Trigger Warnings Continued (second response to Jerry Coyne)

The following is a brief response to Jerry Coyne’s post on his WhyEvolutionIsTrue blog in response to my essay in The New Republic (which was a response to his essay in The New Republic).  I’m wary of belaboring the issue, but, because Coyne’s blog post was an eye of fair and thoughtful critique amid a storm of knee-jerk attacks, it deserves attention.  But let me get some quick things out of the way, first, for the sake of clarification.

I note first that Coyne began his TNR essay lamenting that on the issue of trigger warnings he finds himself a strange bedfellow with the right wing media.  This otherwise minor detail reflects something important about the trigger warning debate that I failed to tease out in my own TNR essay: there’s the idea of trigger warnings as one of many pedagogical tools in the classroom (my topic), and then there’s the idea of TRIGGER WARNINGS!, a taboo political abstraction that many of us instinctively despise, and that those on the political right associate with boogeymen (boogeywomyn?) like PC censorship, feminism, critical race theory, gender studies, millennial entitlement, etc. 

I stand by the arguments I made for the value of the former kind of trigger warnings, but I regret having lacked the foresight to spell out more explicitly my discomfort with certain species of trigger warnings.  Doing so might have focused the debate more productively and filtered out some of the frankly irrelevant comments about censorship or not teaching material that’s potentially offensive (since I wrote about how to teach such material, from the position that avoiding canonical and difficult and offensive material is for me a non-starter and a terrible idea).

For example, I when I emphasized that while I use trigger warnings in the classroom, “trigger warnings can’t be policy,” I meant that codifying lists of triggers (as in the Oberlin situation) is something I don’t support (full stop, as they say).  Even “recommendations,” we know, can be de facto requirements. 

Further, it may well be a professional weakness on my part, but I confess that I don’t really know how I’d give a trigger warning for “ableism,” for example (not that I don't care about ableism; I just haven't taught a text for which, unlike racism, ableism is an explicit motif).  I try to provide trigger warnings when we discuss material that deals explicitly with trauma; and my definition of trauma for these purposes is more in line with the APA’s definition than anything else: “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.”  Of course there’s some ambiguity here, which is why I think the capable professionals who teach college classes can and should use our judgment about the distinction between warning about traumatic material and simply PC boilerplate.

It seems Coyne mostly agrees with this kind of warning; where I differ is that for me it’s not just a thing you get out of the way as due diligence; it’s a strategy for building a rich discussion (more on that in a moment).

Another thing to get out of the way: I don’t support trigger warnings as a tactic to, for example, discourage people from attending a guest speaker on campus, or as a justification for censoring material.  I don’t put them atop a syllabus or in a course description.  I use them with flexibility in a classroom setting, because in that setting I have context to know how to play it: I know what they’ve read to that point, how they’ve reacted; I’ve gotten to know some students and what their worldviews and experiences are like; I’ve built some (I hope mutual) trust in the room.  Of course I don’t have perfect information.  But I have enough to make trigger warnings productive not only for individuals in the class who need to follow up with me or excuse themselves for personal reasons, but for the class as a whole.

All that aside, a few quick responses to Coyne’s specific points:

1) Coyne notes that there’s no evidence that trigger warnings actually improve student wellbeing, and that “exposure to triggering material might be more helpful than avoiding it completely.”  Here I want to emphasize that if I censored or dumbed down or glossed the material I’m warning about (I do not), then of course there’d be no point of a warning in the first place.  So for the class as a whole, the warning becomes part of introducing challenging material; the next step is to grapple with it.  A trigger warning respects the issue of handing trauma in a group versus a 1 on 1 scenario (in the latter I can refer a student to the proper office if the stress response demands more than a less public conversation).  That’s to say, I don’t think trigger warnings significantly increase the likelihood of students disengaging.  Instead, I think trigger warnings give students who need it a bit of leeway to ease into the material, and give the rest an introduction to an aspect of the material that’s worth talking about. 

