In line with the American Academy of University Professors’ statement on trigger warnings (https://www.aaup.org/report/trigger-warnings), I believe their use on college campuses is an affront to free speech, liberal education and may even, in some cases, foster censorship.
Over the past five or so years, trigger warnings, whether found on course syllabuses or announced during classes to warn of a film’s or a reading’s content, have initiated a discussion regarding their use on today’s college campuses. Trigger warnings are claimed to be beneficial in alerting students to course content that might precipitate an unwelcomed, intense emotional response and, therefore, they are said to protect students from discomfort.
Who could argue with that? While presumably well intentioned, I believe that trigger warnings, ultimately, do a disservice to students, to our educational mission at FLC and to liberal democracy, especially under circumstances when categories of student (African American, Native American, LGBTQ, women, Latina/o American, Vets, low socio-economic status, disabled/handicapped, among others) are essentialized, singled-out and targeted for the warning.
This document discusses four instances of the excesses of trigger warnings and censorship that have occurred at Fort Lewis College this year.
There are antecedents to trigger warnings. As U.S. citizens, we are exposed to various forms of governmental or commercial warnings on a daily basis which are designed to protect us from physical harm. Some commodities provide health warnings such as those found on cigarette packages or liquor containers. Others provide warnings about toxins present in paint, household chemicals and the like. Still, others warn against the consequences of the improper use of a product. Warnings of road, trail or water hazards are yet another. One might also lump food labeling in this category. What each of these warnings share (except perhaps food labels) are announcements that the intended consumption or use of the product has been empirically tested and demonstrated to cause physical harm.
Warnings are also found on movies and music that caution audiences against exposure to what some might consider inappropriate language, sexuality or other behaviors. The movie rating system, functioning similar to how trigger warnings operate, alerts the public about a film’s content as defined by a segment of society that has deemed material suitable or unsuitable for various audiences.
For movies and music, it is trickier to demonstrate a causal link that leads to emotional harm because perceptions of inappropriateness are grounded in cultural values and are, therefore, subjective to one or another community, not to mention the subjectivity of individuals. Film and music warnings attempt to preserve a socially normative worldview. While difficult, if not impossible, to objectively prove harm caused by movies or music, this has not stopped U.S. society from employing such labels. Such warnings persist because they implicitly serve to “protect” cultural values and norms, stemming from what Jack Halberstam (2017:3) calls “paternalistic normativity” with its relation to “a normative structure of surveillance.”
The use of trigger warnings is relatively new to college campuses. Some trace the practice to feminist academics, who employ trigger warnings in their classes when teaching about rape, partner abuse and other forms of violence against women. A few faculty members in various social science and liberal arts disciplines have gradually picked up the practice, warning students about potentially re-traumatizing material students would be exposed to.
The logic is that the course material that might trigger an extreme response, creating an uncomfortable experience for the student, is identified and announced prior to being delivered. Sometimes students are given an opt-out or other avoidance option from the presumed threatening learning experience. It may be obvious at this point, then, that trigger warnings respond to students’ subjective, emotional, religious or cultural states presumed to be threatened by course content. As Lukianoff and Haidt (2015) argue, trigger warnings are about students’ emotional well-being, that students are assumed to be extraordinarily fragile and that they, therefore, need or require faculty to protect them from psychologically harmful course material.
On the Fort Lewis campus today, a few faculty members use trigger warnings while most do not. This is certainly their right. Currently, FLC administration does not mandate their use, and nor should they do so.
So why air my concerns now?
