sent a letter to incoming freshmen addressing the ideas of "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings."What say all of you?
I think this is a great idea, but I have a couple of colleagues who think that there should be accommodations made for student trauma. (One colleague is worried about students with PSTD.)
I think this is a great idea, but I have a couple of colleagues who think that there should be accommodations made for student trauma. (One colleague is worried about students with PSTD.)
- Great Lakes Greta
Academic freedom traditionally governs in-classroom practice, so forbidding trigger warnings violates it. From what I've read, there's no university that requires them.ReplyDelete
I find the anti-trigger warning backlash to be of a piece with the view that focusing attention on how people would like to be treated-aka political correctness-is censorship. Both views are specious.
While I see the validity of everything you're saying here, I do not see anything in the letter that forbids trigger warnings. I am sure that professors are not forbidden from contextualizing material they present, including warning students that may be distressed by what they view, hear, or read in a particular class.Delete
I find it interesting that I read the letter as a positive step to curb the disturbing trend to attempt silence academics of all ideologies. My brain didn't even go to where many others did, which was that this is designed to squelch those who are demanding (and rightly so) to be treated fairly. I am guessing that my experiences have been very different. I have heard far too many colleagues who teach biology tell me of what they face from creationists in their classrooms, for just one example. I face students all the time who want to opt out of certain readings because they do not agree with the content. Let me stress here that I'm not talking about anything controversial. I have students protest having to read (for content) everything from poetry to the newspaper.
I'm also a little alarmed at the backlash that I've received IRL from my colleagues after posting this on FB. I'm completely in support of treating people the way they should be treated. I've been way left of center for as long as I've been alive. What I'm against is the attempt of students to shield themselves from things they just don't want to hear because they disagree with the material or don't like it. I always contextualize potentially controversial material, and I always -- always, always, always -- work to accommodate as best I can students with mental issues, whether such issues are documented through disabilities services or not. Yet some of my colleagues now see me as some sort of monster with no regard for students.
Greta, that is what makes this the perfect wedge issue. I also react viscerally to and seethe about stories about precious, over-protected snowflake students--no matter what their political/ideological persuasion--who simply cannot bear to hear perspectives they disagree with. And I am sure there are real issues here and dangers we need to guard against. But how much of this, the new hysteria, is grounded in empirical data as opposed to pure anecdote? And is this really one of the most serious issues confronting the academy/higher ed? Beware the motives of strange bedfellows. And while, we're at it, let's please also get clear about the politics of inter-generational warfare. Sure, it's fun and sentimental to revel in our Baby Boomer or Gen-X identities, and compare ourselves favorably to Millennials, but what good has ever come from these age/generational divisions, and who really benefits?Delete
Ed, I'm not sure the generation/age aspect can be applied to where I teach. At LD3C, I rarely have a classroom full to the brim of millennials, and I often have Baby Boomer and Gen-X students who attempt to change the classroom content and assignments to suit their own ideological persuasions. I've had students well into their forties and fifties complain to my chair when I wouldn't accommodate their ideological needs, when I forced them -- in tea-partying writing and literature classes in which the content is culturally and ideologically (including politically) diverse -- to encounter things that are outside of their own worldview sweet spots.Delete
In fact, I would argue that in the rare case when I do have a room nearly full of fresh-out-of-high-school students -- it does happen, but rarely -- I have students who are less likely to be easily offended and more likely to be open to new ideas.
Those of us who teach at CCs often have very different classroom experiences than those who teach at four-year colleges and universities, even different from those who don't teach at elite schools like U of C. I am wondering now, too, if that somehow colors my read of that letter, especially since the backlash I've received has come from colleagues at my CC who don't teach the same entry-level, everyone-has-to-take-them courses that I do. The most vociferous voice belongs to someone who teaches classes full of students who elect to take his classes, and a very esoteric subject (for a CC) at that.
