Trigger warnings alerting students to potentially sensitive material have been polarizing on college campuses in recent years. Now the American Association of University Professors is weighing in. In a new report, the AAUP calls trigger warnings “a threat to academic freedom in the classroom.” The report says that even voluntary trigger warning policies for faculty such as the one proposed but tabled last year at Oberlin College run counter to the goals of higher education.
“The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual,” the report says. “It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and — as the Oberlin list demonstrates — it singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention. Indeed, if such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students.”
The report, which also extends to university libraries, continues: “Although all faculty are affected by potential charges of this kind, non-tenured and contingent faculty are particularly at risk. In this way the demand for trigger warnings creates a repressive, ‘chilly climate’ for critical thinking in the classroom.”
The article about Spring-Serenity Duvall, a communications professor who banned students from emailing her and lived to blog about it, caught my eye on the same day my own inboxes at two colleges spilled over with bewildered messages from students. Some had been told to purchase the wrong edition of our course text, resulting in their plodding through a chapter on meta-commentary instead of one on contributing meaningfully to group discussions; more simply hadn’t received their textbooks and didn’t know when they would; still others, I suspected, were so besieged by first-week information overload that they needed reassurance from a human who had seemed friendly enough on the first day of class.
When I announced to my Critical Reading and Writing classes the next morning that we wouldn’t cover the assigned reading so we could instead talk about “a professor who doesn’t allow students to email her,” many likely assumed I was using this hook as a launching pad for my own ban. Several — the ones who had dared type a few words or even sentences to me at quiet, unobtrusive hours of the night — looked somewhat repentant. We were going to read this article together, I told them, and in addition to identifying its purpose, audience, context, and noteworthy rhetorical moves, they would be invited to interject their opinions.
“I had a strong reaction when I read this,” I admitted, “and I expect you might as well.”
Turns out, the students generally endorsed Duvall’s policy more than I did. One young man remarked that he initially opposed the idea but began to see its merits as we dug further into the reasoning. Both classes and I settled unanimously on a valuable lesson that could be learned from the spirit of such a ban: Students should try to find the answers themselves, several pointed out, before they bother the professor, who they all (charitably) agreed would be busy with other matters. Others said it would be useful to practice reading course documents more carefully and researching answers on their own or with other peers.
As we identified potential audiences for an article championing such a ban, some responses were obvious, such as fellow professors with hectic schedules. Other responses were disconcerting. More than one student claimed their parents were a perhaps-unintended audience. Parents who foot the bill for this whole venture might be interested (disgruntled?) to discover a brick wall separating their children from the people who are paid to teach them important things.
I have no doubt the email embargo worked miracles for Duvall’s time management. Just because I find student correspondence one of the least complicated demands of the teaching profession doesn’t mean I should impose my preferences on others. And since 47 glowing course evaluations suggest that Duvall’s students not only didn’t feel cheated, but actually thought her in-person-or-by-phone-only rule made her more accessible, I won’t belabor my somewhat obvious challenge that such a policy could deter students — those, perhaps, who are at risk of doing poorly and therefore need the most encouragement — from asking questions down the line or even approaching their future professors.
But isn’t there something to be said for letting young adults — especially those enrolled in a communications course — navigate the delicate rules of student-professor etiquette on their own? For letting them fail at it even? Suppose you email about a problem your professor deems trifling. The two worst consequences are (a) no response or (b) a snippy response. In my own college days, I sent emails that at the time seemed vital but that I now recognize as self-absorbed and/or irritatingly Type A. After a few terse one-liners from professors I admired, I became a less zealous emailer.
There need not be an official ban committed in writing on a syllabus for professors to ignore or even confront messages that are petty or unprofessional. Furthermore, today’s students are attending college in the first place so they can land a job that might one day allow them to emerge from — or even to buoy — this faltering economy. Employers prize communication and collaboration skills more highly than ever, and it’s hard to imagine the 21st-century workplace functioning without people who can competently email.
Do we really want to graduate a generation of students who can’t decide for themselves what warrants pressing the send button? Or, to take this issue to its logical extreme, who think their employers should drop everything to schedule in-person conferences for matters that can be handled in one pithy sentence? If our wading through a bunch of syllabus emails can contribute to a larger discourse about the importance of good professional writing, then maybe we are — in the eyes of the public — one step closer to earning our keep as educators.
Danielle DeRise is an adjunct professor of English, literature, and writing at Piedmont Virginia Community College and James Madison University.
In today's Academic Minute, Betsy Shenkman, professor of health outcomes and policy at the University of Florida, discusses her work tracking the effects of money spent specifically on one’s health. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
Garth Lovvorn, a trustee of Alabama's Athens State University, has apologized for saying that faculty members who send anonymous letters of complaint "can go to hell," The Times Daily reported. Many faculty members -- with and without their names attached -- have been complaining about the way the university is run. In an email to the campus, Loworn apologized for his "outburst." He said that he was trying to say "that I wanted cohesiveness between the administration, the faculty and the board and together we can turn the morale problem around."
