 'this sort of issue' (the Halloween thing, 'trigger warnings', gendered pronouns, The War On Christmas), and I can't get it straight enough to say it right.

But the fight is something like 'who gets to be normal'. Not who's tolerated, but who gets boring institutional support and who doesn't; who's going to be in the position of 'sure, you can say anything you like, but people are going to look at you like you have two heads. If it's important enough to you to be like that in public? You do you, no one's going to stop you. But no one has to think you're normal.'

Like, the Halloween thing was in part a fight over whether it was appropriate for the Yale administration to say that, e.g., blackface costumes were offensive and the admin hoped people didn't wear them. The 'trigger warnings' thing can be framed as a fight over whether exposing people to disturbing stuff is something you should do only carefully, when necessary, or whether expecting that kind of caution is offensive.

All of these things seem like an attempt to move social norms of what's standard public behavior in an anti-racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever way, and like they're getting pushback from people who are sort of denying that social norms exist, and calling it oppressive that anyone should try to create them. And the general form of that pushback is bullshit -- there are always norms in place, the question is just what they are -- even if for any specific argument the rights and wrongs depends on the specifics.

But I don't really have this in a form that makes sense or that I'm sure I stand behind.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:59 AM
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re: 13, 16 & 19

But what if the 'kids' are just wrong?

I don't mean just specifically in this instance. But I have various positions on this kind of stuff, combining various levels of: caring about an issue; having relevant knowledge about an issue; having consistent and reliable moral intuitions on an issue. So, a non-exhaustive taxonomy might be:

i) Don't care; don't know; unreliable or unsupportable moral intuitions. Some norms of social behaviour, e.g. dating behaviour among people much younger, or with radical different sexual preferences to me might be like this.
ii) Do care; don't know; unreliable or even wrong moral intuitions. Some things that are related to particular kinds of situated experience, e.g. some issues around gender, might be like this.

But there are cases where:

iii) Do care; do know; reliable moral intuitions.

Yet where I think that the emerging social consensus is just fucked up.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:03 AM
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the Halloween thing, 'trigger warnings', gendered pronouns, The War On Christmas

I've been at universities nearly my entire adult life and literally never encountered any of those things except on the internet. That is here and (far more frequently) people who haven't been somewhere that wasn't 99% Christian in twenty years complaining about the "War on Christmas" or Jenner.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:03 AM
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30 a longer way of saying something like 26.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:03 AM
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Possibly I suck at reading emails from the administration unless they are headlined "How bad it has to snow before you can stay home."


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:06 AM
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I think most people would agree with 30 -- what I believe Ogged is saying is that he's putting more stuff in your category (ii), not that he's abandoning (iii) completely.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:06 AM
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The general idea of trigger warnings is perfectly reasonable (although I agree that appropriating terminology from PSTD is probably best avoided) and professors have been doing this since forever.

It's a big deal now because it turned into some kind of tribal bullshit. Also, it went the same way as language policing. There's broad agreement that certain terms are best not used, and these terms do change over time ("retarded" was totally unexceptionable when I was a kid, but is pretty universally not acceptable now). But this realization gave rise to the unsavory phenomenon of the "language policing hobbyist" whose schtick is annoying everyone by constantly floating new candidates for verboten word or phrases.

Likewise, once the trigger warning discussion took off, we soon saw the appearance of the trigger warnings hobbyist, who gets off on annoying people by suggesting that every innocuous thing under the sun should come with a trigger warning.


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:09 AM
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I think a number of tumblrers do in fact say "content warning" these days.


Posted by: Minivet | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:13 AM
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We are all normal and we want our freedom.


Posted by: Opinionated Arthur Lee | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:15 AM
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Nobody doesn't like Aurthur Lee.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:15 AM
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35: Again, I'm not really sure of myself. But while there are certainly annoying overenforcers of any kind of norm (like, people who are prissily irritating about old-fashioned manners), I wonder if the sense that overenforcement of this sort of thing is a serious problem is pushback against seeing people trying to move the social norms at all.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:26 AM
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39: Social media has made the annoying overenforcers massively more visible than they used to be. That's part of it anyway.

In an academic context, there's a concern that administrators are eager to use student concerns as an excuse to stick their noses into matters of course design that have traditionally been the province of the faculty. There's nothing new about 18 year olds occasionally being stupid about how they push their latest cause, but it becomes a problem when administrators step in and start trying to formalize the stupidity.


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:34 AM
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I've been calling them content warnings for a couple years now for that reason. An actual psychological trigger is going to be impossible to predict, but giving a heads-up really isn't a big deal. I also think most of the time it doesn't matter that much, and that sometimes shock can be a useful pedagogical tool, and that not being a dick in the classroom is a lot more important than having a warning about content.

It's also very hard to mandate w.r.t. policy.

10: Yes, but a classroom isn't a supervised psychological session designed to help people deal with trauma.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:50 AM
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41.3 was what I was about to say as well, but it's also worth noting that while the exposure doesn't need to be in a carefully supervised psychology session in a lot of cases it can't just happen randomly, out of nowhere. And outside of psychological professionals in a therapeutic relationship there's pretty much only one person who knows whether they're in the right place emotionally at the time to confront that trauma, whether they feel safe in the right way, and so on. And that's the person who is being warned ahead of time so they'll be able to make an informed decision about it. Without that it's just the professor (or television show, or whatever) jumping out from around a corner suddenly with a horse yelling "BOO!".


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 10:20 AM
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Well, more like "jumping out from around a corner and talking about horses". I mean, yes, if the professor's any good at her job then as soon as she talks about horses her students will see them printing their proud hooves in the receding earth, but even so we are not talking here about confronting people with the actual things that they associate with trauma, merely with mentioning them in a discussion.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 10:24 AM
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I was using your case, where it would actually have to be a real horse given how the exposure would work.

Exposure therapy for rape victims doesn't, to my knowledge, involve being raped after all. And suddenly talking explicitly about rape or showing a video in which someone is very graphically raped in front of someone who had recently been raped can't be dismissed as "mentioning them in a discussion".


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 10:28 AM
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42 is good, but also, I think the idea that the way you get over triggers is by being exposed to them is not really on point. As Kotsko said, what we're mostly talking about is not exactly 'triggers' -- it's not someone who was standing by a fruit stand when a bomb went off, and reacts strongly to the smell of oranges, which is something that maybe controlled exposure would be a good idea to get you past.

Largely, it's stuff that people find disturbing, or unpleasant, and want a chance to brace themselves for. And dumping more of whatever it is on them without warning isn't necessarily going to make them get over the reaction, it's more likely to make them find the environment where they're getting unpleasant things thrown at them aversive.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 10:29 AM
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Well, more like "jumping out from around a corner and talking about horses".

I am picturing this with coconut shell hoofbeats.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 10:34 AM
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The general idea of trigger warnings is perfectly reasonable (although I agree that appropriating terminology from PSTD is probably best avoided) and professors have been doing this since forever.

I think this statement is one Kotsko would (rightly!) object to. Professors haven't been giving trigger warnings since forever, they've been giving commonsensical heads-upses about the material in the class when doing so seems suitable. "Trigger warning" isn't an appropriated term that's been slapped onto this existing practice ignoring or in ignorance of the context of its origin, and to characterize the reasonable thing that people have been doing as giving trigger warnings is deceptive at best.

In a way, this is an instance of Holbo's two-step of terrific triviality (or, I guess, Austin's part where you say it and the part where you take it back).


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 10:37 AM
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43: I'll disagree to the extent that mentioning them in a discussion is *not* supposed to be therapy at all, so there's no way to justify graphic content on some supposed therapeutic aim. Helping traumatized people overcome their traumas is not my job. I'm not licensed or qualified for that, nor do I know who among the 70 people in the classroom has had a traumatic experience. So I don't think I can justify not warning people about graphic content on the grounds that encountering it will be better for them than not. How could I possibly be in a position to know that? That's my only issue with your 10. True, but beside the point to the classroom issue.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 10:37 AM
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46:

Professor Umbridge was lying in a bed opposite them, gazing up at the ceiling .... Since she had returned to the castle she had not, as far as any of them knew, uttered a single word. Nobody really knew what was wrong with her, either. Her usually neat mousy hair was very untidy and there were still bits of twigs and leaves in it, but otherwise she seemed to be quite unscathed.
'Madam Pomfrey says she's just in shock,' whispered Hermione.
'Sulking, more like,' said Ginny.
'Yeah, she shows signs of life if you do this,' said Ron, and with his tongue he made soft clip-clopping noises. Umbridge sat bolt upright, looking around wildly.
'Anything wrong, Professor?' called Madam Pomfrey, poking her head around her office door.
'No ... no ...' said Umbridge, sinking back into her pillows. 'No, I must have been dreaming ...'
Hermione and Ginny muffled their laughter in the bedclothes.


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 10:44 AM
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47: I'm not sure we're disagreeing. What people are wrongly referring to as trigger warnings (common sense content notices when explicit or potentially disturbing matter is being dealt with) is something that instructors have been doing since forever.

I agree that this fits Holbo's "two-step of terrific triviality" pretty well.

Step 1: Demand that instructors act as pseudo therapists and claim that you're acting on behalf of people with actual clinical PTSD. Emphasize that triggers "could be anything" and insist that things like The Great Gatsby should come with trigger warnings.

Step 2: If anyone points out the pitfalls in step 1, reply "All we're asking is that you warn students if there's going to be graphic material about sexual assault or violence! Don't you care about rape survivors? Why are you so mean!?"

About 95% of the entire discussion is trolling.


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 10:51 AM
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50 is extremely sensible.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 10:54 AM
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To be fair, there's been plenty of "Students today are such whiny crybabies!" trolling from the other side.


