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Dual Enrollment and Trigger Warnings

When some students aren't yet adults.


June 2, 2016

In a meeting yesterday, a colleague connected some dots I hadn’t connected before.

Do the issues around trigger warnings change when some or many of the students in the class are of high school age?

Trigger warnings are labels that some professors put on material that they believe may be uncommonly likely to generate trauma responses among students. For example, a student who is a survivor of sexual abuse might react more strongly to a depiction of rape than would a student who hadn’t been abused.  

It’s a difficult area for a host of reasons. Yes, some triggers are more predictable than others, but it’s impossible to know in advance how any given student will react to any given material. Some triggers are relatively random. And some material is impossible to discuss in any sort of intelligent way without raising sensitive issues. Take the adultery and murder out of Hamlet, and the play doesn’t make much sense. History classes often address wars and their consequences, including genocide and systematic sexual assault; there are better and worse ways to present that, but simply excluding it for fear of setting people off would be getting the story wrong. When I taught American Government, race would come up in the context of, say, party identification or redistricting. Race sets some people off, but it’s part of the story. Leave it out, and you get the story wrong. Besides, take too heavy a hand with warnings, and you start to venture into academic freedom territory.

Dual enrollment, concurrent enrollment, and early college high school programs are growing quickly. They come in different flavors, but the common element among them is students of high school age taking college classes. Which means that classes designed for adults may have 15 or 16 year olds in them. Some of those 15 or 16 year olds may have been home schooled, and/or come from families with very strong conservative religious backgrounds.

When dual enrollment and sensitive content meet, questions about trigger warnings become a little more complicated.

This is where I tend to lean towards a more general “adult content” warning to both prospective students and their parents, when they’re considering enrolling in college. Let them know upfront that they may encounter subjects or approaches that they wouldn’t have in high school, and accepting that is a price of admission. Rather than labeling individual courses -- which could give a false impression of “safety” anyplace the label didn’t appear -- better to flag the issue globally first.  

High school curricula are designed to be age-appropriate. (Whether they succeed at that is another question, but irrelevant here.) College curricula assume that students are adults. Nothing gets through the curriculum approval process simply to be shocking, or as a stunt; the faculty, to their credit, take content seriously. And while faculty are expected to be professional in their treatment of sensitive issues, and not to abuse their authority in the classroom, they do -- and should -- have freedom to raise and examine sensitive issues relevant to their subject matter.  

In the age of the internet, it’s silly to assume that most teenagers’ first encounter with sensitive material is in a college classroom. To the extent that college classes can help give context and skills to situate that material in a deeper understanding, I see a real benefit.  

But explaining that to an angry parent can be a real challenge. When it comes to concrete examples and their own kids, arguments from principle don’t always work.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college take a particularly smart or surefooted approach to trigger warnings (and the like) in the context of dual enrollment?



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