Trigger Warnings

Posted on Oct 20, 2016


By Dr. Danielle F. Fundora Hardesty

In his welcoming letter to the incoming freshmen class, John Ellison, Dean of Students at the University of Chicago, detailed the University’s commitment to the academic freedom of its faculty, staff, and students.  As defined by the letter, “[m]embers of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship . . . You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.”  Ellison acknowledges that controversial discussions may cause students discomfort at times; however, such discomfort may be a necessary consequence in fulling the University’s priority of “building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds.”  Ellison argues that in embracing diversity of opinion and background the “members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”

While the University’s commitment to provide a platform for constructive educational debate aligns with the core values of many higher education institutes, the University of Chicago controversially interprets academic freedom as necessitating the elimination of “trigger warnings” and intellectual “safe spaces.”   Ellison writes that such spaces allow individuals to “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

In her article “What, Why, When, Where, and How?: 5 Common Questions About Trigger Warnings Answered”, Sian Ferguson explains that trigger warnings are “notes that preface possibly traumatic content.  They warn the audience of any content that has a strong possibility to trigger (or cause) a severe negative emotional response.”  For example, prior to reading and discussing a piece on rape culture, a professor may warn students of the nature of the reading, so that students may decide if such a topic would trigger a negative reaction where they may need to excuse  themselves.

Safe spaces, as Sian Ferguson describes are

places or communities – either online or off – where bigotry and oppressive views are not tolerated. They are controlled environments (insofar as they can be) in which people can discuss certain issues and support one another. Usually safe spaces will focus on specific    issues, like sexism, racism, or transantagonism. They commonly have rules to ensure that the participants know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. If the participants violate these rules, they are usually warned, removed, or blocked (“6 Reasons Why We Need Safe Spaces”).

As a member of the Promoting an Inclusive Community (PAIC) Committee, I find Ellison’s claims deeply disturbing and representative of a systemic problem in higher education.  I agree with Ellison’s sentiment that one of the founding pillars of higher education institutions is academic freedom.  The classroom provides a unique opportunity for both students and faculty to constructively analyze a variety of perspectives, arguments, and theories that might be otherwise too controversial for exploration under different circumstances.  However, Ellison is misrepresenting the use of trigger warning and space safes and ignores another pivotal pillar of higher education – academic responsibility.  As professors we are placed in positions of power over our students.  Not only do we evaluate and grade their progress, but we dictate the terms and conditions under which information is discussed and transmitted to the student. Positions of power require of us to care for those that we affect and influence.  We are called upon to accommodate our lessons for students with disabilities, and that consideration ought also extend to students based on their identities, backgrounds, and experiences of our students.

This holds especially true for community colleges which attract a much more diverse student body than that of a four year school.   Within my two and half years at Rock Valley, I have had a student who is a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and found discussing certain military topics particularly stressful.  One of my students would faint at the discussion of blood.  Another student identified as transgender and was made homeless as a result.  Fear of condemnation from fellow classmates prevented this student from participating in discussion.  Only after crafting discussion rules in my classroom and encouraging the student to embrace his newfound identity, did I see progress in his academic work.  In each of these instances, the students were bright and eager to learn the material but had personal circumstances that provided obstacles to their learning.  Obstacles that I worked hard to help them overcome.  These are only the ones I know about.  I can only imagine the number of students who silently suffer from bullying, traumatic experiences, or identity questions and may feel unsafe in a classroom environment.

As a professor, I do not shy away from controversial topics, but present them in a way that does not exclude certain groups of students. If we do sacrifice academic responsibility to the hopes of attaining true freedom of academic expression, it comes at the cost of our students’ emotional, mental, and, sometimes, physical well-being and, ultimately, their learning.  It is a mistake of Ellison to believe that academic freedom and academic responsibility are at odds with one another, when engaged faculty can accommodate both.

Dr. Danielle F. Fundora Hardesty has taught philosophy at RVC since 2014.

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