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 10:59 AM
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||

Have a nice holiday, people! I'm outta here till next year.

|>


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 11:05 AM
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50: Eh. The thing that I want to disagree about, is that I think that commonsense content warnings can be quite important, and it's very reasonable to have a strong expectation that they will be provided, and unreasonable to push back forcefully against such an expectation. (That is, the kind of stress that getting distressing material sprung on you unexpectedly involves can be a big deal even if it's not a PTSD trigger, and it's a good thing if people are expected to be reasonably sensitive about it.)

So, calling them trigger warnings is probably wrong, but complaining about the pressure to provide them at all seems wrong to me too.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 11:09 AM
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53: Happy (War On) Christmas.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 11:12 AM
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but complaining about the pressure to provide them at all seems wrong to me too.

But have people been complaining about common sense content warnings? I mean beyond the "kids today are such wimps" troll articles in the Atlantic.


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 11:14 AM
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No, they've been complaining about pressure to provide 'trigger warnings', which in context are, I think, misnamed (because mostly not about PTSD). But the pushback isn't purely against the name, it's against the idea that there should be a strong expectation that students will be warned before they're confronted with anything particularly disturbing.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 11:19 AM
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Well, and I think 'kids today are such wimps' troll articles in the Atlantic are exactly what aggressive pushback looks like.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 11:19 AM
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But the fight is something like 'who gets to be normal'. Not who's tolerated, but who gets boring institutional support and who doesn't; who's going to be in the position of 'sure, you can say anything you like, but people are going to look at you like you have two heads. If it's important enough to you to be like that in public? You do you, no one's going to stop you. But no one has to think you're normal.'

For what it's worth, I like this characterization.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 11:21 AM
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The Atlantic trolling referenced above, which lumps a lot of stuff together under the rubric of 'trigger warnings' even when that's not specifically what's going on.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 11:25 AM
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Are they still opposed to butt chugging?


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 11:26 AM
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No, they've been complaining about pressure to provide 'trigger warnings', which in context are, I think, misnamed (because mostly not about PTSD). But the pushback isn't purely against the name, it's against the idea that there should be a strong expectation that students will be warned before they're confronted with anything particularly disturbing.

I have nothing to do with teaching students, so who cares, but I am ready to use the powers of my mind and internet commentary to push back on both the name and on a *strong expectation* (different than some kind of very broad, completely unenforceable mention in the class syllabus, or something, that some sensitive or disturbing material may be discussed in class, along the lines of what most professors and syllabuses have long since done) that students will be warned before they're confronted with anything particularly disturbing. I'm fully supportive of expanded campus mental health, being polite, etc., but I do think that "grow up, tough shit, you're in college" also has a place, and is also a value worth supporting.

Beyond that, I am extraordinarily skeptical that these kinds of things will be put to uses that are, on net, progressive -- the net result will likely be either a mild further dumbing-down of the curriculum or giving veto power to 18 year old morons, many of whom are going to be the kind of 18 year old morons you are sympathetic to but the ones who take offense from a conservative or religious, not progressive, point of view.


Posted by: Roberto Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 11:34 AM
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How does an expectation of warnings turn into either dumbing down or veto power? I don't see the slippery slope.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 11:49 AM
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I'd assume if you have substantial numbers of people demanding to be warned about things that are "disturbing" so as to opt out of part or all of a class' curriculum, a basically not-that-interested-in-confrontation-about-teaching-so-I-can-get-on-with-my-research-professor would take that stuff out of the curriculum where possible. A strong expectation of specific warnings, especially if its administratively mandated, makes including controversial stuff in your curriculum a bigger deal, even if it doesn't prevent you from doing so, and de-normalizes it. That's the procees I'd expect, anyway.


Posted by: R Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 11:56 AM
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Eh. That sounds a bit like 'students don't have a right to be fragile about things, because that interferes with the faculty's right to be fragile about things.' I mean, I can see it being chilling where there's literally no reason for the difficult content to be appropriately included in the class (calculus rape analogies), but that sounds like a win to me.

Anything that's actually reasonable and appropriate, I figure faculty should be able to handle giving the students a heads up first.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:00 PM
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Not really OT -- did anybody watch the most-recent episode of The Good Wife? Is millennial-bashing the current equivalent to jumping over sharks? Do only middle-aged and older people watch The Good Wife?


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:02 PM
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No. Yes. Yes.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:09 PM
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Except the opt-out part of the warnings is usually both annoying enough for the students, not generally something they'd use ("yes!" the response goes "but if it really disturbs them what else are they going to do - just not do the readings that day!?"), and something that is available as an option for any damn thing on the syllabus. "Try to accommodate your students if there's a problem" isn't exactly an onerous restriction on faculty because, just like "let them know ahead of time when something disturbing is about to happen", it's about as controversial as saying "teach them stuff".

The problem that people opposed to this kind of stuff seem to me to be gesturing at, though rarely explicitly, is that requiring warnings for certain kinds of things sends a strong message that those kinds of things are disturbing or a big deal. That is, it explicitly endorses the claims that, say, rape genuinely is a disturbing, serious big deal and not just some casual thing that makes for good jokes or something and that not taking it seriously is, in fact, a bad thing to do. "Grow up, tough shit" stuff is just a way of saying that people who object loudly to it or complain about it being treated lightly or something are being immature, like children overreacting to something that is, on balance, not actually a big deal.


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:11 PM
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65: "reasonable and appropriate" do a lot of work here. Who decides what's reasonable and what happens when someone demands warnings for something that's unreasonable are both questions that need answering.

I mean, most instructors do include a heads up regarding materials that would be widely considered potentially upsetting by reasonable standards. Once you start trying to formalize this into a policy, however, especially when administrators with "students = costumers + the costumer is always right" attitudes get involved, the likelihood of scenarios like the one described in 64 becomes high.

I know that sounds stupid, but universities frequently operate in stupid ways.


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:11 PM
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65.2: But I think the point is that, when you transition from "content notes" to "trigger warnings", you change the prof's obligation from noting in the syllabus that Book A has some sexual violence and Book C gets into child abuse to detailing every instance of a list of 15 committee-approved categories of triggering instances, and that list of 15 gets longer every year in a way that's very ripe for exploitation by the forces of reaction (Trigger warning: this book includes the phrase "Whitey is the devil.").

And when that's the framework, that's when pedagogy comes up against mindless hassle. Do I want the trigger warning portion of the syllabus to be the longest element, or do I just fall back on a (mostly*) safe set of readings?

All that said, 29 makes sense to me. I just think you're maybe underplaying the downside.

*I don't imagine the situation getting so bad that profs completely roll over, and if the trigger list is long enough, there's nothing safe that isn't sold in board book format, but I think there's lots of instances where there are multiple books that slot into a course, and the prof is effectively being pushed towards the anodyne one, regardless of any other factors.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:14 PM
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67: Uninformed and yet informative! Thanks, Moby!


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:14 PM
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69 is more or less 70.1.

I think part of why I'm inclined towards the Tigre position is that ISTM the pro-trigger side (here at least) seems to be operating under a presumption of bad faith on the part of profs. Is rape calculus such a common thing that it overwhelms the number of academics who take their jobs, including the parts that involve treating their students with respect, very seriously?

I mean, we're talking about professors here, not bankers or cops. Surely we can assume they'll do their jobs well?


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:18 PM
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The strange thing is that I seem to remember that this is how it was done in every single lit class I ever took from high school through university. I don't know why this all of a sudden became a big deal other than it's something that people can use to bully people with problems.


Posted by: Trivers | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:25 PM
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Trust me, the costumer is not always right.


Posted by: Opinionated person who does not fit in his new clothes | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:28 PM
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72: I guess what the pro-warning side wants, generally, seems reasonable enough (as in 73 -- mostly what people were doing already) that I do think that anyone pushing back strongly against being asked to do something reasonable? There's a good chance that there's some bad faith going on there.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:28 PM
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I don't know why it presumes any bad faith on the part of professors: the "it's something they've done forever" argument is generally opposed to the claim that this kind of thing is a new demand that involves weak silliness among students and would harm pedagogy. And the response is "no it isn't this is something common and no it wouldn't it's important to it."

Jobs where people regularly work past normal retirement ages and which, in the past at least, were almost universally gendered tend to have a pretty serious old-white-guy contingent, which includes both vaguely resentful/malicious sorts and just completely clueless ones. I can definitely think of a few professors who did stuff that, while it didn't end up in the trigger warning stage, certainly indicated some problems.* And the value of saying clearly what kinds of things really do require advance warning is in making a particular norm explicit, more than anything else. There's obviously worries that things will get ridiculous and too many norms about what is important will start to show up, but that's not really a fight about trigger warnings at all, just changing views in society.


*Like, for example, the old one who said that some or other serious social problem, I think the rising violent crime rates,** was clearly the result of women entering the workforce in world war 2, in class, while lecturing to students. He also liked putting true or false questions like "As mentioned in lecture Descartes uses the argument about wax to support the substance theory" on tests. The right answer was "False", because while Descartes does actually do that it was not mentioned in his lecture.
**I know. He didn't.


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:29 PM
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AFAIK, pushback from instructors came about in response to step 1 of the two-step described in 50. Without that, I doubt there would have been any kerfluffle in the first place.


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:40 PM
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He also liked putting true or false questions like "As mentioned in lecture Descartes uses the argument about wax to support the substance theory" on tests. The right answer was "False", because while Descartes does actually do that it was not mentioned in his lecture.

That's putting the course before Descartes.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:43 PM
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I mean, we're talking about professors here, not bankers or cops. Surely we can assume they'll do their jobs well?

Hahahahaha.

