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My Students Need Trigger Warnings—and Professors Do, Too

“Rape” comes to English from the Latin rapere, “to seize.” When I teach Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”—an early eighteenth-century poem about the true story of Arabella Fermor, whose suitor Lord Petre clipped off a salient lock of her hair as a keepsake—this is the second thing I explain: “Rape” in this context means not necessarily to sexually violate, but to seize:

            Oh hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize
            Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!

The first thing I explain is that Pope’s poem contains language, as in its title, that could trigger a stress response for a survivor of sexual assault; and further, the poem involves bodily violence against a woman. I give this warning even though I know Pope was writing in the mock-epic tradition, deliberately and ironically dramatizing a prank of little consequence as though it were an earth-shifting event.

I give, in other words, a “trigger warning” of the sort that Jerry A. Coyne rightly admonishes in a recent article in The New Republic, in which he argues that “life is triggering” and therefore literature classes should not shelter students from images or ideas that are uncomfortable or traumatic, but challenge them. I give a trigger warning with full knowledge that the gender-based violence in “The Rape of the Lock” is—in my particular experience—mild in comparison with all the dark places that not just “Western,” but broader global literatures, can go. Trigger warnings are nevertheless important because no matter how knowledgeable and comfortable professors are with the intellectually and emotionally challenging material we teach, our students are real people with real histories and concerns. They do indeed want to be challenged—to be made uncomfortable by literature—but it’s our job as professors to do more than just expose them to difficult ideas. It’s our job to help see them through the exposure.

I don’t mean to say that we should become licensed therapists or trauma experts on top of our ordinary specializations, or worse, to pretend to have expertise we haven’t earned. But so long as we’re happy to evangelize about the truly disruptive and real life-changing possibilities of our subject matter, we also need to be prepared to teach that difficult and sometimes disorienting material responsibly and attentively, not just to cast out barbs of hardcore human expression while we watch our students puzzle and weep.

Coyne would never advocate such a pedagogy, I know. Still, unless we have a more robust discussion of what it really looks like to grapple with emotionally difficult or triggering material, arguing that trigger warnings are bunk and leaving it at that stops short of addressing the real issue of praxis: suppose trigger warnings are flawed, infantilizing, and impossible to deploy reliably, yet student concerns remain. What then? Ignore them, to the detriment of their education? That would only sustain demands for trigger warnings and the naïve calls for professors (many of us experts in matters of race, class, and gender sensitivity) to undergo sensitivity training. 

It could also be to the detriment of many professors' job security, such as it is. For this debate isn't only about whether students need protection from difficult material. It's about a lack of institutional support for professors and how that impacts students' education.

The beginning of the controversy raised in the Columbia student newspaper—a call by four students for faculty to provide trigger warnings and to be more sensitive about potentially traumatizing or triggering course material—was that a student survivor of sexual assault was triggered by a class discussion about Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” and that upon approaching her professor after class her concerns were “dismissed” and “ignored.” Further, the professor’s lecture on myths that include “vivid descriptions of rape and sexual assault” focused on “the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery.”

These—the details of teaching—are the most important details of this story because they describe those moments in which the instructor in question might have taken a few extra steps beyond the “beauty of language and the splendor of the imagery” to engage students in a discussion of the historical context and the trauma of Ovid’s writing. These are the moments after class or during office hours when a professor can listen receptively to a student who was traumatized by the material and the class discussion, who might not have been comfortable sharing her thoughts in front of the class, and who might, yes, need a referral to campus health professionals. These are the moments when professors can tip our hands and explain to students the value of teaching and learning and discussing material that nevertheless unmoors us.

These are also the moments that Coyne moves swiftly by in an otherwise powerful argument for the pitfalls of trigger warnings. He writes:

That professor was clearly wrong to dismiss the student, and perhaps he or she might have mentioned beforehand that there is violence and sexual assault in Ovid, but that’s as far as I’d go.

But that’s about two minutes of class time. An interesting byproduct of trigger warnings is that they prime a class for discussion. Students don’t just nod at “sexual assault in Ovid” and write it down; they begin to engage with an aspect of the material, they give signals about how they’ll be affected, they evaluate the warning in relation to the language and subject matter of the text (which they better have already read in preparation for the class!). A trigger warning doesn’t have to be an act of censorship or a straightjacketing of interpretation; it can be a starting point for a ranging discussion that ultimately challenges students’ points of view.

Given that the difficult and potentially triggering material we teach must not be abandoned because it’s timeless, provocative, germane, or simply canonical by accident of history—and given that a trigger warning can actually open up a discussion of material with which students have an initially low comfort level—we simply can’t dismiss student calls for trigger warnings. We have to take them seriously, not because literature (or life) needs a censor or students need to be coddled, but because being more acutely aware of how students are responding to challenging material is just better and more responsible pedagogy. It’s true that life is triggering and won’t usually come with its own trigger warnings. But students are in their seats in part to be better prepared for that reality, and it’s professors’ jobs to facilitate that kind of intellectual development.

The unfortunate irony in all of this is that the legitimate concerns of professors like Coyne about the potentially infantilizing effects of trigger warnings on students have been expressed seemingly without connection to concerns about infantilized professors. Given that over 75 percent of professors at U.S. colleges and universities are contingent faculty—like adjunct professors—who are operating without the prospect or protection of tenure, one of the better arguments against trigger warning policies is that they provide a more straightforward path to dismissal for the contingent professor who innocently fails to pick up on a particular trigger.

Reluctance to trust an expert’s understanding of a text (and the implications of all its dark corners) is also infantilizing professors in a way that can impede student learning. Failure to pay contingent faculty enough money to work one job instead of shuttling between piecemeal work at two or three universities; failure to provide them with office space in which to have those difficult conversations with students one-on-one; and failure to support their pedagogical choices in the classroom all reduce the ability of professors to see students through difficult material. Arguing flatly against trigger warnings won’t make these realities go away, but arguing for better institutional support for faculty can improve the conditions under which trigger warnings become necessary by giving faculty the resources to be more supportive of students.

For these reasons I’m inclined to see the trigger warnings controversy as a more complicated question of university policy and academic labor, as opposed to simply the protection of students’ tender sensibilities. Providing trigger warnings can be sound pedagogy that reflects attentiveness to how students are responding to class material; but trigger warnings can’t be policy. They can’t be policy not just because, as Coyne argues convincingly, there can be no reliable and systematic way to detect all triggers without throwing virtually everything out the window; they can’t be policy because a significant percentage of U.S. professors lack the institutional support required to make and follow through on such controversial pedagogical choices without putting their jobs on the line.

This is one of countless ways in which institutional support for faculty is inextricably tied to faculty support for students. And this is one of countless reasons why we need to listen carefully to students. The student call for trigger warnings at Columbia may be flawed in its recommendations, but it’s fundamentally a call for more thorough teaching. We can’t merely admonish the students; we must support all faculty toward the end of teaching intellectually and emotionally challenging material more attentively.