I admit that much of this rides on the nature of the warning and how it’s handled.  Students (of all political stripes) are in my experience pretty good at sniffing out moments when professors are just saying things because they have to or because it’s part of a playbook, rather than from a sincere desire to facilitate learning and engage the class.  I find it most effective to build a warning into a discussion framework.  For example, my etymology of “rape” in “The Rape of the Lock” is part of a trigger warning that transitions into a discussion of 18th century word usage, which is itself a function of gender roles in courtship.  These—context specific usage and gendered courtship conventions of the early 18th century—are fundamental to understanding “The Rape of the Lock” with or without a trigger warning.  The trigger warning itself reflects sensitivity to students’ personal experiences, but it also transitions us into a couple of key aspects of the poem.  In this sense, a trigger warning and covering essential content are not mutually exclusive; they can be complementary.

2) Coyne notes that the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) opposes trigger warnings.  As someone who uses trigger warnings in the classroom, I don’t blame the AAUP for their position.  This comes off for Coyne as “confused,” but let me self-flatteringly call it nuanced (because I believe it truly is): the AAUP, like me, wants to protect professors’ options to exercise our expert judgment in the classroom.  If the AAUP supports trigger warnings (even if many of its members use them), it opens up dangerous grounds for doing that thing I’ve been saying we can’t do: make trigger warnings policy.  Policy can then become weaponized against vulnerable faculty.

3) And here is where the other potentially confusing part of my argument comes (I hope) more clearly into focus.  Coyne attributes the argument to me that “we need trigger warnings to protect the job security of itinerant academics who don’t have tenure":  "Hanlon argues that without trigger warnings, untenured or adjunct faculty could be dismissed for harming students’ psyches.”  But this isn’t exactly how I put it (it’s more how the TNR headline puts it, which is a little misleading).  Yes, I argue that faculty could be dismissed under trigger warning protocol.  But It’s not that trigger warnings themselves protect contingent faculty; it's that if people are concerned about trigger warnings they had also be concerned about institutional support for faculty.  This argument works both ways, incidentally.  For those who use or are in favor of trigger warnings, you just can’t do trigger warnings well (and follow up on the support that they’re supposed to offer) if you have no office and no real institutional backing, or if addressing sensitive material in the classroom can get you fired.  Without that kind of support, a trigger warning becomes little more than a pro forma exercise in covering one’s ass.  For those opposed to trigger warnings, you can’t expect non-trigger-warning professors to really get into the difficult material anyway if it means they could lose their jobs over a student complaint.  The latter part of this point is that it’s borderline disingenuous to oppose trigger warnings on grounds of censorship and free speech issues while the broader labor standard is faculty contingency.  I failed to close out this argument in my original TNR essay, so I understand why there's confusion here.

This is to say that the real enemy of free and rich and ranging expression in the classroom isn’t the trigger warning; it’s the contingency of faculty. 

4) Coyne is concerned that trigger warnings could make class discussion more “about someone’s experiences and feelings, things that may be only tangentially connected with the material itself.”  This is indeed a serious concern, especially, I would think, in literature classes, where students are always walking a line between the academic imperative of analysis from a critical distance and the unavoidable fact of their subjective and at times joyous engagement with literature.  Those of us who teach literature are always trying to find our own balance between giving students room to love and be compelled by literature and pressing them to move beyond personal reactions.  Trigger warnings are indeed an added complication in this regard, but again not one that significantly alters or adds to what’s already a quotidian challenge of teaching literature.  In other words: “Yes, Student, that experience is certainly in line with Clarissa’s role in the poem; can you point to language cues in the poem that provide further evidence of the important relationship you’ve just identified.”  And on we go…

In these ways, then, I’m trying to open a discussion of how trigger warnings can be 1) useful and attentive pedagogy that, done well, could deflate the most expansive and overreaching calls for “sensitivity” that rightly worry those of us whose mission is education and critical engagement; and 2) demonstrate how trigger warnings can be a case study for the link between institutional support for faculty and faculty support for students.

--ARH 5/20/2015 Washington, DC