That said, I don't really get the anti-trigger warning crowd probably because I'm a delicate flower. Several times in school, I ended up sobbing at a book or movie while the rest of the class made fun of me. So when I was in junior high I decided I wouldn't read several books because I knew they would upset me (unfortunately, although they were on the required reading list, I was never actually required to read them and so never got to practice my baby rebellion). I manged to grow up to a generally normal, functional adult.

And I'm totally rolling my eyes when profs saying things like wanting to 'shock me out of my complacency' or 'needed to grow up'. Reading about a rape doesn't make me feel safer or better able to deal with my own (possible) sexual assaults. It certainty will make me feel worse to hear the thoughtless comments made by others in the class. Classrooms are not therapy and you, my prof, are not my therapist and excuse me for not trusting you to run a safe space.

I did have a prof in my first year English class assign a poem about male masturbation for analysis. I was a virgin at the time and hadn't even seen a penis (sorry work net nanny). I guess she was trying to shock me out of my ignorance? What ended up happening was I failed the assignment because I was too embarrassed to write anything. Good job prof. I def learned something.


Posted by: hydrobatidae | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:44 PM
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78!!


Posted by: urple | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:45 PM
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insist that things like The Great Gatsby should come with trigger warnings

Is this example randomly-generated, or is it real, referring to Tom's smacking Daisy?


Posted by: idp | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:47 PM
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I've been staying out of this, but it's interesting to me to watch how this plays out with pretty much everyone here looking at it from a faculty perspective and making assumptions about student populations based on that. When Lee was at the for-profit school that was scamming recently returned veterans, there was training on how PTSD affects the brain and learning and how best to present things to students under those circumstances, which didn't involve trigger warnings but was supposed to make instructors more thoughtful and may or may not have done so. I've often wondered if we filthy liberals made this a conversation about accommodating our brave heroes rather than, y'know, women and their rapey hysteria, maybe it would make a difference. Probably not.

I'm also the parent of a grade-school student with a PTSD diagnosis. I was impressed that her teacher asked about triggers in preparing for this year, but in her case and probably the cases of many kids with similar histories it's tone of voice and how she's instructed to do something that can trigger her. I haven't really seen talk among teachers about how to deal with that sort of thing (though in general the trauma-informed school stuff I'm forever droning on about would definitely cover it) and yet I suspect it's widespread.


Posted by: Thorn | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:47 PM
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72:
"I mean, we're talking about professors here, not bankers or cops. Surely we can assume they'll do their jobs well?"

I had to laugh at this. Some fields of academia are probably whiter and more male than banking or the police. Many of these old white men rarely interact with peers who are female or not white, and are completely oblivious to anything they might do that is offensive. But they would push back against trigger warnings because the suggestion that they are needed is offensive to their self-image as liberals.

Also yes there are the ones who also enjoy being offensive. Telling sexist jokes in class does get you laughs from at least half the class, after all.


Posted by: Ponder Stibbons | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:51 PM
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73: I'm not sure I ever recall any sort of content warning, and I took 8 or 9 lit classes in college, everything from Greek Drama to 20th C. Poetry. And surely some of the stuff in e.g. Russian Lit would be the sort of thing that the pro-trigger side wants warnings for, no? And if there was no warning that I can recall, that tells me that either there was none or it was extremely mild. Which strikes me as a sharp contrast with what's now being demanded.

Point being, I think the claim that "all that's being asked for is what (good) profs have done forever" is question-begging. And now we're getting arguments of the form, "it's always been done this way, why are you complaining?" Which isn't an argument we generally respect.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:54 PM
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81: real. In one of the very earliest trigger warnings articles, a student at Columbia listed both Gatsby and Mrs. Dalloway as books that should come with trigger warnings.


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:55 PM
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83: Well it was meant as a joke, so I'm glad you laughed.

I'm not going to argue against 83.2 and 83.3. But if that's the case, then state up front that you think this should be required because you don't, in fact, trust professors to do their jobs.

#NotAllAcademics


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 12:56 PM
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82: Actual diagnosed PTSD is kind of a red herring in this context, though.

At the beginning of every semester I get an email from our ADA point person, listing the students in my class with conditions that might effect their ability to participate and suggesting what sort of accommodations can be made.

Someone with real PTSD can contact the student services office and describe what scenarios might make their participation in class difficult, and the ADA folks and the instructor then come up with what sort of accommodations will work.

I've yet to hear anyone explain why it makes sense to replace this system with one in which instructors try to randomly guess what might trigger students.


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:02 PM
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81: I think it was mentioned in a general list of examples of great works of literature that are important to read but also include stuff in them that is genuinely bad and which people who have had bad experiences like that might want to know about ahead of time. I think 'domestic abuse'/'misogyny' stuff was the thing that the article pointed out about it (which isn't surprising because that's one of the things that comes up a lot in discussions about The Great Gatsby.) I tried to trace it back from it's "OMG Censorship!" Atlantic Monthly origins, and as best I could tell (after a couple good sized steps) it came from this or at least something like it. The argument in that link is, roughly, that trigger warnings are a good way to address the totally valid problems students might have confronting these things given their own lives because (1) it doesn't impose censorship overall, (2) it doesn't require them to talk openly with people they don't know very well about intimate parts of their lives and (3) the language used in the warnings is vague enough that it doesn't amount to just telling you the plot.


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:04 PM
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I'm glad we've definitively moved away from the content of Adam's post, part of which could be read as a plea not to use the technical term "trigger warning" inappropriately and part of which definitely cautioned people to think about who would be empowered to formulate and enforce official standards, and are back to tossing "trigger warning" around without caring a whit about what it means and being glib about whether institutionalizing practices in the modern university is a good idea or not.


Posted by: | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:16 PM
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That was me. Kotsko took his post down, incidentally.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:17 PM
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Huh. Now I'm really curious about his comments thread, but presumably he took it down for a reason.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:20 PM
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91: when I looked at it earlier today there was nothing obviously outrageous, but it might have gotten picked up elsewhere. (And who knows what developed in the interim.)


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:21 PM
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If there was a reason, he would have taken it down deliberately, not incidentally.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:22 PM
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86: Glad you meant it as a joke. Sorry I took it literally. I did laugh wryly as I remembered all the male profs that me and other women were warned to avoid.

But what parts of a professor's job are impacted by including a content warning?

I agree with LB's "But the fight is something like 'who gets to be normal'. Not who's tolerated, but who gets boring institutional support and who doesn't; who's going to be in the position of 'sure, you can say anything you like, but people are going to look at you like you have two heads. If it's important enough to you to be like that in public? You do you, no one's going to stop you. But no one has to think you're normal.' "

I think that the acceptance of trigger/content warnings would send a message to science profs that jokes about how women are worse at math or whatever, are totally passe. Or maybe not.



Posted by: hydrobatidae | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:27 PM
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Hopefully it wasn't about us being dopey.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:28 PM
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Even if it was, I maintain the 78 was worth it for him.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:31 PM
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66: The Good Wife is dead to me. Apparently I only watched it for Kalinda, even though every Kalinda plotline was stupid.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:36 PM
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85, 88:

Certainly made sense to me that that would be it. It occurred right away to me, old white guy from central casting, and I haven't read it in over 40 years.


Posted by: idp | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:36 PM
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Can we have somebody with less Canada and more goy? We got to play in Peoria.


Posted by: Opinionated Central Casting | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:40 PM
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Isn't science profs making jokes about how women are bad at math completely unrelated to trigger warnings? Should the profs put on the syllabus, "Trigger warning: casual sexism," and then it's okay?


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:40 PM
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97: Yeah, it would be a mystery to me why I still watch it. except that I know I watch TV shows out of habit.


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 1:48 PM
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100: I assumed that would fit more under: "do you trust this person to either recognize things that deserve trigger warnings/should be taken seriously or act appropriately if they do" than "this requires a trigger warning".


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 2:00 PM
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Maybe it could become like SEC disclosures -- you just have 5 pages of small-print disclosures at the front of the syllabus explaining various ways in which you may or may not be super sexist and disclaiming liability for all of them, and then you can say anything you want.


Posted by: R Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 2:03 PM
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88: I think the point many people made about Gatsby is that it's sufficiently innocuous, as literature goes, that if you are going to put a trigger warning on that you basically committed to putting trigger warnings on everything. I can't think of many examples of literature that don't deal with any unpleasant subjects at all.


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 2:06 PM
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100: I mean sure, they are pretty distant from one another but it does seem like the debate over content warnings are bringing some attention to the expected behaviour of profs. And that we haven't settled what the culture of campus is.

Of course, I could also see a bunch of backlash with science profs thinking undergrads are a bunch of babies and need to be exposed to even more sexist comments because that's just the way it is in the world.

During my time I assumed that trigger warning was just written in invisible ink. To be brought up when/if I complained - oh you know, that's just how they are; what did you expect; but you're different; he didn't mean you; that's not an important issue; you only care because you're a woman; etc. etc. If it was written out at least I could have known I wasn't imagining things or alone. Or picked a different class.


Posted by: hydrobatidae | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 2:08 PM
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97 is very true. I needed a "lazy plotting" trigger warning before this whole season of The Good Wife. It's hard to care about right now. I was glad of the last three minutes of the last episode but I don't know what they can really do with it.


Posted by: Mister Smearcase | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 2:12 PM
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105.2: I don't see what trigger warnings have to do with sexist comments in class. They seem like pretty separate issues. Trigger warnings deal specifically with the content of the material being covered, not whether the professor is behaving like a jackass in class.


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 2:17 PM
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107: See LB again (why do I even try to argue) "All of these things seem like an attempt to move social norms of what's standard public behavior in an anti-racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever way, and like they're getting pushback from people who are sort of denying that social norms exist, and calling it oppressive that anyone should try to create them. And the general form of that pushback is bullshit -- there are always norms in place, the question is just what they are -- even if for any specific argument the rights and wrongs depends on the specifics."

