Colleges around the country, including some departments at UO, are struggling to define the boundaries between challenging course material, students’ well-being, and free speech. Recently, the English department discussed whether they should use trigger warnings that would alarm students of potentially upsetting topics. Warnings are becoming more and more common — and more and more controversial.
“Maybe there should be a trigger warning for the whole English Department, considering the nature of literature,” said John Gage, a UO English professor.
Trigger warnings have moved from feminist blogs to academia, creating a swift backlash at schools like Oberlin, Rutgers, Wellesley, and University of California Santa Barbara.
Oberlin’s proposal generated ridicule, both from faculty and media, for defining triggers so widely that virtually any book or film would require a warning. “Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma,” the policy stated. “Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic.”
“Anything can be a trigger,” and instructors should “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” If a book was “too important to avoid,” professors were supposed to give a warning outlining all of the work’s potentially upsetting subject matter. Oberlin later removed the trigger warning guidelines after outcry from the New Republic, the Los Angeles Times and others.
Yet triggers can be a real problem for trauma survivors, who need to know what to expect so they aren’t “blindsided,” says BB Beltran, the executive director of Sexual Assault Support Service, “Providing folks options is key to strike a balance in free speech and academic freedom.”
She added, “I guess I’m surprised there has been so much push back.”
Oberlin’s guidelines said some books should be removed from classes, or if they are “important” enough, professors should include warnings for racism, domestic violence, misogyny, suicidal ideation, colonialism and religious persecution.
Mark Whalan is a UO professor who specializes in modern American literature and the Harlem Renaissance. “To design courses which don’t include such material would greatly distort an accurate sense of what texts have been most influential and important,” he said.
Warnings are “a way to give students a tool in providing their own self-care while still giving well-rounded coverage to current events discussed in our class,” said Jade Lynch-Greenberg, English and philosophy at Purdue. “I don’t believe in censorship, but in informed consumption of media.”
Editorials in the student papers of Oberlin, UCSB and Rutgers — colleges that have considered requiring in-class trigger warnings — said that there is a middle ground. Trigger warnings are the best alternative to banning challenging books, because the media has distorted its policies.
“There are free speech issues that have to come into play here,” said Lori Cunnington, a Eugene psychologist who specializes in trauma issues. “When people go to university, they expect that they’ll be exposed to a variety of information, and if trauma survivors are aware of their triggers and have done the work, they should be able to identify the triggers for themselves.”
Whalan also said troubling readings can actually be therapeutic. “Literature often doesn’t just represent trauma, it also suggests strategies for meeting and managing it,” he said.