Caution Tape

(Eugene Zemlyanskiy/Creative Commons)

“TRIGGER WARNING: physics, trigonometry, sine, cosine, tangent, vector, force, work, energy, stress, quiz, grade.”

In 2016 Professor Peter Schwartz of Auburn University received attention from Inside Higher Ed after placing this mock trigger warning at the top of his fundamentals to engineering syllabus. The controversy concerning content warnings on course materials has only increased in the last few years with opponents of the idea making claims that this practice inhibits free speech and that it is impossible to give content warnings on all potentially controversial material, and proponents of the practice claiming that the reluctance to accommodate student needs reflects a larger lack of concern for student wellness and safety.

In my experience, opponents of this practiceseem awfully eager to treat the issue as a slippery slope. Professor Schwartz’s bad faith trigger warning is reflective of a juvenile refusal to use compassion and basic logic. Anyone who stops and thinks seriously about the issue for even a moment will recognize this as false equivalency: patronizing trigger warnings for stress and quizzes simply are not comparable to warnings on content such as rape or sexual assault.

The stubborn reluctance to implement content warnings also suggests a larger practice of systemic gaslighting. When we refuse to accommodate basic safety requests like these, we are teaching students that their trauma isn’t real that’s it’s somehow childish for them to bring trauma into the classroom.

As if you can just leave trauma at the door.

We need to recognize that marginalized students are disproportionately impacted by this type of harmful content because they are disproportionately impacted by the real-world conditions of harm. RAINN’s statistics on campus sexual assault show that 23.1% of college women have been raped or sexually assaulted, compared to only 5.4% of college men. Those statistics are even higher for women of color, queer women, and trans women — as well as for queer men and trans men. Moreover, those statistics do not account for the vast underreporting of sexual crimes.

So what does it mean to refuse to put sexual assault or rape content warnings on your syllabus when 1 in 5 of your women students have been sexually assaulted or raped? In a class of just twenty students, that’s at least four people.

And what is the justification of refusing to even give them a heads up? Faculty members who are teaching material featuring rape and sexual assault certainly know that the material covers those topics if we are to assume they actually read the material they assign.

Opponents of content warnings often decline to even treat this incredibly low expectation as legitimate. They assume that because there are also more ambiguous concerns around other potentially triggering topics, like racial violence and slurs, it exempts them from dealing with clear-cut warnings on rape and sexual assault.

However, the same basic argument applies here: faculty are already aware of what material they are teaching, and not even attempting to give general warnings disproportionately impacts marginalized students. At the University of Oregon, 77% of faculty were white in 2018 (a number that has held steady since 2005 despite the university’s apparent attempts to recruit more faculty of color.) In 2017, only 0.6% of UO students were Native American; 5.5% were Asian; 2.1% were black or African American; and 10.4% were Latinx.

If you were in a classroom of 100 students, and one of only two black students, how would it feel if you were given course materials featuring graphic lynchings with no warning? If you were expected to discuss and work with that material in a classroom full of white students, and to have not even a single person acknowledge that this material might be painful for you?

What if you were the only trans student in a classroom, and were given material featuring violence and slurs against other trans people violence and slurs you yourself had been the direct victim of?

What does it mean to be a student with trauma, and to hear a professor tell you that you are being silly for having emotional reactions to material that has directly harmed you physically or psychologically? That you are infringing on other students’ “free speech” in the classroom just because you needed a warning so you could prepare yourself to work with that material?

What does it mean for a university to act as if the things we study are just abstract ideas? For privileged, protected faculty members to make fun of traumatized students who make modest requests for a safer university experience? For them to reaffirm rape culture and racism by refusing to take seriously the lived experiences of students?

I’ve heard people claim over and over that we “need” to be exposed to this material. That we “need” to learn to accept others’ ideas.

But it’s terribly easy to tell someone to get over something you yourself have never suffered from.

The university isn’t doing us any favors by treating identity as abstract concepts in a textbook rather than salient factors in our personal experiences. We aren’t asking that faculty members are perfect with covering every single imaginable topic, or that they shield us from ever encountering any difficult material in class.

We’re just asking for a heads up.

PhD student/fist-shaker. My research fields include contemporary US politics and culture, feminist studies, and theory & praxis—with an emphasis on the role of power in discourse. I also teach writing at the University of Oregon.


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