Content warnings are an attempt to change the culture on campus ('kids these days are such babies about stuff but fine, whatever, I'll include warnings because I guess I have to'). I'm hoping that will trickle down to change the culture of science profs saying sexist shit ('kids these days are such babies about stuff but fine, whatever, I'll stop saying vaguely sexist shit because I guess I have to').


Posted by: hydrobatidae | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 2:26 PM
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106: Maybe someone at ChumHum invented a time machine, and maybe Josh Charles wants back on the show, and maybe Alicia will travel back in time to kill baby Eli Gold.


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 2:32 PM
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Isn't there an important difference** between being (a) easily-offended* by discussion or course material that deals with rape, violence, or sexuality,, and (b) being offended by a Professor making casually sexist comments in class?

Taking offense at the latter is surely something we want to encourage. And there the harm isn't just an offense to sensibility -- it's an indication that the person is affirmatively sexist, treats women differently than men, is disrespectful of young women scientists, etc.

But I'm not sure at all that the former is a value worth protecting. That is, I'm not sure that we want colleges to affirmatively encourage and protect people easily offended by certain subject matter. Protecting sensitive sensibilities alone for the sake of it seems pretty contrary to what you'd want a University to be doing. It also seems far more likely to favor anti- rather than pro-progressive education.

*(I'm not talking here about mitigating PTSD responses from students who actually suffer from diagnosed PTSD, which is an ADA/reasonable accommodation issue that universities actually have to deal with in ways that are actually medically sound when people are diagnosed with that specific issue. But the "trigger warning" debate seems to exist precisely to move beyond those kinds of reasonable accomodations in specific instances).

**Maybe it's a use/mention difference, but whenever I try to formalize these kinds of things I turn out to be wrong.


Posted by: Roberto Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 2:54 PM
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Thinking that formalizing norms into official policies is a bad idea, or might have bad effects that outweigh the good, is hardly the same as objecting to the fact that the norms exist at all.

It's normal to say "hello" to colleagues when you pass them in the hall. I do it myself. Nevertheless, I would object to a formal policy of administration mandated hello-saying.


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:03 PM
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People in category (a) are very likely to be in category (b) as well (but not necessarily vice versa). That's about the only link I can think of.

Anyway the term "easily-offended" is a really, really big part of what's at stake here - more than any "People who are younger than I am are less mature I blame participation trophies" stuff from old people writing for the Atlantic Monthly. I mean, it's not hard to offend anyone. What "easily-offended" means is that you can offend them with things that are much less offensive than it would take to offend other people. And that means that any debate about people being easily offended* is really an argument about how offensive certain things are, and given that a large chunk of the people on the "OMG-PC-LIBERALS" culture war part of this issue are exactly the ones who think that sexist jokes are great, rape isn't that big of a deal, etc., it's easy enough to see how that's working out.

*Except that bringing in 'easily offended' itself is not entirely part of the story here since people aren't using that as a rationale for trigger warnings. So bringing it in when talking about them is changing the subject a bit, and to something way more culture-war than any kind of 'what kind of debate on campus is best'/'liberal values on free will and being offended' stuff.


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:03 PM
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All of these things seem like an attempt to move social norms of what's standard public behavior in an anti-racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever way, and like they're getting pushback from people who are sort of denying that social norms exist, and calling it oppressive that anyone should try to create them.

I don't think anyone on the other side of these things would recognize themselves in that statement, but you probably knew that already.


Posted by: Criminally Bulgur | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:04 PM
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I'm easily offended by the misuse of hyphens.


Posted by: Tom Scudder | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:04 PM
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I recall there was a proposed initiative at THE state university "Just say hi!" - designed to ameliorate the alienation felt by minority students -- I'm not sure if it was actually implemented (and no one noticed) or if it just languished on the assistant dean's desk.


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:06 PM
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You know, the funny thing is that back when I was young and dumb, I thought that actually a lot of women claimed to have been sexually assaulted when all that had happened was that they had not indicated clearly enough that they didn't want to have sex and while this was certainly a shame, it wasn't really the guy's fault; I thought that if women wore revealing clothes then even though they certainly didn't deserve to be harassed or raped they should still kind of have known better; I thought that it was better for students of color to hear racial slurs on campus because not hearing them meant that discourse was being stifled and how could we address racism then; and I thought that basically women and people of color took offense way too easily. And I add that I was routinely, routinely one of the left-most students both at my high school and at my small liberal arts college.

I was actually kind of an oblivious asshole about this stuff, and I am fairly sure in retrospect that I made things harder for 1. my roommate who alluded to being sexually abused as a child but never really talked directly about it; 2. the friend-of-a-friend who was raped during my freshman year and who froze up during the event because she had also - wait for it - been sexually abused as a kid and 3. a variety of disabled students and students of color to whom I am sure I said a lot of bullshit.

I actually meet a lot of Youngs in a social context rather than a professional one - one of the advantages of being an anarchist - and frankly even the left-leaning young peoples frequently have pretty rudimentary understandings of what sexual assault is, what consent is, whether fairly racist things are actually racist, etc. This whole business about the hypersensitive children of Tumblr and Coca-Cola strikes me as quite overblown, and I am not especially worried about the awful tumbrels of Not Wanting To Have Your Fellow Students Get A Thrill Out of Quoting Material With N***** In It In Class. (Something that actually happened at my actual college - a white student wrote an actual editorial which opened with a quote containing that word, and the editor of the school paper ran it.)


Posted by: Frowner | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:07 PM
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To continue 116: Nowadays, the newspaper editor would know better or else there would be a giant scandal - almost certainly the former - even if the writer didn't know better himself, and I think that's a huge improvement.

I went to college during the multicultural nineties, like everyone else, so this wasn't even in the Really Bad Old Days or anything.


Posted by: Frowner | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:10 PM
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OK, to 112, which is a legitimate point (as is 114! and 113!), let's take the example of someone who is actually offended by reading the domestic violence scene in the Great Gatsby in an American lit class. Or by discussion of the law of rape in a criminal law class. That way we're talking about things that are concrete.

I'm not sure that we want to "change the culture" in universities to the point that people, even people who are offended to the point of having trouble with that material in those classes, have a right to demand avoidance of discussing those issues (at least, if they're not actually suffering from diagnosed PTSD). Of course rape and domestic violence are offensive. The question is what the university does about teaching such things, and what the relative roles of students, facutly, and administrators are in deciding how or if they are taught.

At this point the trigger-warning advocate might say that they're not trying to avoid discussions of these topics at all. All they're asking for is a simple and banal heads-up that sensitive issues will be under discussion, just like thoughtful professors have long done. But if that's all trigger-warnings are doing, they aren't doing much if any work of culture-changing. If the point is to actually change culture, the trigger warnings need to be something more. And to the extent that they become formally institutionalized rules -- rules designed specifically for purposes of culture-changing and allowing students to opt out of course material because of a sense of offense, and rules that students have some kind of actionable right to expect to see put into practice -- then I think things get a lot more problematic.


Posted by: Roberto Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:22 PM
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I am not especially worried about the awful tumbrels of Not Wanting To Have Your Fellow Students Get A Thrill Out of Quoting Material With N***** In It In Class.

I'm not sure what side of anything this comes down on, but my kid's high school English teacher, a useless jerk in a number of ways that aren't important right now, also had a fondness for mentioning, as opposed to using, the n-word in class. To the point that the kids were keeping a running tally of usages. All purportedly in the service of a full-throated, not mealy-mouthed, anti-racism, but clearly mostly about how naughty he could be and get away with it.

He is no longer teaching for other reasons, but we're a long way from the dystopian future where everyone is too afraid of their shadows to say anything offensive.


Posted by: Canute the Great | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:22 PM
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103: I have to have a disclaimer on this on my syllabus, about how the course material may conflict with a students' core and/or sacred beliefs. It is perfectly acceptable, however, for those of us who teach more controversial things (read: PG-13) to say "this is how it is in this class -- if that's going to bother you, drop it for there are many fine options that will fulfill your gen ed" on the first day. What it affects mostly is spontaneity. Can I link a blog post that has swearing, mid-semester? What if a student suggests a YouTube video in class and I haven't vetted it?


Posted by: AnonProfForThis | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:28 PM
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But if that's all trigger-warnings are doing, they aren't doing much if any work of culture-changing.

This is where I think we disagree. (As does hydrobatidae, and I think MHPH.) Identifying subjects that it is reasonable to find disturbing, and acknowledging them as such, seems to me as if it might change campus culture in ways that I approve of.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:29 PM
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All they're asking for is a simple and banal heads-up that sensitive issues will be under discussion, just like thoughtful professors have long done.

Generally I think this is what trigger-warning folks are asking for.

But if that's all trigger-warnings are doing, they aren't doing much if any work of culture-changing.

And yet, it's such a big discussion and getting so much push back. Which suggests they are potentially culture-changing.

(I am also pro-hyphens and probably misusing them horribly)


Posted by: hydrobatidae | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:30 PM
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120: Not that, I'm sure, you're doing anything close to this, but wasn't that the issue with the famous fucksaw demo? That it was a last minute, impromptu offering?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:30 PM
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One of the things that content warnings do (and I think "content warning" is a reasonable term) is to give a heads up to the assholes and the oblivious that we're talking about something serious here, and just because you personally have never been raped doesn't mean we can all debate whether the character in the play was "asking for it" or whatever.

To me the best and most consistent value for content warnings is precisely this. When I was, as I say upthread, young and dumb, it really did not occur to me that a lot of the shit that I said (even in class) was going to hurt and upset real people who had actually be sexually assaulted, experienced racist violence, etc. If I had understood that, I would have been more thoughtful, and once I did understand that - all due to the PC thuggery of upper midwestern anarchist culture, no thanks to college - I stopped running my mouth so much. Prior to this, I felt that one could say just about aaaaaannnnyythiinng at all in class as long as it was about the text, because weren't we there to learn, etc etc?


