A Middle Ground on Trigger Warnings (essay)

Recently, a nonacademic friend asked, “If you were teaching William Butler Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan,’ would you use a trigger warning?”

“Leda and the Swan” is a vivid account of Zeus, in the form of a swan, raping a young woman named Leda. I hadn’t read that poem since high school, and after rereading it, I can’t say for certain what I would do as an English professor. I probably would take an approach similar to the one I use as a professor in sociology as well as women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

The concept of a trigger warning has become quite controversial in recent years, with some people on campuses encouraging or demanding its use, and others discouraging it -- such as the Faculty Senate at American University, which recently passed a resolution citing the potential negative impact on academic freedom. As a faculty member who regularly teaches course content on trauma, I take more of a middle ground.

The term “trigger warning” has come to refer to introductory statements on web postings of graphic descriptions of rape, eating disorders and self-harm. They are used to alert readers who may be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to those topics so that they can choose whether to continue reading. The purpose of using a trigger warning in the classroom is to let students know that the material that their professors have assigned may cause physiological or psychological reactions as a result of past traumas.

I started teaching in 2000, before the term was regularly used in academe or had received any news media attention. I now teach many of the same topics I taught then, about rape, violence, trauma and eating issues.

My approach on the first day of class, when I discuss the purpose of the course and learning goals, is to review the syllabus, pointing out topics that may be emotionally difficult, such as trauma and eating issues. I explain the content in the texts and any films that I plan to show in class.

In the past two years, I've also said something like, “I can’t predict what material may trigger someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or what will upset people for other reasons. If you are concerned or uncertain about this course, please closely review the course materials and decide whether you want to continue taking it.”

I tell students that I’m available to meet with them to discuss any questions they may have about any aspect of the course. Typically, the week before we engage content that explicitly depicts violence or trauma, I remind students about the upcoming material.

If a student cannot view a film or discuss raw readings in the class setting, they are still responsible for that material, just as is a student who cannot attend class because they have a fever or other illness. I do not change my expectations or assessments concerning quizzes, exams, papers and so on -- regardless of the reason a student misses class. In the handful of cases when a student (typically a rape victim) has met with me to tell me that she cannot attend an upcoming class because the material is too emotionally charged, I tell her that she can use one of the two allotted absences that I give all students for any reason, such as if they are sick or need to attend a family event. I also tell her about the mental-health resources available to her to encourage her to seek help if she has not yet done that. I’ve never had students tell me they cannot read the course material because they are dealing with PTSD. (The reality is that some students don’t read all course material for a variety of reasons.)

The intent of a trigger warning is to acknowledge that some students may need to prepare themselves before engaging with explicit texts or films that might otherwise catch them off guard. But what preparing oneself looks like differs based on where each specific student is in the healing process. As noted by Mental Health America, people can have very different reactions. One student may need to seek counseling, while another may need to focus on mindfulness techniques and other strategies before coming to class. And yet another may need to skip class altogether.

How professors should use the phrase “trigger warning” is a source of contention. Students often do not have an accurate understanding of what it means, so they need an explanation of PTSD to appreciate the warning’s purpose. They may not realize there is a difference between course content that they will find emotionally disturbing for reasons other than trauma, and course content that is triggering due to PTSD. Some types of course content are upsetting for most students, such as films that depict genocide or natural disasters. Not all students who become visibly emotional are reliving memories of trauma (unless, of course, they have direct, traumatic experiences with genocide or natural disasters).

Then there’s the issue of whether to use trigger warnings at all. Discerning whether material is potentially triggering due to PTSD is arguably a slippery slope. And no professor can warn students about all possible triggers that might occur in their classroom.

I certainly don’t have all the answers when it comes to the debates about trigger warnings, but I never only use the term “trigger warning,” if I use it at all. If we as professors incorporate the phrase “trigger warning,” we should include more information than those two words, whether in a syllabus or before showing a film. I’m not trained about all possible PTSD triggers, so I risk misleading students by labeling some material as triggering and overlooking other content altogether. Instead, I continue to prefer course content overviews and reminders about upcoming content on violence and trauma.

All that said, things can get especially complicated in an academic setting. Outside of academe, a person with PTSD who is learning how to manage triggers may successfully avoid news, films or other potentially difficult stimuli. What is distinct about college is that students may be enrolled in courses that require them to read, watch or discuss content that graphically depicts violence or trauma.

