Trigger Warning Defused

College backs away from mandatory notice on syllabus of graphic novel course that offended one student and her parents.

July 9, 2015

Students at Crafton Hills College who sign up for a course on the graphic novel next year will encounter works such as Fun Home and Persepolis without being first warned on the syllabus that they might be offended.

That's the way it has been at the college, but officials at the California community college said in June that a trigger warning would be added to the syllabus after one student and her parents complained about those two novels as well as two others, Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1 and The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House.

Tara Shultz, the student, told The Redlands Daily Facts at the time that it was "shocking" to find sex, nudity and violence in the novels. "I didn’t expect to open the book and see that graphic material within. I expected Batman and Robin, not pornography."

The novels have all been critically acclaimed and are taught widely at colleges and universities. But they do address themes that would not be found in Batman. Fun Home, for example, is about how a lesbian grew up to accept her sexual orientation, and how her gay father never was able to accept his own sexuality. Legislators in South Carolina last year were upset when they found it was used to teach freshmen at the College of Charleston.

The college rejected the request of the Shultz family to ban the teaching of these works, but agreed to add a trigger warning to the syllabus. While trigger warnings have been the subject of much debate in academe in the last year, the choice of whether to use one has generally been the instructor's alone. The Crafton Hills case alarmed many because the college administration was involved in the decision. Although administrators have insisted that the decision to add the warning was mutually made with the instructor, they have acknowledged being part of the decision-making process. (The instructor, Ryan Bartlett, said via email Wednesday that he was never in favor of the trigger warning, but that he was not pressured on the issue, either.)

In late June, the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to Crafton Hills, urging it to drop the trigger warning. "We strongly urge the college not to set a dangerous precedent by adopting a general warning or disclaimer for this or any other course, but to leave the question of students’ sensitivities and preferences to be addressed on a case-by-case basis in discussions between individual students and faculty," said the coalition's letter. At the time, the college did not respond to requests for comment on the letter.

But this week, the college announced it was dropping the trigger warning. A statement from President Cheryl Marshall said: "Upon further reflection, we have all agreed that including a disclaimer on any course syllabus is not a solution. It sets an unhealthy precedent by allowing any one person or group to decide on educational content. Furthermore, it discourages free expression of views and speech, which are essential components of academic freedom. College students must take responsibility for their learning. This includes making informed decisions about selecting courses in which to enroll and learning to accept differing points of view. We strive to equip our students with the critical thinking skills to reason through difficult issues that challenge their values and beliefs. I’m proud of our faculty for creating an open learning environment that supports freedom of inquiry and expression."

Greg Shultz, Tara's father, told the Daily Facts Tuesday that "I will take whatever means necessary to counter family disruption in all of its forms."

Bartlett offered this statement on his reaction to dropping the trigger warning: "College is supposed to be a place where students can have real exchanges about sometimes difficult topics. An English major will have to read works in the literary canon (i.e., Shakespeare, Chaucer and the Bible), which include similar issues present in the chosen graphic novels. If we put a disclaimer on this course, then we should put a disclaimer on all literature courses, and I do not feel comfortable going down that slippery slope."


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