Posted by: Frowner | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:34 PM
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123: This is more along the lines of "what if there's a sudden flash of nudity or a swear word", but yeah.


Posted by: AnonProfForThis | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:35 PM
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I'm surprised you need to worry about swear words. Don't people occasionally swear in class?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:38 PM
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I feel like 124 is in tension with 121. We're giving a totally neutral, conventional heads up that doesn't change much of anything about class discussion, yet they're totally important for substantively changing class discussion?


Posted by: R Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:41 PM
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Frowner is also doing a great job explaining. I was a dumb thoughtless asshole in university because I didn't appreciate that some things weren't just an intellectual exercise. Hearing a prof give a content warning and explain it was because of the potential for people in my class to have negative experiences, would have been eye-opening.


Posted by: hydrobatidae | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:45 PM
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Changing class discussion by the method of making people aware when they're distressing the people around them, and letting them weigh the distress against the usefulness of the contribution, or reshape the contribution to cause less distress, is pretty far from the parade of horribles you rolled out in 118. There's room between totally ineffective and stifling debate.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:47 PM
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Maybe, but you're certainly running a strong risk of stifiling debate, particularly as these things get institutionalized or implemented.

And what do you do about the kid who objects or takes offense on grounds that you don't find congenial -- the kid who can't tolerate reading about, say, gay sex.


Posted by: R Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:50 PM
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The hot lesbian compromise works there.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:52 PM
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You warn him that the class involves reading about gay sex. And he deals with it or drops the class. That's the point of warnings rather than vetoes.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:52 PM
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132 -- But that's exactly what eg 124 says isn't the point. He doesn't deal with it or drop the class. Instead the class discussion is modified to take account of the personal feelings and experience of your fellow classmate who is really really offended by gay sex.


Posted by: R Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:55 PM
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An illustrative anecdote: I was teaching "Leda and the Swan" last year and a student came to my office afterward to complain that I hadn't provided a content warning. She was totally within her rights to do that, and I totally respect her desire to shape her own education, and we worked out a solution wherein I brought some feminist rewritings of the poem to class the next day for everyone to discuss. So, this is not me calling in to Fox news to complain.

But it's important to remember that *this* is what we're talking about when we talk about content warnings. Math professor making gratuitous rape analogies? Totally unacceptable and he should be disciplined under Title IX. Classroom debate over whether Lolita was asking for it? Terrible pedagogy and the the professor should get a talking to. But I think these things are much less common than they used to be even two decades ago, in large part of the salutary changes in campus culture that LB's talking about. And to the extent that these abuses continue, they're not best addressed through content warnings.

R. Tigre is totally right. Putting little stars next to works that might be upsetting either does too little or too much.


Posted by: Mme. Merle | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 3:58 PM
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I really feel like you all are tying my hands on this Calculus thing.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:00 PM
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133: I missed the bit where Frowner said "And I abdicated all usage of my own judgment and moral sense." Someone objects to something because it makes them distressed, you get to look within your own soul, under the assumption that you have one, and decide if they have a point. And if they do, you work with them to ameliorate the distress. And if they don't, you let the chips fly where they may.

This is a large part of what I was getting at in 29. We're in the midst of a culture change where "I am distressed by graphic representations of rape" is going to be treated with respect, while "I am distressed by allusions to gay sex", largely won't be, where in the past the reverse was the case. I think this is a good transition, and wish to encourage it, and I think that encouraging people to be explicit both about what they are distressed by, and what they think other people are reasonable to be distressed by, is likely to help the transition along.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:01 PM
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But it's important to remember that *this* is what we're talking about when we talk about content warnings.

Right. And it sounds like... nothing bad happened at all?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:04 PM
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(Sorry, that last came out super snotty when I look at it. But I guess I missed your point. That is, you do seem to be saying that the interaction was harmless and pedagogically appropriate, and I'm not sure how that's compatible with Halford being totally right.)


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:06 PM
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Now that I've seen the most recent, I have a better sense of where we disagree. The defenders of content warnings seem to imagine two kinds of classrooms: those where rape is discussed callously and those where rape is discussed sensitively. But there are actually three kinds of classrooms: ones where it's discussed callously (the bad old days); the ones where it's discussed sensitively (the brave new world of content warnings); and the ones where it discussed, like everything else, as a subject of intellectual inquiry, with all that intellectual inquiry, at its best, entails. Content warnings come out of an internet culture that is often quite hostile to that kind of inquiry, in the name of a certain kind of supportiveness.

More concretely: one of my central tasks, as a literature professor, is getting my students to see that literary works aren't about them. They may think that Jane Eyre is just like them, but she's not, and it's a misreading of the novel to see that. In the same way, it's perfectly reasonable to be pained by poems about rape, but it's also necessary to see that Yeats--for better or for worse--does not share our current ideas about sexual violence.


Posted by: Mme. Merle | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:13 PM
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135: Don't worry, Heebs, your cancer* totally gives you a free pass on this. "Trigger Warning: Your Christian God tried to kill me with cancer, but I survived, so shit's gonna get real in here with diffy-kews."

*close enough


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:17 PM
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Isn't it possible for rape to be discussed both sensitively and as a subject of intellectual inquiry? That is, there are points on which we recognize writers from other times and places as alien to us, and always have: very few people reading, e.g., the Pearl poet think of the theological issues he's concerned about as personal to them.

What I would expect a 'sensitive' treatment of Yeats' attitudes toward sexual violence to entail, would be one that explicitly recognizes that "literary works aren't about [your students]" -- that he is a writer in many ways alien to them, writing in an alien time and place, and that they are not expected to internalize his worldview on these points and feel it as stating universal truths: they are expected to analyze it from an outsider's perspective.

(Now, I can see that there are probably students with unreasonable expectations, but unreasonable students are always going to exist, whatever the baseline expectation is.)


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:21 PM
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Or, to ask another question -- you distinguish the brave new world of sensitivity and content warnings from the world of intellectual inquiry. You do this for a living and I don't: in your experience, how does the former interfere with the latter? The Leda and the Swan story didn't speak for itself, or at least it didn't to me -- did you see that interaction as damaging to the intellectual value of the class, and if so, how did it?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:24 PM
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People definitely get sniffy about swearing!

Content warnings seem harmless, and most of the people who dislike them are clowns, but.

One issue with trigger warnings that does actually bother me, philosophically, is that when dealing with a complex issue from another culture/time they reduce whatever problems might be at stake - and whatever culture background that might form the context to that issue - into a one-liner in the context of liberal American pieties.

Also you might not want to frame a discussion around the "trigger" --- you're talking about Ana Mendieta, but you don't want to focus on her death: if you start by saying "tw: domestic violence" that's going to push the conversation one way very very heavily.


Posted by: Keir | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:26 PM
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I see comity on the horizon! I totally agree with you about how Yeats should be taught. I just think that "content warnings" are at odds with that kind of pedagogy, since they imply (and are used on the internet to mark) content that simply cannot be engaged with rationally and so must be avoided.

And now, I'm off. Thanks for pushing me to think this through.


Posted by: Mme. Merle | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:28 PM
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I just think that "content warnings" are at odds with that kind of pedagogy, since they imply (and are used on the internet to mark) content that simply cannot be engaged with rationally and so must be avoided.

Maybe comity, or at least identifying the point of disagreement? If I thought this was what 'content warnings' meant, I'd think they were a terrible idea too.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:31 PM
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140: Because I didn't take any college math courses, I don't know how to spell the nickname form of "differential equations".


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:32 PM
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If I thought this was what 'content warnings' meant, I'd think they were a terrible idea too.

The person who has dealt with them professionally seems to think that they at least approach that meaning, which ISTM you've been dismissing throughout. I guess that's an argument from authority (and lord knows Merle isn't the only academic here, so there will be disagreeing authorities no doubt), but it certainly suggests that you shouldn't be so dismissive.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:35 PM
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Anyway, I'd say that the comity lies not in content-specific trigger warnings, or even content notes*, but in an opening day discussion of the sorts of texts that will be covered, and the tone in which they'll be discussed. Because ISTM that a lot of what's being treated upthread as the problem, other than asshole profs, is thoughtless students. And so the prof needs to establish that being thoughtless isn't acceptable. Which is good pedagogy, and really has nothing to do with exactly how Fitzgerald wrote about abuse.

I'm inclined to say that that speech ends with, "And if any of you have particular issues or sensitivities, my office hours are on your syllabus," but I wonder if that's a can of worms, with 75% of the students coming in with their list of sensitivities, which will run from the serious to the frivolous. It's probably the right thing to do, but I don't think it would run all that well.

*insofar as that's a text-by-text rundown of possibly alarming content


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:41 PM
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Nah, I'm fairly happy with my current level of dismissiveness.

(Seriously, I'm interested in what Mme Merle has to say on the subject, and have asked her to opine at greater length, which hopefully she will do when she has more time. She doesn't appear to have been offended by my tone, which is good, because I haven't meant to be offensive. A little flip with Tigre, but he can take it.)


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:43 PM
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I mean, imaging teaching people about, I dunno, consumption of human flesh in pre-contact Māoridom -- if you start by saying "trigger warning: cannibalism" you've already imposed the cultural and ethical categories of (arguably racist!) liberal white European culture onto the thing you're discussing, and you might, for sound pedagogical reasons, not want to do that.

(Cannibalism is a bad example, because it's obviously shocking, but there's a bunch of other non-western cultural practices this kinda applies to, and I think it's maybe worth considering content warnings as, sometimes, a form of cultural imperialism.)


