The debate over trigger warnings in literature classes
May 23, 2014 | 2:42 pm
By Joanna Cabot
In today’s Morning Links, I posted a story from Nate at The Digital Reader, which reminded me I was overdue to cover a story which is getting a lot of press lately. The short version is that students at several US universities are campaigning to have professors add ‘trigger warnings’ to the syllabi of college classes, to warn students about potentially upsetting or offensive material.
Nate’s story looks at the ‘slippery slope toward censorship’ argument against this, which is a valid angle. But I have a different take on this story, and it’s this: as a teacher, I have watched the coddling of children slide steadily upward, age-wise, over the years. And it worries me that this is another brick in THAT potentially dangerous wall.
Let me give you an example of the kind of trend I am seeing. I have been at my present school for about 7 years, and in that time, we have awarded prizes in the annual science fair every year—until this one. Amidst concerns over parents doing all the work for the kids in pursuit of the coveted prize, the format was changed so that all participants went into a draw, and the winners of the draw got the prizes.
There was considerable debate over this, about whether 7-8 year-olds could handle the world of merit-based competition or not, about whether—if the answer was ‘not’—it was our place as teachers to teach them that, and so on. But to me, the real story was the parents. Why were they doing these projects anyway? My mother never did any homework for me. She never even looked at it, unless a teacher phoned home to tell her there were problems. It was MY business.
In today’s climate, that would practically be child abuse. Parents are expected to coach spelling words, read a weekly reader to their children every day, and be involved in every aspect of their schooling. And that’s fine when they are seven years old. But at some point, the kids have to learn to stand on their own two feet and be responsible.
And…well, they aren’t doing that. My own alma mater, way back in the salad days of 1996, invited me to an orientation weekend wherein my parents drove me up there, dropped me off, and then went shopping for a couple hours and picked me up at the end of the day. And now? They have added new orientation sessions for the parents too, to teach them how to not hover over their college-aged kids.
Meanwhile, I took a course a few summers ago—a professional development course, at a well-known Canadian university—that had decided to do away with the deadlines. Deadlines stress people out, the professor told me. We should feel free to hand in the course work whenever we pleased. I was appalled.
My issue is that the real world doesn’t work that way. I can’t tell my boss that deadlines stress me out so I would prefer to hand in my report cards whenever I choose. I can’t do that because there IS a deadline. They get distributed to the kids on a specified day and they have to be done by then. Actually, they have to be done before then because other people need to check them before they go out.
Similarly, real adult life doesn’t always come with the luxury of content warnings. For instance, I have had two occasions, as a teacher, where we have had to have a serious conversation as a group about calling child protective services for a child. In one instance, the child transferred schools before we did so. In the other, the call was actually made, the child’s life was uprooted and we all had to deal with the fallout. You can’t excuse yourself from that just because it’s upsetting to you!
So, that is my issue with this whole trigger warnings debate—-if university is too early to stop the coddling and treat people like grown-ups, then when do we propose to start doing it? If you get to that level of life stage—the university degree—and you still need the kid-glove handling, then how can you expect to graduate, get a job and go out there into the real, messy world?
I do understand that in certain situations, sensitivity is called for. One article I read on this story gave the example of a class at a school which had a large refugee population, many of whom had been victims of war. Of course, a good teacher would be sensitive to that! But to institutionalize that sensitivity strikes me as the wrong path to go down.