Known for harboring both Lena Dunham and the Underground Railroad—though not at the same time—Oberlin College has long been an emblem of the sheltered yet sensitive liberal arts college. So when The New Republic reported last month that Oberlin had released an online resource guide counseling professors to avoid potentially trauma-inducing "triggering" subjects such as “heterosexism, cissexism, [and] ableism,” commentators were less than surprised. In the Los Angeles Times, an op-ed compared the trigger warning policy to nearby Antioch College’s infamous consent policy and surmised, “maybe it's an Ohio thing.” A blogger for The American Conservative joked, “Honestly, I wish Putin would invade and occupy Oberlin.”
In fact, the group most surprised by Oberlin’s new trigger warning policy may have been the professors of the college themselves. Marc Blecher, a political science professor at Oberlin, told me he had never heard of his college’s trigger warning guidelines until he read about them in The New Republic. The language came from a task force appointed in fall 2012 to review Oberlin’s sexual offense policy, but Blecher said the new policy had been mentioned only vaguely at faculty meetings. At the time, no one “realized that what was going to come out the other end was so central to our academic mission.”
When he did realize, Blecher began talking to other colleagues, who also hadn’t heard of the trigger warning policy, and they quickly set up informal meetings with various deans and administration officials. These discussions culminated at a previously planned listening session where Blecher says around 30 to 35 faculty members showed up to voice their displeasure at the new rules.
In the faculty’s eyes, trigger warnings threaten not just academic freedom but the intrinsic nature of the liberal arts educational model. “We need to … challenge students, to conduct open inquiry in classrooms, to make students feel uncomfortable,” explained Blecher. “Making students feel uncomfortable is at the core of liberal arts education.”
To its credit, the Oberlin administration has responded swiftly to these concerns, and the entire section of the website dealing with trigger warnings has been replaced with a placeholder paragraph thanking “those who have provided feedback” and promising further revision.
That switch came too late to save Oberlin from being called “almost … a parody of political correctness” by the Los Angeles Times editorial board, but it could save Oberlin professors from future disciplinary action. Though technically part of an accompanying resource guide, Blecher said the trigger warning language was presented as “subsidiary to a sexual offense policy, so if a student or a faculty member brought a sexual offense claim against another member of the Oberlin college community, this stuff could easily start to get dragged in.”
Ultimately, says Blecher, it isn’t hard to see how such this entire saga could have been prevented in the first place. Aside from one professor who is also the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Sexual Offense Policy Task Force is made up completely of students and administrators. “Anybody who was seriously engaged with it on the faculty would have seen what was going on and would have started to make the arguments we made in reaction to it.”