Sexual assault, in particular, is associated with a greater risk of developing PTSD symptoms, and a new survey among 27 universities finds that cis women, transgender and gender nonconforming students experience the highest rates of sexual assault and misconduct during their college years.

So, whether using the term “trigger warning” or not, I strongly believe that professors should say something about that content before requiring students to engage it. Here’s an example of a time when I regret that I didn’t do that.

In a senior sociology seminar, I showed a clip from The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual assault in the military. I described the film’s content, but I did not specify that the clip we were about to view included distraught, first-person interviews. One segment showed a young woman shaking as she described a rape’s impact on her life. The film then cut to her father weeping about his failed attempts to reassure her that she is still a virgin.

A student became agitated. She shifted in her chair, wiped away tears and left the room for a few minutes while we wrapped up the clip.

After class, I sent an email to check in with her. She wrote back first thanking me for covering these issues in class rather than avoiding them. Then she said that she wished that I had better prepared the class for the content of this particular film. Watching first-person accounts of rape is much more difficult to absorb in a class setting than academic readings on the same topic. Not acknowledging that difficulty risks leaving sexual assault victims in the classroom feeling more isolated than they already do.

She’s right.

I had unexpectedly received a copy of the film, and I could have sent an email giving a more detailed description of the film before we met in class that day. And I wish I had.

Higher education cannot identify all possible topics or classroom moments that might trigger students suffering from PTSD. Professors may decide to abandon the language “trigger warning” altogether to avoid the impression that they have drawn a bright line between material that is and is not triggering. But let’s not forgo giving students advanced descriptions of course content on violence or trauma. Whether it’s a content alert or a preparatory overview, professors have a responsibility to let students know about such content.

Not giving students a heads-up risks a return to the status quo of intellectualizing violence and trauma as something that happens only outside the classroom. And those in the classroom who have suffered such trauma may needlessly suffer even more.

Julie A. Winterich is an associate professor of sociology and the director of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Guilford College.

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A scholar says academics shouldn't apologize for the popular entertainment they personally enjoy

I am a junior scholar with a secret: I enjoy Masterpiece Theatre’s British period drama Downton Abbey. Actually, “enjoy” is quite the understatement. And this is a very, very difficult thing for me to admit publicly.

You see, I do not watch much television. In fact, I do not even have a television. Like a “good” academic, I eschewed television watching quite some time ago and gleefully admit to this fact in certain circles -- as though a refusal to engage with popular culture by way of television watching is the academic’s badge of honor. If I watch anything at all, I stream it from my laptop as I deal with the mundane activities known to infiltrate daily life (e.g., washing dishes, chopping vegetables, folding laundry and so forth).

But I am practically addicted to Downton Abbey and can engage anyone in conversation about the brilliant characterization dreamed up and brought to life by its creator, Julian Fellowes. (Even Highclere Castle, the series’ setting, is a character in and of itself.) If I am so inclined, I can even be caught invoking a favorite line or two, as it suits my purposes (such as when the sassy cook, Mrs. Patmore, playfully suggests to the rigidly traditional butler, Mr. Carson, that if enjoying a candlelit dinner with his peers is “too democratically overpowering,” he is certainly free to explore other, less desirable options). In short, this series has left me actively refraining from counting the days until the sixth and final season airs in the States in January.

But why bring all this up?

As an academic, I find myself apologizing, or overexplaining, to other scholars my interest in this show should the topic arise. Clearly, the vast majority of the characters are white, and as such, it is not difficult to see my race represented, episode after episode. In fact, with few exceptions, race and racial diversity could not be further from the themes that carry through each season. The series mainly centers on class. Classist hierarchies, however fictionalized for ratings, dominate the narrative -- a detail consistent with the period in which the drama takes place. In conversations, I find myself explaining that I am quite “well aware of the racial and classist problematics,” as a way of introducing, framing and apologizing for my love of the show.

I am also what some might classify as a critical scholar. Indeed, critical race theory and critical whiteness studies are fields that have informed my dissertation, my research agenda, my scholarship, my work with preservice teachers and, frankly, my way of being in the world. A critical pedagogy in education is something for which I am a staunch advocate, and my life’s work involves teaching preservice teachers to deconstruct texts of all kinds for their racialized and oftentimes classist hidden curricula.

My musings about race in education have received mainstream attention, and I like to think that I am becoming more skillful at deconstructing my own positionality as a white scholar with significant unearned privilege, both socially and institutionally. I like to think that, year after year, article after article, conversation after conversation, I am becoming a bit more adept at what Professor Kevin Hylton of Great Britain’s Leeds Beckett University described in an article about critical race theory in Race, Ethnicity and Education (2012) as walking the walk, or “agitat[ing] for change and … [a willingness] to defend positions that are marginal, challenging and sometimes plain unpopular.”