The Executive Committee of the American Studies Association has issued a statement calling for a "full, transparent and timely" inquiry into the death of MIchael Brown, who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. "The killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri earlier this summer is a profoundly troubling event. Far from isolated or exceptional, it reflects a long history of police violence against African Americans," said the statement. "As educators we oppose the militarization of police power and support investments in free education. We urge law enforcement, policymakers, media and the nation to consider decades of research in the field of American studies about the systemic state violence that takes place against bodies marked by race, the repeated prioritization of property rights over the rights of people, and the long history of 'legal' killing of black people in the name of private or communal self-defense."
The American Philological Association, founded in 1869 and the primary disciplinary association for classics scholars, on Friday announced a new name: the Society for Classical Studies. A press release quoted the association's president, Kathryn Gutzwiller of the University of Cincinnati, as saying that the group remains committed to a "philological focus." But she added that "we recognize that the term is no longer widely understood and therefore can be a barrier to communication with a broader public. Especially now, when it is so important for us to advocate for the study of classics and, indeed, of all the humanities, we must strive for clarity in the delivery of our message.”
American University has placed on leave a professor charged with breaking into stores beneath his apartment and setting fires, The Washington Post reported. The professor is David W. Pitts, chair of public administration and policy. His lawyer did not return calls seeking comment. Authorities have also noted that Pitts was at the hotel where the American Political Science Association met last month, and which had to be evacuated due to small fires set in the hotel.
The topic of “civility,” including its place among the professional responsibilities of faculty members, has come to the fore recently, as it does from time to time when there is some especially hot-button, polarizing issue in academe. This time, the context is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Much can be said – and has been said – about this particular context, including the observation there is a large body of writing by academics and public intellectuals that is highly critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians that is based on research, evidence, and analysis. While this may not be an invariable guarantee of accuracy, such writings have a claim both to serious attention and to the protections of academic freedom for their authors. Such efforts and contributions are not well-served when faculty colleagues indulge in loose invective in what are now relatively public channels of communication – channels that are, in these times, open to students.
The same might be said of the more serious and substantive efforts of those who also engage in intemperate blogging and tweeting themselves. To take a not-quite-the-same-but-perhaps-close-enough-for-comparison case from the profession of journalism: would Paul Krugman’s work be more effective or less effective if he were sending out personally abusive tweets about Angela Merkel on the side? And, if he were, would The New York Times be just as proud and happy to have him on the roster? And would the newspaper’s editors and board be in as strong a position to defend him against outside pressure from those who do not share his economic, political, and moral views – that is, would they be in as strong a position to defend freedom of the press, an important responsibility of editors and boards of newspapers?
The American Association of University Professors has been understandably wary of the use of “civility,” particularly in matters of appointments and tenure. Like its close associate “collegiality,” it is open to multiple interpretations and may be put to various ignoble purposes. It may simply be thrown around too loosely for its message to be clear. Invoking it in the context of current affairs in the Middle East may seem ironic to some, downright offensive to others.
When we invoke “civility” in the context of higher education the focus must be on maintaining the kind of light-to-heat ratio that serves our role as teachers and scholars. What it certainly does not mean is sweeping difficult, controversial, painful issues under the rug. Let us also bear in mind that when we or our colleagues may be found wanting in the exercise of our professional responsibilities, this can be addressed in ways well short of the to-be-or-not-to-be of hiring, firing, and tenure.
Some critics of the civility standard propose that it can only be useful if operationalized and thus able to pass muster in terms of specificity. This, however, requires us to face the fact that formal codes and procedures are no substitute for shared norms about appropriate, responsible, civilized behavior.
We have seen this in the misbegotten attempt to address prejudice, ignorance, and general nastiness through formal speech codes that have the additional disadvantage of falling afoul of our legal systems.
We have seen it in the attempt of the University of Virginia’s board to pass a formal policy preventing trustees from speaking out of school, i.e., publicly criticizing decisions made by their fellow board members – yet another occasion for the university to receive negative attention in the higher education press.
Societies have various means of social control at their disposal. There is what the Quakers call “eldering,” whereby a respected, usually senior, member of the community offers guidance. Less kindly approaches include withholding important social rewards: positions of authority, honors, invitations. At the social extreme, there is ostracism.
This is not intended as a to-do list, but rather as examples of how a community expresses its attachment to what it sees as core values. Surely, we can manage to promote such values without sacrificing the forms of individualism and eccentricity necessary to academe.
And, also surely, it would seem desirable for such standards to be maintained first and foremost by faculty members themselves, rather than by administrative action from above (or, as some may see it, below). “Corporate” has become a term of abuse in academe, but we might go back to its more general reference to a group of individuals acting as a body, a community. It may well be that the corporate exercise of professional responsibility on the part of the faculty is key not only to preserving the tenure system but to making our colleges and universities the kinds of places where we truly want to work and live.
Judith Shapiro is professor of anthropology emerita at Bryn Mawr College and Barnard College.