Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Trigger Warning: Contains Literature

There's been a recent flutter of discussion over trigger warnings for literature in the college classroom. (I know the discussion is ongoing in other areas as well - as a former lit professor, I am limiting my discussion to the area I have personal experience with.) The negative reaction seems to be two-fold. First, that this is censorship and second, that it will lead to people abusing the system, so as not to be offended.

As to the first, nope. Sorry. Not censorship. Announcing the content of something is not the same as banning that content.

As to the second.

I taught at the undergraduate level for seven years. Five of them as a grad student, two as a postdoc. More semesters than not, I had a student come and tell me that she was sorry she'd missed classes, or not been herself, or done poorly on an assignment. She had been raped, it had messed her up, she was getting better. That was always how the conversations went.

I don't believe in censorship. I don't believe in trying to make art small. I don't believe anything is off limits. I believe that part of the reason art matters is that it has power.

But, for the most part, we get to choose the art we're exposed to. We can walk out of a movie, turn off the radio, close the book. That's not the case in the classroom, where walking out can have consequences, where there may not be a choice to close the book, to drop the class.

I believe that while one of the roles of a literature professor is to challenge her students, that is not done by traumatizing them. And make no mistake - a trigger is not something that makes you feel mildly uncomfortable. It's not something that simply offends you. It's something that causes a trauma. 

I don't believe that we hide from the big issues, that we should pretend like they don't happen, that we should teach nothing but literature about things that are easy to think about, that everyone can agree on. But if literature matters because it has power, then I think it's important to remember what power can do to those who are, for whatever reason, powerless.

So yes, once I'd gotten to where I was in charge of my own syllabus and classroom, I warned students about the material I was going to teach. I'd offer alternate assignments if they were requested. Was it possible that I had students who approached me for alternate assignments for reasons other than trauma? Sure, but I'd rather fail literature by allowing someone who doesn't want to stretch their brain a way out, than fail an actual human being by forcing them to relive something traumatic.