Yet, in truth, my professional and scholarly life is often at odds with what sometimes occurs when I leave the classroom or the conference or put away whatever data I happen to be working with. And I find it utterly mystifying as to why an academic (or anyone, really) would have to defend the perfectly innocuous ways by which he or she experiences enjoyment.

The person’s defense often begins with three or four caveats explaining how he or she “absolutely knows how problematic [insert television show, movie, book, genre of music here] is,” and how “sorry” he or she is to have to admit this, but boy, does he or she enjoy [insert television show, movie, book, genre of music here]. It’s as though the only acceptable engagement with “less critical” forms of popular entertainment are those about which the problematic components are publicly acknowledged, or better yet, explicitly tied to critical research and teaching agendas -- as though we are not entitled to personal lives and downtime free from scholarly theories and deconstructive practices.

In truth, I find the entire dance utterly exhausting. I am acquainted with critical colleagues who enjoy rap and country music, graphic novels and reality television. I can quote, practically verbatim, the apologies and explanations that precede these admissions, as though enjoying, for example, Eminem’s music (however problematic, depending on whom you ask) somehow undermines one’s entire research agenda, academic accomplishments and larger professional goals. As though engaging certain texts for the sheer enjoyment of it is a dirty little secret, acceptable only in the context of acknowledged “problematic themes,” critical theories and apologies. My dear, dear colleagues, do trust: this is an exhausting way to be.

And so it is here that I will publicly vow to not be an exhausting academic when it comes to my colleagues’ interests. I look forward to hearing of your passions and hobbies -- perhaps they will become my own. Indeed, this is some of the stuff I live for. I relish in a catchy tune, a fun book or a television series that has inspired my own learning and inquiry into an era or topic about which I was only superficially knowledgeable before, however fictionalized for ratings.

And here is another dirty little secret for you: I read a romance novel recently and just loved it -- as in a bawling-into-my-blankets kind of love. And I assure you, my professional identity has not imploded, my years of teaching experience have not vanished into thin air and my Ph.D. has not burst into flames upon consumption.

Christina Berchini is an assistant professor in English and education studies at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire.

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Masterpiece Theatre's Downton Abbey

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Christian college group should not require too many theological litmus tests for members (essay)

On Monday, two members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) -- Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College -- announced they would leave the organization in order to avoid its potential rupture in the wake of their decision to permit the hiring of gay and lesbian faculty members who are married or celibate. Before that announcement, two other institutions had already quit the CCCU, saying they would not remain if some of its members hired faculty in same-sex marriages.

The situation facing CCCU is a modern-day version of an ancient problem. For millennia, the Christian church has confronted recurring choices between purity and unity. Historical distance has drained the intensity of stressful moments of disagreement, however, and over time we have become dispassionate readers of ancient conflicts. Concerns over eating meat that had been sacrificed to an idol seem odd through a 21st-century lens, as do expectations for circumcision, and for some, honoring the Jewish Sabbath.

But while the conflicts in the Christian church today are different, they follow a familiar pattern. They begin with a controversial issue manifested in human attitudes, beliefs or behaviors, but they are quickly recast as an essential theological question. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to discern where theology ends and social or political ideology begins. Political discourse seems to be driving much of our theological debate today, and our society now interprets the label “evangelical” as a political alliance much more than as a group of churches with a redemptive mission.

Regardless of their origins, theological and ideological disagreements abound in the church today as they always have. What may be changing is the extent to which the debates are spilling over into related or affiliated organizations that claim a faith-based purpose. Higher education is no exception, as institutional members of the CCCU are feeling the strain of theological and ideological difference pulling them apart.

The institution I serve, Central College, is not a member of the CCCU and to my knowledge never has been. The college has always been church affiliated and, for the past century, has had a relationship with the Reformed Church in America (RCA), but it is not directly governed or financed by the church. We have a Covenant of Mutual Responsibilities that encourages the college in its educational mission, ensures freedom of inquiry and calls on us to be of service to the wider church. As the college’s culture has evolved over the long arc of time, we have continued to embrace human difference and diversity as an expression of our mission and in service of our church affiliation. The college’s welcome statement notes:

We seek to create mutually respectful interactions and positive meaning in relationships with persons of every ethnicity, race, national origin, ancestry, color, socioeconomic class, creed, religion, philosophical belief, marital status, disability, physical appearance, sex, age, sexual orientation, gender expression and identity, and organizational affiliation.