My reason for writing this document stems from several recent incidents on campus that lead me to believe an effort is underway to subtly, and not-so-subtly, influence faculty and administration to create and enforce a mandatory trigger warning policy on campus and to condone certain forms of censorship. My concern is based on the following four scenarios which occurred during the Winter 2017 term:
A Department of Anthropology professor was requested by other FLC faculty members to post trigger warnings on all of her syllabuses. (A trigger warning request was made by an administrator approximately two years ago regarding one of her courses. At that time, she added language about the careful handling of course materials instead of adding an actual trigger warning.) This year, requests were also made that she place trigger warnings in her course catalog listings,including on WebOpus. The requesting faculty maintain that these actions would demonstrate cultural sensitivity and awareness. The reality is that such measures also may influence others to question the political and ethical correctness of these courses, their content and their instructors. The requests were rejected. I wish to point out that this anthropology faculty member is protected with tenure.On a separate, unrelated occasion, a faculty member from another department was requested by one or more FLC faculty that the professor remove a flyer they had posted on campus that was advertising a new course. The poster removal request was made because the poster had a picture that was deemed offensive or insensitive to those requesting removal. They claimed the picture was inappropriate on behalf of a specific and essentialized category of student and other campus guests who might inadvertently view the poster. Requesting faculty initiated flyer removal without consent. A new flyer was created to replace the original one. It is important to note that this professor is untenured, vulnerable and, therefore, unprotected from possible reprisal if they didn’t comply. One could reasonably assume that this professor felt afraid of the consequences if they had not acquiesced to the request made by senior faculty, thereby raising ethical concerns, including the use of intimidation, by senior faculty against an untenured junior faculty member.The Center of Southwest Studies’ Delaney Library pulled volumes of peer reviewed published books from normal circulation and were placed in a restricted area known as “the vault.” Now, neither students or faculty can freely browse these volumes. These books were deemed to contain images and/or information that the library deemed sensitive or offensive to a specific and essentialized category of the FLC student body without having consulting FLC students or faculty. I requested that the books be returned to their original shelf locations, and to cease further removals, so that these books may be freely browsed and accessed as originally shelved. This request was denied. The librarian held out the option of removing more published materials that are considered offensive. I conclude that this is a form of censorship as defined by the American Library Association: “Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons – individuals, groups or government officials – find objectionable or dangerous ….The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone.” See ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/censorship/faq, As I reflected on the above, I believe that, in hindsight, there is a situation predating the above three scenarios. This case involves four FLC faculty who were completing the data collection phase of their FLC Institutional Review Board-approved research protocol on campus. A complaint was made to the IRB, claiming that the research and the researchers were exploitative, their methods flawed and that their research was potentially harmful to the research subjects. Letters of support for the complaint were solicited from part-time and non-tenured faculty (among others), both on- and off-campus, whereby they were told that the research was offensive and needed to be stopped. Many of those requested to do so ended up writing letters without knowing any specifics about the research, they did not read the research protocol, but instead they wrote letters based on what they were told by the faculty member making the complaint. This complaint triggered an internal IRB review despite there being absolutely no evidence of actual harm done to any of the research subjects (no research subject had come forward to complain). Despite there being no evidence of harm the research protocol was voluntarily canceled by the researchers themselves. Was their decision made because two of the four research faculty are not protected with tenure? Was it because they were being labeled as culturally insensitive and worse? In retrospect, I believe that the subsequent inquiry was poorly handled (I am a member of the review committee and I attended the complaint review). I also believe that this situation was a gross injustice to the four FLC faculty and is a significant violation of academic freedom. So what’s the connection to trigger warnings and censorship discussed above? I think that the outcome of this IRB review amounts to the censorship of these four faculty who are no longer permitted to conduct this line of research, that they are trained and qualified to conduct. I am ashamed to acknowledge that I did not stand up more forcefully and challenge the accusations and conclusions being drawn during the IRB review process. My only excuse is that, at the time, I felt pressure to conform to the committee. I felt that my non-conformity would be labeled as culturally insensitive or racist, and it is a concern that I expressed to the IRB chair prior to the meeting.
In each of the scenarios, the faculty and staff making the trigger warning requests, book removals, and accusation of exploitative and insensitive research, claim that their actions are ethical and progressive efforts to protect a vulnerable category of student from potentially damaging college experiences. This reflects Halberstam’s (2017) contention that demands for trigger warnings typically stem from a paternalistic protectionism on behalf of others, not by students themselves. And while there may be students who desire such warnings, I am concerned that there are faculty who will coach, or have coached, students to make this demand. Ultimately, these warning requests, book removals and suppression of research are all a violation of the principles of a liberal education and of free speech at the very least and, at worst, they are a form of censorship.