Posted by: Keir | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:45 PM
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Actually, to follow up 148.2, other than the fact that it would be such a timesuck*, ISTM it would make sense for (in small- to mid-size classes, you couldn't do it for a 100 students) basically each student to meet with the prof to discuss not only any sensitivities, but also other factors: I'm on a varsity team, I may miss a couple classes; I'm on a scholarship, I need a B, not just a passing grade; I'm probably going to have a psychotic break this semester. All the shit that breaks when it's too late to be proactive.

Maybe that's nuts, but I just think about what adjunct AB and all of my academic friends complain about at the end of every semester, and could this be a way to address both kinds of stress.

*although maybe one that saves time and frustration later


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:46 PM
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"trigger warning: cannibalism"

More like a "triggers me to take this class" warning.


Posted by: Roberto Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:52 PM
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I'm back! But only a minute to say a) not at all offended by LB and b) very, very strongly concur with Keir's 151, which breaks the analogy ban to such a good end.


Posted by: Mme. Merle | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:56 PM
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Or, actually, sati. Imagine starting teaching a history of sati-in-18th-century India with "content warning: violence against women" -- you immediately privilege the whole colonial discourse around the mistreatment of Hindu women, the need for British authority to prevent this abuse, etc etc. And because it's presented as part of the authoritative voice of the lecturer or university, it seems to me it would be much harder to bracket and get away from, unless you reduced it to a meaningless prefatory formalism.

152 - yeah, there's actually some interesting work on the subject (also heaps of racist wank but...)


Posted by: Keir | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 4:57 PM
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Although, it is hard to imagine any description of a course on sati that would not have the effect of a content warning -- that is, there's no way to convey the topic of the course that doesn't, you know, convey the topic of the course.

Cannibalism in Polynesian cultures, I can see as something that a student might more plausibly be blindsided by.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 5:01 PM
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I'm still worried that talking about students being offended by things is a misdirection from the actual thing that's being talked about here (and one that ends up talked about because it's really great for The Atlantic's 'let us reason together' trolling is desperately trying to make happen).

Trigger warnings aren't for students who feel offended by graphic representations of rape: graphic representations of rape are (graphically) representing something that is, genuinely, very morally offensive (so they better be). The point of alerting these things to students is for students whose life experiences are likely to make those passages very hard to read for other reasons, and it's a good thing to do that because those people and their experiences (and the reactions that result from them) matter. And part of the value of doing that, in addition to, well, the fact that you damn well ought to do that, is that it makes clear that the perspectives of people with those experiences and their reactions to the material matter and are important. That's the pedagogical value because you can't have an actual intellectual discussion about the issues while dismissing those perspectives/etc., and "oh be rational" type reactions are exactly how you make people shut up about them. And, I think, part of the culture war aspect of the whole thing is that there is genuinely a big chunk of American conservatives who do actually think those perspectives don't count and that those people shouldn't get to have a say.

The worry about putting things off limits seems to me to be just kind of misplaced, in the same way that accusing trigger warning policies of amounting to censorship are. "Careful this contains (x)" doesn't mean you can't discuss it - after all, it was assigned for a class where you discuss things. The most it means, at its strongest, is that you can't discuss it as if it were humorous, or unimportant, or as if people who are really bothered by it are being unreasonable. Are you going to have students maybe not read it or not show up on that day? Yes! You have that either way, because of why they're doing that. You have to trust students as far as that goes. But the difference between a content warning and no content warning isn't going to be that student not showing up to discuss it because of how much it bothered them and a student showing up to discuss it reasonably.


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 5:02 PM
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(And, I mean, yeah you absolutely see conservative students using the 'gay sex bothers me therefore trigger warning!" stuff, sure. But you see that kind of liberal-phrase-cargo-cult stuff all over the place because a lot of conservative assholes think it's clever and some of the dimmer ones think that's how it works as well. But there's no reason to treat that more seriously with this issue than with any other one.)


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 5:05 PM
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I actually think the discussion has gotten to a serious and interesting place. But all I can think about is demanding a safe space to talk about sati and cannibalism. There is no blame or shame in this room! Yes I ate that guy's arm and you set your wife on fire but it's our role as advocates to support our choices, not question them.


Posted by: R Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 5:06 PM
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155.2: Why not? Michael Rockefeller was.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 5:07 PM
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I totally did cannibalism as one issue in an applied ethics course once. It was actually an interesting and productive discussion. But to my knowledge at least it didn't really need much in the way of a content warning because, well, what? Warning these stories about cannibalism involve cannibalism? That's not where trigger warnings show up (for, basically, 155 reasons). So not any potentially traumatic situation is going to need a trigger warning, because for some of them, well, the title/topic itself is the warning. But if one of the stories/articles/etc. had also had a really graphic rape in it then absolutely it would have been a good idea to mention that ahead of time, because bracing yourself for one thing is not the same as bracing yourself for a different thing.


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 5:11 PM
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Focusing specifically on "graphic depictions of rape" and other things that are widely agreed to be upsetting misses something about the discussions of trigger warnings going on now. The current discussion was inaugurated with a vast expansion of what sort of material should be considered trigger worthy (hence the fact that I keep harping on The Great Gatsby). If there really was an epidemic of professors holding surprise mandatory in class screenings of The Accused then I'll be happy to sign the petition saying that they shouldn't do that. But that doesn't seem to be what this is about.

The injunction "Watch out! Triggers could be anything!" was ubiquitous when the whole trigger warnings thing took off about 2 years ago. Maybe the sort of free floating walking on eggshells atmosphere that injunction promotes was accidental. Maybe not.

Also, no discussion of this stuff is complete without considering the implications of getting administrators involved. If there were no calls to make trigger warnings mandatory, the subject would never have had the legs that it had. LB notes in 137 that nothing bad happened at all, but would that have been the same outcome if the administration got involved? If you think I'm being paranoid, look at what happened at Oberlin and how eager the administration there was to "encourage" faculty to remove "potentially triggering material" from their courses. That policy was dropped, but only because the faculty raised hell about it.

I guess I'm a bit testy about the easy assumption that people are only pushing back against some of this because they want to say n**r and think that rape is funny.


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 5:40 PM
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The problem with the 'graphic depictions of rape' is that it's really obvious why trigger warnings are a good idea, yeah, but the problem with The Great Gatsby one is that it was a potential example suggested by someone in an editorial in what looks a lot like the Rutgers college newspaper. I mean, if you do want to pick a characteristic case then that's not really a good one to pick either. And a professor assigning a work which includes something that is legitimately really troubling (like a graphic depiction of rape) without telling the students ahead of time is absolutely something that happens all the time, usually just from either absentmindedness or just the general not-noticing-it-in-that-light thing you get when people who are, generally, pretty privileged are the ones making the decisions.*

*Let alone the number of ones who want to really shake the students up! Make them less complacent! Raise their consciousness a bit! (and so on.) Those people absolutely definitely do exist and I've met a bunch of them, to varying degrees. Invariably their unconscious sense of where the students are/etc. is just them remembering where they were at that age, and the fact that, for example, they were an upper middle class white person from southern California and some of their students used to live in Somalia and came here as refugees doesn't occur to them. A policy reminding them that, yes, you do need to note in the syllabus that that's what's in the reading and you can't just give them a jolt or something wouldn't be a bad idea.


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 5:50 PM
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I don't know if privilege is a great lens for analysing this - lots of college students are more "privileged" than the person taking the class, and particularly whoever's taking the tutorials.


Posted by: Keir | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 5:59 PM
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...and?

I don't see how that has anything to do with the issue, or with the general cluelessness (and tendency to want to provoke reactions) of the sorts of professors I'm talking about.


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 6:16 PM
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MHPH points to the one benefit I do see in the campign for content warnings, namely revealing as the assholes they are professors who aim to shock students out of their complacency.

But for the rest, I suspect that the people here defending content warnings aren't aware of what they've turned into, at least in literature. It's not just warning students that there will be a depiction of rape or some other kind of violence; of course that's unobjectionable; of course that's good pedagogy.

But what about syllabi that mark all the works that refer to "racism, sexism or colonialism," which is to say, every work ever written? That's the slippery slope we're talking about.

What about the article this week in the Chronicle, in which a history professor performed self-criticism for having her students do one of those "reacting to the past" exercises about the advent of the Civil War. Students were asked to play the role of Kentucky state legislators debating whether or not to secede, but they claimed to have been triggered by the racism and the professor decided that she had been wrong to assign the exercise. Of course, that's the kind of playacting that needs to be handled with real care, but it's intellectually crucial for students to understand why states seceded--and politically crucial for them to know that the Confederacy was, indeed, oh so very racist.


Posted by: Mme. Merle | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 6:30 PM
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I don't really have an opinion on or much knowledge about trigger/content warnings, but I did do a series of posts about cannibalism a while back that some people might be interested in based on that subthread.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 6:51 PM
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Those were great. I recommend them though I do not officially endorse cannibalism or cannibal-shaming.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 6:53 PM
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Thanks!


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 6:56 PM
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I'm amazed that professors who set out to shock their students have any success in being shocking at all. It feels like something from the 50s. I am the leather-jacket-wearing Ph.D. who speaks of Existentialism. Your God is dead! But maybe I don't even understand the premise. Are people really going around saying "Today's discussion of Hazlitt has been secretly replaced with a sneak viewing of Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible." Surprise! Who's complacent now?" That does seem bad.

Areas that seem like they'd be hard hit by the kind of things that M. Merle is talking about would be any kind of psychosexual analysis of literature, most discussions of warfare or colonialism or slavery, and a lot of discussion of religion. Those all seem like important things to be able to discuss at a level of intellectual abstraction, even while recognizing that they are not just abstractions. But of course I have no idea about what is actually going on in college classrooms.


