CHRIS SCHILLIG: Academic fingers on the trigger warning

ALLIANCE REVIEW Published:

"Trigger warnings" are the latest topic to trigger strong responses, pro and con, on college campuses.

A story in the May 18 New York Times, "Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm" by Jennifer Medina, reports on attempts by some factions to add disclaimers to syllabi about the content of certain books that might trigger strong responses in some students.

For example, a student at Rutgers suggested that "The Great Gatsby" should be prefaced by a warning that it contains "misogynistic violence." A draft guide posted on a campus website at Oberlin College noted that "all forms of violence are traumatic" and cautioned professors to be cognizant of a variety of -isms -- including racism, sexism and classism -- in literature that could potentially traumatize students.

While I applaud any attempts to be sympathetic to the vast life experiences represented by students in every classroom, any attempts to label books by content is misguided at best and dangerous at worst.

Conflict is the bedrock of all fiction. Somebody wants something that somebody else has, whether that something is tangible, like material riches, or intangible, like a sense of self-worth. Two characters should seldom be in the same room together and agree with one another; instead, they should most often be in opposition, implicitly or explicitly.

This focus on conflict means that protagonists often face overwhelming odds, many of which are traumatic. It's the way almost all popular fiction works, and it's the way most literary fiction works, as well.

To seek out potential "triggers" on the average lit-class syllabus, then, would mean to put a warning in place about every single book. And even then, college professors and students might not agree on what content in each book merits disclaimers.

Take "A Tale of Two Cities." Since public decapitation is still practiced in Saudi Arabia, any Saudi students in the class may need to know that Dickens' novel hinges on use of the guillotine and could therefore potentially trigger post-traumatic stress.

Or "The Scarlet Letter," where Puritans in colonial Boston ostracize the heroine because she has a child out of wedlock. Any women in the room who have been through a similar situation (and any men who have fathered children that they've not owned up to) could feel uncomfortable as a result.

"The Bluest Eye" may be unpleasant to victims of incest, "The Red Badge of Courage" and "The Things They Carried" to war veterans, and "The Sound and the Fury" to anybody with a family member who is mentally challenged. Do all merit trigger warnings?

The issue extends beyond literature. An associate professor at Middlebury College in Vermont was taken to task by students for showing photos of people with anorexia in a sociology class, according to the Huffington Post.

While some students and readers see trigger warnings as a helpful way to flag objectionable content, I find them problematic. It's one thing to have individual professors who informally make students cognizant of potentially controversial content; it's quite another to codify the practice in policy handbooks and across departments.

Who determines what is potentially objectionable? What happens if a significant majority of students "opt out" of a particular assignment? What if instructors decide it is easier to avoid a book like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and discussions about racism in the classroom, thereby robbing students of the opportunity to tackle controversial topics?

It's a much shorter step than many realize from compassionate but misguided attempts at shielding students from trauma to anthology publishers marketing separate versions of textbooks to avoid certain themes and topics altogether. (It's happened for years with science texts and the theory of evolution.)

In a society that is politically correct to a fault and a collegiate system where competition to attract and keep students is fierce, it isn't too much of a stretch to imagine some institutions of higher learning quietly deciding to skip potentially controversial topics and books to create a more pleasant learning environment. Students can get through with their assumptions unchallenged and their worldview unrattled. You know, the kind of tapioca thought-process that a college education is supposed to cure.

Chris Schillig is an Alliance area educator and journalist. Contact him at chris.schillig@yahoo.com or @cschillig at Twitter.

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  • From: nimh.nih.gov....National Institute of Mental Health

    PTSD develops after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm. The person who develops PTSD may have been the one who was harmed, the harm may have happened to a loved one, or the person may have witnessed a harmful event that happened to loved ones or strangers.

    PTSD was first brought to public attention in relation to war veterans, but it can result from a variety of traumatic incidents, such as mugging, rape, torture, being kidnapped or held captive, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.

    ***Please note Mr. Schillig, that reading a book is not mentioned as a cause for Post Traumatic Stress...

  • From above: Dickens' novel hinges on use of the guillotine and could therefore potentially trigger post-traumatic stress.

    You don't get post-traumatic stress, (PTSD) from reading a book !