Since Central College is not a member of the CCCU, one might ask why I care about this organization. It happens that I come from these roots, as I was raised in an evangelical church, attended a Christian school as a youngster and graduated from a Christian college, where I began my career, that is a member of the CCCU. I have traveled some distance from those roots, both theologically and ideologically, but I have a deep and abiding affection for the many gifts I received from the evangelical community throughout the course of my life. It pains me to see the fracturing that is now spreading to the CCCU.

Over many years, I have listened to shifting debates about the role of women in the church; the implications of divorce; the appropriateness of interracial marriage; the risks of incorporating contemporary music in worship; the consumption of alcohol; the use of playing cards; participation in social dancing, movies, gambling or secret societies; the appropriate hair length for boys and skirt length for girls; and what one is allowed to do on Sunday; along with a range of even more nuanced social and cultural issues related to human difference and diversity that are too numerous to count. What fascinates me is these once deeply divisive and emotional issues in the Christian church are fading into the backdrop of history, and years from now, they will seem as distant as meat sacrificed to idols, circumcision and the Jewish Sabbath.

In America today, we feel the current intensity around topics like human sexuality, abortion, contraception, the death penalty, evolution, military conflict, income inequality, social justice and climate change. We are quick to claim that these are different -- and justifiably so, since several involve questions of life and death, and humanity’s future. Yet, in the years to come, the church and society will continue to evolve. In time, some of these issues may fade from relevance. A few may be resolved. Others may remain in dispute. One thing is certain, however: those of us who are in leadership today with strong opinions will gradually be marginalized by age and eventually absent by death. The current generation of leaders has moved past the disputes I remember as a teenager in the church, and the generation to come will do the same in time. Thus, the question is not about who will win the debate and discredit or assert control over the others. It is, “How can we work together despite our differences?”

I often have felt these disputes have much more to do with an underlying view of the Bible and its perceived or assumed authority. As quoted in Inside Higher Ed, my colleague Thomas White, president of Cedarville University, noted, “This decision means that the CCCU and Christian universities will have to clarify their position on biblical marriage. We welcome this opportunity, and we welcome the opportunity to stand with other universities that believe in biblical authority.” The line has now been drawn. At the extremes, some Christians see the Scriptures as a grand narrative and others as the literal word of God recorded by dictation. The former are accused of relativism; the latter are accused of bibliolatry. The expectation for adherence to either extreme will be of little benefit, as there is a vast spectrum of views in between those poles.

I cannot predict what issues the church and its affiliated organizations will face in the generations to come. History teaches us, however, that disagreements will be inevitable. Through such times, we must rely on our capacity to bear the complexities of relationships and resist the urge to either withdraw ourselves or expel others from an affiliation over differing views.

The net result of the current dispute within the CCCU suggests that those who chose to leave the organization in protest over the lack of an immediate response to expel the offending members will not return to the organization. For them, the damage is done. Those who were under scrutiny given a change in institutional posture on same-sex marriage elected to withdraw to avoid further conflict. For them, the damage is done. Those who remain now appear ready to create a more clearly defined set of boundary conditions and stipulations for membership, which will invariably expose even more areas of disagreement. For them, more damage is yet to come.

This is a recipe for a gradual unraveling of an immensely important organization in the higher education landscape, and it should certainly be avoided. These institutions carry rich intellectual traditions that should be explored and honored. They sponsor important conversations related to the relationship of faith and learning. Together they serve a constituency that relies on their continuing and collective strength at a time when societal shifts are buffeting many churches and church-affiliated organizations. Through all this, no individual college or university is being asked to change its theological position, its statement of faith, its worldview or its practice of ministry. What we are being told is that the simple association with those who differ is now untenable.

If the CCCU attempts to establish a set of purity tests for members over a range of longstanding or emerging theological disputes that are further complicated by intervening social and political ideologies, then unity will be lost and this organization will be in peril. Splits within churches, denominations and affiliated organizations over such disputes are not new. Yet, in the end, little is accomplished, and future generations will scratch their heads wondering why we allowed ourselves to dissolve into fragments, far less effective in achieving the overall mission of the church, simply because we could not bear the weight of relationship.

The advice of St. Paul in his letter to the church in Rome remains good advice for today:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. (Romans 14:1-6 [NRSV])

Mark Putnam is president of Central College, in Iowa.

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