Posted by: R Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 6:59 PM
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Just don't eat my corpse in the likely event that you outlive me.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 6:59 PM
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I promise I won't, but I can't speak for the tiger.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:01 PM
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170 to 168.

169: Just don't eat my corpse in the possible, but far less certain, event that you outlive me.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:01 PM
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A quick "yo this book/movie has some really violent shit in it" is just common courtesy. Forgetting one shouldn't be a fireable offense; teachers should try to remember them. What more is there to say? A quick heads up doesn't close off intellectual inquiry into anything except Jonathan Chait's rear end.


Posted by: torque | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:05 PM
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I promise you nothing!

Chaco Canyon Cannibalism posts are great, though I've only got as far as where you note that the anthropologist who claims that there was widespread southwestern cannibalism titled his book "Man Corn." Best concept ever. "The Man Corn is growing high this season, can't wait for some tasty man on the cob."


Posted by: R Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:07 PM
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164 - the bit where you say "someone pretty privileged" is where privilege-talk comes into it and it's kinda worth pointing out that in the context of higher education it's more complex than simply privileged lecturers who don't realise what they're doing -- partly, many students are very privileged and many people teaching lack privilege in some respects, often in employment contexts, and also many people who are being studied in college courses aren't very privileged, and that's important!

If you're going to teach Māori history, you've got responsibilities beyond those to students.

Often attempts to centre student experiences means de-centring the experiences of the people being studied, and in that context there's a different privilege issue: is it appropriate to impose the categories and views of predominantly white wealthy Americans on a whole bunch of other contexts? Is that ethical? Is it good pedagogy?

(Re: cannibalism; in Māori, the place name Kaitangata (composed of kai = food, tangata = people) can either be translated as food for people or people for food, which I enjoy as an ambiguity.)


Posted by: Keir | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:08 PM
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174: He actually stole the phrase from the Aztecs, who apparently really did use it to refer to human meat. (And thanks!)


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:11 PM
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Oh now that's just weak sauce. The closest you've got is when I said something about people not seeing that something might affect students differently or that something might be something they missed out of absentmindedness, or privilege (especially with the whatever consciousness raising thing some of them have going on is), or whatever is simplifying an issue to that is nonsense. And it's especially nonsense when it was an answer to how professors might actually end up in a situation where a trigger warning is important, and where they don't give one.


Posted by: MHPH | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:24 PM
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That's the slippery slope we're talking about.

In literature. I know of absolutely nobody, not a single person, who does this sort of thing in history courses. And my colleagues are on the bleeding edge of identity-driven scholarship (he says without judgement -- seriously). I would add, relatedly, that my sense is these syllabus notations are emerging not because of student demands, but because particular disciplines have embraced them. And all of this leaves out the important fact (I think?) that these discussions are always, or almost always, focused on elite institutions, where only a tiny fraction of students in this country are educated.


Posted by: Von Wafer | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:34 PM
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Then again, I'm totally stoned on Valium right now, so maybe I have no idea what I'm saying. I really don't know.


Posted by: Von Wafer | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:35 PM
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Valium helps Man Corn plump up nicely show marbling in its fat.


Posted by: R Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:42 PM
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Oh now that's just weak sauce.

Without flour or butter, the Aztec sauce-technology couldn't make something thicker.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:43 PM
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181: Don't forget mole.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:44 PM
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154: but why on earth would you say that instead of "we will be discussing sati, a practice which [etc etc]"?

In my lesser, community ed teaching, I "trigger warn" because we read both second wave feminist SF with its accompanying issues about gender and Octavia Butler-y coercion/violence/body horror stuff. Plus I do a kind of content warning for "we're going to read some Afro-pessimism; be thoughtful in your discussion because we are a majority white group". My "trigger warnings" aren't just "caution - icky stuff"; they're pretty precise.

I have lost one Black student over shitty conversation about race in class when I was first teaching. We talked it over, it was more a classroom control thing than anything else and she and I actually became casual friends, hung out occasionally, etc before she moved far away. A content warning would have prompted both me and the group to do a better job with the material.

A trans woman left my class a couple of years ago because I did not prepare the group for or frame well the Joanna Russ and James Tiptree that we read (suuuuuper gender-essentialist) and the ensuing discussion of the texts was not great.

Now, perhaps you say to yourselves, "oh that's just Frowner and their dumb bullshit fake teaching, not real scholarship like I do" - but bear in mind that my students attend only because they want to. They can actually quit if they hate it, and there's relatively few status barriers to telling me why they're leaving.


Posted by: Frowner | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 7:49 PM
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The problems with mandated content warnings is that it's very hard to come up with a policy that isn't ridiculous or stomping all over academic freedom. Most of the professors I know don't have a problem with the occasional content warning. The problem is more when a) I have good pedagogical reasons not to want to focus the discussion on whether the content is upsetting (as Mme. Merle suggests) or shocking, or to frame it as upsetting (as Keir suggests) b) what remedies are expected if a student finds content upsetting.

Setting up an expectation where if some content is upsetting, then the professor has injured the student is damaging. If the class involves discussion, I can't guarantee that no student is not going to piss off another student. I might have to let that happen so they can sort it out. But if everything else I do is prefaced with a mandated warning, then I think it's very likely that the expectation becomes that the classroom environment will never be challenging. How much of a problem that is depends on how the policy is interpreted.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:04 PM
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it's very hard to come up with a policy that isn't ridiculous

If that is a goal of university administrators, they have more problems that I thought.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:07 PM
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Frowner, I'd never say that! What I would say is that you're talking about discussion leading, which, yes, takes a lot of work and requires a lot of care. It's absolutely the teacher's job to ensure that discussion remains respectful.

Content warnings are different because they govern not students interactions with one another, but an individual student's interaction with the text. And that's the part that seems like either too little or too much. Too little: student sees on my syllabus that "Leda and the Swan" refers to rape and what? Starts reading, but now somehow prepared for the rape reference in a way he or she wouldn't have been if the rape had come as a surprise a few lines later? That doesn't seem psychologically plausible to me. (Although I'm happy to be corrected).

Too much: student sees the content warning and either doesn't read the poem or reads the poem entirely through the lens of our current Title IX ways of thinking about sexual assault? That's what it means for the content warning to become part of the effort to change campus norms: the poem is just an occasion to instill the new norms. And sure, fighting sexual assault is probably more important than studying Yeats, but I am still someone who teaches literature for a living, so it gives me pause.

And on that note, Von Wafer, I'm glad to hear from you! Can I ask what your sense is of the whole "reacting to the past" curriculum? I've heard that people love it, but I've always wondered whether it's actually silly.


Posted by: Mme. Merle | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:11 PM
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One thing that I noticed about both students who left was that they both had pretty high bars for "this sucks and I'm leaving". My experience with the young people is that on balance the marginalized ones actually put up with way too much - it's not even close to "you reminded me that racism exists, show me to the fainting couch" or "another student made me upset and that should never happen". I mean, most of the ones I meet are pretty young, unformed and insecure; they're not always even confident that it's okay not to casually debate whether people of their gender/race/orientation are stupid/inferior/etc.


Posted by: Frowner | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:12 PM
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Can I ask what your sense is of the whole "reacting to the past" curriculum?

I've seen it done really well, but it's not for me. As for whether it's silly, I don't know. I mean, it's a tool to foster engaged learning. That seems like a reasonable goal, but I think there are better ways to get there (again, for me). I'm also not a fan of clickers, though, as in the case of Reacting to the Past, I've seen them used to great effect. I'm a dinosaur, I guess.


Posted by: Von Wafer | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:17 PM
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Although, I'm seriously considering teaching a mega-class with some maybe-weird engaged learning innovations of my own design. They'll probably fail miserably, but I'm more comfortable with the idea of putting my own curriculum together than buying a package from any of the textbook companies.


Posted by: Von Wafer | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:19 PM
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And it's great to see you too, Mme. Merle! I've wondered now and then if you're friends with some of my new colleagues in the English department.


Posted by: Von Wafer | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:20 PM
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Starts reading, but now somehow prepared for the rape reference in a way he or she wouldn't have been if the rape had come as a surprise a few lines later? That doesn't seem psychologically plausible to me. (Although I'm happy to be corrected).

I'm not in a position to correct you, exactly, given that I'm not a student distressed by reading the poem, so my sense of what's psychologically plausible could be way off. But that does seem to me like a poem where such a warning might be a help in dealing with such distress through legitimating it. That is, someone who's got a hard time reading about rape comes to the poem cold, has a hard time with it, and it seems plausible to me that they are either inarticulately put off, and don't process it well but also don't successfully engage with the poem, or that they blame themselves for being unable to deal with literature that shouldn't be upsetting, because it's not really about rape it's just about classical mythology, and it's just upsetting to that student specifically because they're a mess. With a label on it saying "Yes, this is a poem about rape, which is a topic we understand that it is reasonable to be distressed by", it really does seem plausible to me that a student in that position might have an easier time recognizing and working past their reaction as legitimate, but not a stopping place.

But I am telling stories about imaginary people here.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:33 PM
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That's kind of a thing in literature.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:36 PM
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This is a weird example, where not only would I expect it's restricted to "elite" schools, but I doubt it's very common even among elite schools. It's schools that are both elite and also small enough that students expect a personalized experience.


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:48 PM
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176: Marvin Harris in either Good to Eat or Cannibals and Kings talks about the reasonably well-attested Aztec practice of ritual cannibalism some* -- the state of thinking when I took a Latin American history class that covered it was that Aztec cannibalism was for real but that, contra a previous generation of scholarly speculation, it probably wasn't actually an important part of the Aztec diet.