Interesting. Thanks for the context.Delete
Greta, thanks. It's helpful to hear your perspective, and I wish your colleagues took your experience more seriously. I have to say, I doubt very much that many of the "excellent sheep" at a place like U of C are in the habit of protesting readings they disagree with--at least to prof's faces. Grousing to friends about why they have to take a class on diverse perspectives, yup, I bet that's a thing.Delete
I think Hiram? wrote once that he had a student ask for an alternative assignment on a reading having to do with the military, because she believed in advance that she would disagree with it. As a fairly sheepish undergrad back in the day, that stunned me.
It sounds like your colleagues, just like many of the folks most virulently against trigger warnings, are uncritically following the position that seems to comport with their pre-existing beliefs without taking a minute to think about what's best for the students in their particular ambit.
Taking the easy way out (because I'm still trying to get my sh*t, or at least the most vital parts of it, together for the beginning of classes):ReplyDelete
The Good Enough Professor (who self-identifies as a Chicago alum) has two good, thoughtful blog posts on this subject: Preserving Intellectual Safe Spaces for White People and Monsters and Mythical Creatures of Higher Education. I especially like the second one.
The Tatooed Professor also has a piece on the subject (which I haven't read thoroughly enough to summarize, but it basically points out scenarios in which both trigger warnings and protesting invited speakers could be appropriate).
David Perry has a roundup of links and a few thoughts of his own.
While I've never issued a trigger warning myself, and would resent being required to issue them as much as I would being forbidden to do so, I'm in favor of thoughtful discussions among professors, students, and, where useful, administrators about if and when such warnings can be useful and/or appropriate.
Trauma is a real concern, but it's my (perhaps insufficiently informed) understanding that counselors who deal with trauma work with their clients to try to reach a point where it's possible to encounter a reminder of the trauma (a trigger) without re-experiencing, and re-suffering, the trauma. That's undoubtedly a gradual and sometimes incomplete (and uncompletable) process, students who land in our classrooms may be at various points in the process (including only just realizing that it needs to start), with varying (and all too often inadequate) degrees of support available to them, and the classroom is not a therapeutic environment. And I'm now remembering that this line of reasoning was laid out in a Sept. 2015 article in the Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, "The Coddling of the American Mind," that was rightly criticized for perpetuating and amplifying the growing, anecdote-based narrative about threats to academic freedom from trigger warnings and other supposed machinations of the left. I still agree with that critique (I've never encountered the sorts of student complaints they describe, though maybe that has something to do with the lesser sense of privilege most of my students have), but the article's take on how to approach possibly-traumatic subjects in the classroom, and the dangers of avoiding them, still strikes me as making at least some sense. There are real dangers in avoiding difficult topics (but it's not at all clear that those dangers are threatening intellectual discourse on American campuses to anywhere near the degree that cuts to university budgets and student aid, and their ever-rippling effects -- which the Good Enough Professor lays out very clearly -- do.
I'm very much not in favor of conversations (shouting matches?) among administrators, politicians, and only incidentally students and parents that leave the faculty out altogether. Even if we're underpaid, overworked, and increasingly untenurable through no fault of our own, we're still the experts on what actually works in the classroom, especially when competing positive values are in play, as they are here. Even when we disagree with each other, the great majority of us have our students' best interests at heart, and we should be at the center of this conversation, not reduced to reacting to others' pronouncements.