I’ve long considered one of the pillars of a liberal arts education to be the active questioning of one’s own cherished beliefs, positionality and worldview. That is, one learns by interrogating one’s assumptions, one’s data and one’s cherished theories.
Transformative learning suggests that one learns and grows intellectually when one questions their frame of reference, and are open to challenging taken-for-granted assumptions (Mezirow 1991). At the very least, learning happens when one is fully exposed to material that helps us do this. To experience “high intensity dissonance” (Kiely 2005) exemplifies the role that being challenged can promote in learning.
I believe that to issue trigger warnings, to remove pictures from campus walls, to remove books from library shelves and to prohibit someone from conducting their legitimate research undermines the ability of students to fully engage the material however challenging, to foreclose on the possibility of experiencing high intensity dissonance. I think it preferable for students to be exposed to language, research, images and books that push them emotionally and intellectually as opposed to them being shielded from these things or of having others mediate one’s exposure.
This corresponds to what Dr. Barbara Morris, FLC Provost, said during this fall’s convocation regarding our student’s charge as citizens of the academic community – students must be willing to contend with a diversity of ideas and persons, and that each student should extend one’s previous intellectual and personal boundaries and embrace “a willingness to submit [one’s] beliefs and hunches to the test of critical dialogue” with others.
Thus, my job is to be a teacher, not a parent. This means that my responsibility is to determine how best to teach a range of materials to generate critical dialogue, some that a student may even find distasteful due to their own personal, cultural or religious views. After all, college provides rich opportunities to learn strategies of communication, negotiation, respect, accommodation and empathetic understanding, but also of activism, political engagement and social transformation. As a teacher, it is better to assist students to confront those things that students might not like, rather than to shield them from it. By preparing them with strategies to cope with the world as it is, in ways that are constructive and beneficial to them as individuals and citizens, is to accomplish our job as teachers and mentors.
In 25 years of teaching, I never imagined that I would fear some of my colleagues’ policing of me, my fellow professoriate and student body. I wrote this document to air my growing concern of trigger warnings and censorship emerging on the FLC campus today. The censorship needs to cease now. My hope is that trigger warnings will not be mandated by a few professors or by the administration.
In my informal discussions on the topic with students over the past four months, most students have expressed that they are not interested in having trigger warnings. Perhaps I biased my students view of this topic, but anecdotal evidence confirms that students, by and large, do not need or want the imposition of trigger warnings, that they consider themselves to be adults capable of managing their own emotions and that they value a liberal arts education that pushes them to learn without the prompting of parents and other authorities in their lives.
When a student asked me “what picture was on the poster” I responded, “does it matter?” and I asked those students present in the discussion to imagine for themselves what image would be egregious enough for them to want it censored.
I urge all FLC faculty to learn about trigger warnings and to find out for themselves the ethical and pedagogical implications. I think that we, as faculty, must assume that our students are adults capable of intellectual engagement, rather than as infantile, fragile and incapacitated by their emotional traumas.
I urge FLC students to learn about the nuances of both censorship and trigger warnings and to let your instructors know what you think about them should the topic come up. After all, your education depends on you finding your own voice, not parroting back what I or another professor tells you what to think or say.
David Kozak, Ph.D., is an alumnus and Anthropology professor at FLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and 247-7498.--References:Halberstam, Jack 2017 “Trigger Happy: From Content Warning to Censorship.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 42(2): 535-542.Kiely, Richard 2005 “A Transformative Learning Model for Service-Learning: A Longitudinal Case Study.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 12 (1): 5-22.Lukianoff, Greg and Jonathan Haidt 2015 “Coddling of the American Mind.” The Atlantic, SeptemberMezirow, Jack 1991 “Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning.” San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.