* As a counter to people's occasional claim that cannibalism other than, like, funereal cannibalism was basically an invented European myth.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 8:57 PM
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194 - Define "important." Man Corn is mostly for taste and pleasure, not sustenance, but that doesn't mean it's not an important part of an active person's diet.

Googling, I was pleased to see that the new President of for real a member of the Ivy League yes it is an Ivy League University, who is a good lawyer in general and a good first amendment lawyer in particular, takes a strong position against mandated trigger warnings or any formal policy favoring them, while allowing individual faculty to put warnings on their syllabuses as they see fit. That seems like exactly the right institutional response.


Posted by: R Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:05 PM
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Aztec human sacrifice is very well attested. At the volume they were moving, you got to figure somebody wasn't going to let it all go to waste.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:10 PM
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191: IMverylimitedE, the warning is usually taken as a reason to do whatever the student needs to do to prepare themselves to be able to engage the reading. So knowing that the reading involves something traumatic might mean the student reads the work at home instead of on the train while commuting, or after having talked with a friend, or at the end of the day having completed other work.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:19 PM
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I teach in two fields, both of which tend to focus on war, rape, and all the horrible things humanity gets up to. I'm also a rape survivor, and easily upset by things shown on screen. My general practice is to give students a heads-up at the beginning of each course, and before any particularly disturbing reading assignments. More importantly, I think, I remind them of my policy that they can leave the classroom at any time without asking permission, whether it's to pee, or take an urgent phone call, or get away from a discussion or video that became too disturbing. I don't know if that's the best way to handle things, but it's what I myself would have appreciated as a student.

I don't want this sort of thing mandated by administration, but I do think it's important to establish a norm of being sensitive in the classroom in the manner that LB and others have expressed. I'm still going to cover genocide and wartime sexual violence (though I need to stop doing that in back-to-back weeks because, frankly, I can't take it anymore), but it should be with the expectation that those are really upsetting topics, particularly for those who have been traumatized by violence and sexual assault themselves. Yes, some professors have been giving content warnings forever, but many have not simply because it never occurred to them.


Posted by: J, Robot | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:31 PM
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And Cala gets it right in 197. My expectation is that I'm giving students the information they need to engage with the content.


Posted by: J, Robot | Link to this comment | 12-15-15 9:34 PM
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I'm amazed that professors who set out to shock their students have any success in being shocking at all. It feels like something from the 50s. I am the leather-jacket-wearing Ph.D. who speaks of Existentialism. Your God is dead!

I studied with that professor. But he wore a leisure suit.


Posted by: Barry Freed | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 12:40 AM
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I know of absolutely nobody, not a single person, who does this sort of thing in history courses.

I don't remember trigger warnings in my 20th century Eastern Europe history class, but I do remember someone, maybe not the professor, saying most of the course, especially WWII and after, was going to cover some pretty grim stuff. And that was accurate.

In a Russian language program I did as a grad student, I was kind of shocked how many students (undergrad and grad) didn't know about the Soviet Union in the 1930s. They might have benefited from a content warning before watching a documentary on the Solovky prison, which was shown as an extracurricular offering (along with a bunch of other Russian films over the course of the program).

i actually don't remember any content and/or trigger warning from my college years, in the mid-to-late 90s.


Posted by: fake accent | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 12:56 AM
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I think I've mentioned before that one of the most difficult discussion sessions I had as a TA was a week where we read from a sourcebook that was all about proslavery arguments. We'd previously read Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and that was fine. But students were totally unprepared to read what slaveholders and defenders of slavery really thought and wrote, and I was unprepared for their shocked reactions. I don't see how a content warning would have helped, given what we'd already read. I think the real shock came from seeing cruelty through the eyes of those inflicting it, rather than those being subjected to it.

Sometimes you hear (mainly) conservatives complain about how negative American history teaching is at the college level. What about the "good" slaveholders? But the truth is, if you look at the slaveholders that proslavery advocates would have considered good at the time, they're all a bunch of monsters.


Posted by: fake accent | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 1:19 AM
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201: I've definitely given people a heads-up about especially grim when I teach WWII or warned them in advance about the brutal nature of accounts of Indian massacres or the coverage of the assassination of Medgar Evers. And I've told students that if they feel like they can't handle the material, they're welcome to excuse themselves. But I've never put such things on the syllabus. Nor have I known others to do so. That's not to say it's not done; I've just never seen it done.


Posted by: Von Wafer | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 1:51 AM
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I've most seen trigger warnings on blog posts warning about content (which seem completely fine to me), but I don't really have an opinion about trigger warnings in classrooms. Having read the thread though has pushed me slightly in the anti-trigger-warning direction. The arguments in favor of trigger warnings are all arguments in favor of doing things that are good ideas, and then arguing in favor of trigger warnings as somehow resembling these good ideas. For example, Frowner warning students to be thoughtful on their discussion of race issues because they are a majority white group? A good idea! Not a trigger warning. Discouraging math teachers from making sexist jokes? A good idea! Not a trigger warning. Since trigger warnings are only loosely correlated with their goal, and since they have been a gift to demagogues, it seems better to pursue that goal directly.

At the same time, everything the media has ever said ever about "kids today" has been a lie, so I don't know to what extent it's a real issue, and not a manufactured media controversy.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 2:37 AM
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Although, it is hard to imagine any description of a course on sati that would not have the effect of a content warning -- that is, there's no way to convey the topic of the course that doesn't, you know, convey the topic of the course.

I would bet a sizeable amount of money that, if you told a bunch of typical UK undergraduates "this lecture is going to focus on sati" a good 40% of them would think that peanut sauce would be involved in some way.

Imagine starting teaching a history of sati-in-18th-century India with "content warning: violence against women" -- you immediately privilege the whole colonial discourse around the mistreatment of Hindu women, the need for British authority to prevent this abuse, etc etc.

This is wonderful. I bet you could get this argument into a college newspaper and have people take it entirely seriously and go "hmm, yes, good point".


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 2:41 AM
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Keir can't really be arguing that the British were wrong to ban sati, but rather that banning sati doesn't automatically legitimate everything the British did in India.

I just read the Wikipedia page on this practice, and I had no idea how long-lived it was. Apparently ancient Greeks with Alexander recorded the practice.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 2:58 AM
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I think Keir is (not seriously, but as a spoof of this kind of dementia) arguing that if you acknowledge that sati meant burning women to death, then you run the risk of making people look good just because they were opposed to it, so you need to somehow talk about sati without actually mentioning the burning-women-to-death bit too much.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 3:27 AM
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205.last -- you'd be surprised! The nature of sati (i.e should it be "tw: suicide" or "tw: violence against women") is actually reasonably live, I am told.

But in all seriousness, whether or not you think the British were right to impose their own efforts to abolish sati in India, it was also part of a propagandistic strategy to portray Indians as cruel, pagan, unable to rule themselves, etc etc, which it might be sensible to be a bit wary of.


Posted by: Keir | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 3:27 AM
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208 crossed with 207. Ah, I see.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 3:30 AM
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And I think that whatever you might think about the issue (I think it's a bit of a weak example, especially compared to, say, cannibalism) that is definitely an argument that people who strongly believe in trigger warnings should believe in.


Posted by: Keir | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 3:30 AM
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You'd have to be a bit careful around slavery, too, given how much the 19th century British and French Empires' self-image depended on opposing it. One minute you're talking about the horrors of the plantation system and before you know it you're legitimising the conquest of Algeria and the Benin War.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 3:33 AM
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Given how much their 18th century empires depending on profiting from it and how they started opposing slavery only after losing control of the portions of the empires with slaves, I still see a healthy role for skepticism.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 6:16 AM
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So, my takeaways from this thread are:

common-sense warnings that a class might be dealing with sensitive stuff = fine, normal, likely happening anyway but if not should be encouraged at individual professors' discretion. These are part of serving the goal of allowing students to intellectually engage with the material.

-- "trigger warnings" specifically given as a means of signaling material so traumatic it need not be intellectually engaged with = a bad idea, unclear who is actually asking for this outside of some very elite literature courses.

So, the key is "is this action helping to encourage intellectual engagement, or not" which sounds like exactly the right question for college teachers to be asking. And the answer depends on what exactly is meant by "trigger warning" and the surrounding context.

Plus, we learned the concept of "Man Corn"'so that n itself made the thread worth reading.


Posted by: R Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 7:59 AM
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Oh, also:

Administratively-mandated warnings/trigger warnings are a terrible idea, because of potential overbreadth/well-attested fact that college administrators are mostly craven idiots.


Posted by: R Tigre | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 8:10 AM
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I think every thread should wrap up with a "What we learned today" segment. Perhaps one of the FPPs can designate a commenter mid-thread.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 9:06 AM
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Does this mean every thread has to go on until someone learns something?


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 9:11 AM
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I studied with that professor. But he wore a leisure suit.

God is dead, hot stuff.


Posted by: Opinionated Herb Tarlek of WKRP | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 9:12 AM
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The image of the edgy, shocking Existentialism-touting professor reminds me of God's Not Dead, the weirdo conservative fantasy film about a student taking on his philosophy prof's claim that God is dead...and winning!*

*presumably he wins; I haven't actually seen it


Posted by: Stanley | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 10:53 AM
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I think you may be thinking of "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier".


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 10:55 AM
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218: There's an entire genre of "Brave Christian student stands up to bullying atheist professor" urban legends that circulate in evangelical circles.

As for would-be edgy professors, I can't help thinking of Donald Southerland's character in Animal House.


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 11:07 AM
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He said Milton was dull so I never read Milton.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 11:08 AM
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What does God need with a starship?


Posted by: Opinionated James Tiberius Kirk | Link to this comment | 12-16-15 11:09 AM
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216: Yes.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 12-17-15 11:49 AM
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