tl;dr: if the Dean genuinely thought academic freedom was at risk, he should have asked the faculty to help him figure out what to do about the problem (because, by bypassing the faculty and issuing the letter on his own, he actually endangered another aspect of academic freedom. As noted above, this stuff is actually complicated.)Delete
(or what Curly said)
Thanks for the links. These pieces are both very good and easily digestible. One threat s/he forgot in the second piece: the strategic whipping up of hysteria on trigger warnings and safe spaces (etc.) to further right-wing and neo-liberal projects related to higher ed.Delete
I read the Tattooed Professor's article elsewhere, and found it absolutely appalling. He doesn't demonstrate the value of "protesting invited speakers" so much as assume it. He is absolutely wrong that having a speaker on campus should be construed as an endorsement of everything the speaker has ever written. If that were the case, then the university's invitations would have to be selective and intellectually consistent, which would turn the university into something more like a seminary school. Furthermore, the letter was clearly written in response to two recent cases where Anita Alvarez (former Cook Co. DA) and Bassem Eid (an anti-BDS Palestinian activist) were forced to cut their speeches short because they were shouted down by protesters in the room. There's room for picketing speakers and room for challenging their claims at Q&As, but it should never devolve to the point where the speakers are not allowed to be heard in the first place.Delete
He attempts to dupe the reader into thinking that the academic freedom of professors to use trigger warnings is under attack, even though this was a letter from the Dean of Students sent to incoming students, not a letter to the faculty. That context (and the simple fact that a universal ban would violate academic freedom) shows that the letter was instead meant to indicate to students that if they demand trigger warnings and don't get their way, the university will back the faculty member. Students demanding trigger warnings is the most frequently encountered pressure on this subject.
Gannon also ignores the ways in which these complaints are used. Not only does he ignore the fact that student protesters have prevented speakers from being heard at UChicago, but he also ignores manifestations of this elsewhere. He blithely talks of a "ginned-up hypothetical scenario of spoiled brats having a sit-in to protest too many white guys in the lit course...", but that is very nearly a description what has been going on recently at Yale. It hasn't progressed to sit-ins yet, but it might if the faculty at Yale don't cave on the demands to drop the "Major English Poets" required sequence for English majors, which is allegedly objectionable because — you guessed it — there are too many white men.
One case that did progress to sit-ins was that of Val Rust at UCLA, who offended his students' "self of steam" by correcting their grammar and insisting on using the Chicago Manual for bibliographies and citations. This was deemed a "microaggression" by the aggrieved graduate students, who staged a sit-in that made it impossible to conduct the class.
Then there's the Columbia "trigger warning" flap over Ovid's Metamorphoses. Despite being arguably the most famous and influential work of Latin literature, students were unable to find out on their own that it featured stories of Greco-Roman gods abducting young women for sexual purposes, so they were ostensibly blindsided when it was assigned as part of the core curriculum. Columbia refused to cave to the demands for mandatory trigger warnings, but they dropped Ovid's Metamorphoses anyway. It's now been supplanted by the presumably more PC — and certainly less influential — Heroides.
Continuing, because I ran just a bit over the maximum character count:Delete
All the professors that defend trigger warnings assume that the use will be ideal, merely to warn students of what's coming and never to identify works to be censored. But that's not always how it works in practice. If you at once legitimize the idea that keeping students from feeling "hurt" at any time is the highest priority and that there are books that can objectively be said to "hurt" them, then you pave the way for people to start asking why you're assigning those works at all. And for people like Gannon, the answer to that question can't be rooted in the professors' greater experience of what's proper material for a course, because that is to say, in his words, "We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it." As if it's some great cosmic injustice to recognize that people who have spent their lives in the examination of a complex academic subject might be better positioned than the average freshman to know what is best to be taught and how best to teach it.
This. All of this. Everything you said. Thank you.Delete
There does seem to be a good deal of confusion (in the original letter, and in Gannon's piece) between what strike me as two fairly different (though admittedly potentially connected) issues: invitation and treatment of outside speakers, and introducing difficult topics into classroom readings and discussions.Delete
For outside speakers, I'm a pretty strong advocate of the ideas that the remedy for speech with which one disagrees (including speech that is unquestionably offensive to significant portions of the population) is more speech, that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that invitation =/= endorsement. There's probably a line somewhere in there (e.g. inviting David Duke as a commencement speaker, because that does involve a degree of endorsement, combined with a captive audience), but for the most part I'd rather see ideas aired. And I also support any means of protesting those ideas (including actions that could be perceived as rude, e.g. turning backs to a speaker) that don't interfere with the speaker's ability to communicate hir ideas (so no shouting the speaker down, but yes to pretty much any silent, nonviolent protest inside the venue,and to noisy ones outside, as long as the noise doesn't carry far enough to interrupt the speech). And yes to hard questions, delivered within whatever limits (time limits, etc.) are imposed on all questioners.
