W el l-m eaning people have long considered themselves both compassionate and able to listen to others’ experiences. Sometimes it’s possible to completely lack both in favor of an ab stract idea of “academic freedom.”
Recently, a Daily Pennsylvanian editorial (“Shooting down trigger warnings,” Sept. 12) stated that trigger warnings “ultimately serve to undermine the fundamental values of academia.” This statement begs the question: What are these values? For many, academic freedom is first and foremost, and for some, trigger warnings — which have been getting a lot of attention in academic spaces lately — threaten this freedom. I want to question what we see as “academic freedom” and who is allowed to be free under that definition.
First of all, we need to understand what trigger warnings would actually do in a classroom setting. There seems to be this idea that using trigger warnings in classrooms would somehow dictate what material can and can’t be taught. This is simply not the case. The point of trigger warnings isn’t to eliminate class material, but rather to alert students to where and when certain topics will be mentioned.
Still, some who recognize this fact think that prefacing something with a trigger warning somehow disrupts the intellectual experience of reading or viewing it. As the DP editorial put it, “It is sometimes deemed necessary for students to experience visceral reactions to the material with which they come into contact. The purpose of such material is to be taken by surprise, offended and even, at times, disturbed.”
This statement shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between being surprised or offended and being traumatized. Furthermore, it exposes the unsettling fact that many people out there genuinely care more about some assumed abstract “true academic experience” than the safety of students. College senior Victoria Ford was particularly disturbed by that sentiment.
“The fact that anyone can be offended by a 30 second introduction and gesture made to help someone who has suffered a trauma in the name of ‘a true education’ is laughable, hypocritical and perturbing. ... When did your education, your “free expression” become more important than someone else’s safety?”
Although the well-being of trauma survivors should be reason enough to include trigger warnings in academic settings, some may still be against this inclusion in favor of this true “academic experience.” But does this even exist?
In one course offered this semester, “Black Feminist Approaches to History and Memory,” the professor (the incredible Grace Sanders Johnson) uses an alternative approach to discussing course materials. Before discussing “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs, the class took several minutes to collectively and calmly support one another in thinking about their bodies and trauma in relation to the bodies and trauma in the readings. This sort of preparation and self-reflection before engaging with such heavy material helped students navigate tricky and upsetting content.
Working relationships between professors and students, classroom dynamics and approaches to teaching are constantly evolving over time. Why is the “jump right in and be surprised” strategy heralded as the “correct” way to engage with material?
We also must recognize that students take different approaches to course material, some of which differ greatly because of various life circumstances. College junior Connor McLaren relates his experience to that of those who are benefitted by trigger warnings.
“Being a Deaf student at Penn, I appreciate trigger warnings’ importance to students who have different learning styles. I ... have a stenographer who writes everything that the teacher and other students say verbatim in case I miss something. Having equal access to information allows me to be on the same playing field as other students. All students should be given this same opportunity, no matter what their differences.”
I would hope that professors want students to get the most knowledge from their classes as possible. By opposing the inclusion of trigger warnings — either actively or passively — this will never happen for many students. They will continue to have negative (or even traumatizing) experiences in classes in order to make room for an arrogant and outdated idea of what “academic freedom” looks like.
In the end, this over-protectiveness of an abstract “academic freedom” is really the unreasonable ideal, not the small act of making material more accessibl e and s afer fo r all.
Roderick Cook is a College junior from Nesquehoning, Pa. Their email address is email@example.com “What’s the T?” appears every other Thursday.
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