Pedagogy is not a Weapon: Defending Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

[CW: discussion of sexual assault, trauma]

Ever since Socrates upbraided his followers in the Agora, there has been a strong tradition among educators to bitch about students and/or their various foibles. We all do it, and there’s no denying that this type of venting can serve a valuable purpose, if kept to the private and confidential realm of office talks or water-cooler chatter with colleagues. But student-shaming has moved beyond the confines of faculty lounge venting and become a cottage industry of sorts, as the past few years have shown that it can pay to be an educator with pissed-off hot takes about Kids These Days™.

I don’t mean to say there isn’t room for critiques of how students interact with higher education (and vice-versa). But I do find it odd that, in best-selling books by “thought leaders” or the op-ed pages of allegedly venerable publications like the New York Times or The Atlantic, this genre chooses to blame students for being victimized by the structural problems the authors lament. Calling students “the dumbest generation” and justifying that claim by pointing to their consumption of digital media and use of digital tools begs the question: what exactly are students supposed to do? Opt out of online technology? Describing Ivy League students as “excellent sheep”-strong academic performers but safely orthodox thinkers-doesn’t really address the larger question of why students might be intellectually conditioned to be that way (and whose interests such conditioning might serve). One might ask, is the Ivy League’s culture one where that sort of sheep-ness is the implicit norm, an attitude through which students see the easiest path to “success” (almost always defined as a degree)?

If we bemoan that equation of success with degree attainment and complain that students only see higher education in terms of what type of job they will get, have we paused to realize that this is what students have been told by teachers, parents, and politicians from their very first discussions of college? Go to college to get a better job. A bachelor’s degree increases your future earning power. How do admissions counselors recruit students (and parents/extended families)? By using things like job placement rates of our recent graduates.

Even in the Liberal Arts, we defend the value of our disciplines largely by talking about how a liberal arts education imparts the types of skills that employers value. You’ll be a capitalist cog, but a thoughtful one! So how can we fault students for seeing higher education in largely instrumental, transactional terms if those are the only terms in which they’ve had it discussed with them? We cannot blame students for the failures of the systems in which we’ve forced them to operate. If we want to restore the idea of higher education as a space of transformation, of emancipatory learning, then we need to start with the ways in which we talk about its purpose and value. Have we adopted the language of instrumental reason and neoliberal ideology to justify our worth? If so, any victory won with these measures will be fleeting at best, and any space we create for ourselves will contract even more suddenly than it appeared.

One of the most damaging ways in which neoliberal ideology and values have infected our current higher education discourse is manifest in the outrage ginned up by conservative academics and organizations over so-called “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” Like many topics that have become fodder for this anger-industrial complex, trigger warnings and safe spaces exist in this debate only as thin caricatures, targets du jour for those who embrace an anti-student and anti-learning agenda. A particularly egregious example comes from within the academy itself, a now-famous (or notorious) 2016 letter from the Dean of the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students to the university’s incoming class of new students. Less of a welcome letter than a polemic searching for an audience, the dean’s letter cautioned the new students that no matter what they might have heard, higher education is No Place for Timid Men. Contrary to the prevailing trends in higher education, the Dean averred, the University of Chicago was not in the business of shielding students from arguments they didn’t like. No siree, this august institution was not in the business of creating “safe spaces”; sometimes the truth hurts, sometimes you have to hear arguments you don’t like, and sometimes life is just hard, dammit. The Dean’s implication was clear: the university is here to toughen students up, not serve as a nanny bent only on tucking its students away, comfortably shielded from scary ideas and the big, bad world. The letter went viral almost instantly, and judging by the number of approving shares and “YAAASS” endorsements it received on various social media platforms, the Dean clearly touched a nerve. In an impressive, yet ultimately dismaying, feat of irony, the defenders of Chicago’s tough-love approach shouted down anyone who disagreed with them, mocking and denigrating the Dean’s critics as a bunch of safe-space-wanting hippies not worthy of being involved in the conversation. Never mind that a large proportion of these critics were actual teachers who had actual experience with actual students; the narrative of a stern father figure telling the trophy generation to buck up was too compelling to resist.

Picture of fraternity hazing scene from the movie Animal House
This is how students learned in MY day!