Things inside the classroom get more nuanced, and there's also a lot more time to work out how to approach difficult subjects in a way that protects everybody's speech rights, and also minimizes psychological harm, while recognizing that complete protection from disturbing ideas (both those the instructor agrees are disturbing -- e.g. other students' ideas that could be construed as racist, sexist, etc., etc. -- and those (s)he doesn't perceive as disturbing) simply isn't possible in the classroom any more than it is in the world at large, unless one resorts to such questionable instructional techniques as having the instructor lecture all the time, self-censoring (and censoring the reading) as (s)he goes. I'm confident that most instructors and students can work out a reasonable balance between addressing challenging ideas and not exposing members of the class to repeated airings of opinions that are both poorly-founded in fact and dismissive of the abilities and/or experiences of whole groups of people, with or without trigger warnings, as long as everybody involved sticks with the process long enough to have the necessary conversations, try out solutions, and re-adjust as necessary. In the great majority of cases(i.e. barring an incompetent instructor), that process will not be aided by the participation of outsiders, be they administrators, parents, politicians, or members of the press.
I think it's great, but then the U. of C. has a long history of similar courage: during student protests of the Vietnam war they told the students to stop disrupting the operation of the university and go back to class or be expelled, and that was that. I am deeply ashamed that my alma mater, Northwestern, has chosen to collapse like a house of cards on this issue, but then the U. of C. has always viewed NU as a country club, often deservedly so.ReplyDelete
Now, if only they could affect a ban on concealed carry at U. of Texas...
I am actually on a boat and canyon negotiate the buttons of my phone but 2 people gave send this link and are alarmed I don't gave it up yetReplyDelete
Sounds like a cool place to be; enjoy! (and thanks for keeping up with CM even on vacation, or faculty retreat, or whatever it is).Delete
Thanks, Cassandra. I wouldn't have started that silly comment if I'd known how bumpy this little lake was. With some friends on some splendid waterfront although I'm already in school. Unexpected trip for a surprise wedding!Delete
... and as someone else pointed out, that dean no doubt drafted that letter from his computer at his desk in his office which has a door on it, which sounds an awful lot to me like a safe space for him to do his deaning in. Guy's an idiot, IMO, who doesn't really understand freedom of expression. He wants to use those words to mean that the university is in charge of what everyone thinks.ReplyDelete
... and as someone else pointed out, that dean no doubt drafted that letter from his computer at his desk in his office which has a door on it, which sounds an awful lot to me like a safe space for him to do his deaning in.Delete
Presumably he was relatively free from physical harm at that moment, but so what? Even the most dogged opponents of so-called "safe spaces" aren't advocating inviting the next wannabe Charles Whitman to the university and showing him the way to the tallest campus building. That would be ridiculous.
Hi everyone! I'm on dry land and here's a link that three readers have sent in concerning the trigger / safe space letter Chicago sent out.ReplyDelete
I've heard this elsewhere (and maybe even here during previous discussions about trigger warnings) and would myself take this approach to trigger warnings:ReplyDelete
TRIGGER WARNING: the content of this entire course.
I don't use trigger warnings, but something about this letter doesn't sit right with me -- I think it's because my eighteen-year-old self would have unreservedly applauded it, and because I recognize now that my eighteen-year-old self was intellectually arrogant, unreasonably contemptuous of people I perceived as overly sensitive, and not very good at compassion. In other words, in condemning one flavor of snowflakery, I suspect the University of Chicago is actually encouraging and giving cover to a different flavor.ReplyDelete
Exactly. (I wanted to say "ganz genau" because the German phrase is better, but I am guessing your 18 year-old self would have found this pretentious.) ;-)Delete