This set of arguments, though, takes aim at a caricature rather than reality. The backlash against so-called “safe spaces” fundamentally misunderstands the concept. The critics of “trigger warnings” fall into the same trap; they concentrate their fire on a bogeyman that exists mostly in their own fevered imaginations. Those of us who employ these pedagogical tools understand that creating a safe space for discussion isn’t a means to hide from scary topics, but rather to ensure that all participants can engage and struggle with them on equitable terms. It heightens the quality of analysis, and significantly adds to the degree of learning that takes place, if students know that they will be treated with respect and collegiality while wrestling with difficult, emotional, or sensitive topics. “Safe spaces”-the real version, not the trumped-up caricature-do not hide ideas from students, but rather create an environment in which those ideas can actually receive the engagement and scrutiny they merit. So too with “trigger warnings.” These are pedagogical tools that allow for genuine engagement and confrontation with ideas and material, and in fact are the only tools that allow us to do so. You cannot have a discussion about difficult material that includes all students if some of those students are sitting in shocked silence and others are devoting cognitive resources to maintaining an outward equilibrium or suppressing an anxiety attack. You cannot honestly confront difficult material if there are students unprepared to participate in that process-and our students will certainly need varying degrees of preparation. You may think you’re being clever by utilizing shock value “as a teaching tool,” but more likely you’re just being an asshole.

Somewhere along the way, the idea that it might be a good thing to warn students if they would be encountering, say, unusually racist or violent material has morphed into an assault on the very bastions of academic freedom. Why should we give students an out, the critics ask; won’t they just use it as an escape hatch to frivolously avoid any and all course work they “don’t like?” But, once again, that’s not how any of this works. We live with trigger warnings all around us, for what else are movie ratings or the “viewer discretion advised” disclaimers at the beginning of a television show if not a similar mechanism?

To use a more direct classroom example: we know that a significant portion (perhaps 1 in 4) or women are sexually harassed or assaulted in college. Extrapolating from those numbers (which are underreported, if anything), there’s a better-than-average chance that one of my students is a survivor of sexual assault. And let’s say I show a portion of the film Twelve Years a Slave in one of my class sessions, a portion which includes the scene in which an enslaved woman is raped by a white overseer. Now: imagine being a student who has been sexually assaulted, who is perhaps still working with a counselor, and who has experienced PTSD-like symptoms from her attack-and without warning, you’re watching a violent rape unfold on the screen in front of you as a part of class. What are your options? You can leave the room, but draw unwanted attention to yourself and perhaps fuel rumors and misunderstandings. Or you can remain and relive your nightmare, complete with the physical symptoms of post-traumatic stress, in the middle of the classroom. If only you’d known what was going to happen beforehand, you could have either not watched that scene, left the room beforehand, or availed yourself of one of a number of other options, perhaps in consultation with the professor.

To shift back to the faculty perspective now: knowing what I know about the likelihood of a scene triggering some sort of trauma in a student’s experience, why would I not do something-a brief warning or content note-to prepare the class for what was to come? This is especially true if discussion or meaningful engagement with the material is my goal; it serves no pedagogical purpose to surprise my students with potentially traumatic content. Blindsiding students with graphic material isn’t teaching, it’s assault. I do not believe in teaching through hazing, and I refuse to employ pedagogy as a weapon.

It is literally this simple, folks. Trigger warnings are exactly what the label says: if a student might be triggered (in the psychological/trauma sense, not in the gross ways in which that term has been deployed by internet trolls and their ilk) a simple heads-up helps them take the necessary steps-whatever those might be-to prepare. A literature professor assigning Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles does no harm by warning the class that rape is a key plot point, and likely helps students who might have needed it to encounter the novel on the terms in which they can constructively engage with it.

You might have noticed my examples surrounding trigger warnings and the larger issue of students and trauma have all centered around issues of sexual harassment and/or violence. This was by design, done to highlight one of the inescapable realities of working with students in today’s college or university environment. The appallingly high numbers of sexual assaults on college campuses, coupled with the equally appalling problems that institutions of higher education have had in addressing this crisis, means that it’s not a matter of if, but when, we will have students in our classrooms who are dealing with this type of trauma. Moreover, there is a wider range of incidents which can prompt subsequent manifestation of trauma. Refugees, for example, have often experienced horrific circumstances in whatever journeys they took to land in our classrooms. Even more prevalently, there is the “classic” diagnosis of PTSD that stems from combat experience. As our student body diversifies-in gender identity, ethnicity, immigration or veteran status-the traumas associated with some of our students’ experiences are part of the package.

It’s worth observing, though, that we never see conservative commentators making fun of the things we do to mitigate the effects of combat-induced PTSD on our campuses. Yet those measures are justified by, and function in, the exact same ways as the types of trigger warnings we would use around sexual violence. That lack of criticism is revealing, and it says a lot about the conservatives’ opinions regarding gender and sexual assault. It should trouble us that one of the most visible (and eminently reasonable) ways we use to demonstrate empathy and compassion for a not-insignificant number of our students has been twisted into a weapon and thrown back at us by culture-warriors who seem bent upon measuring learning by the amount of suffering involved. In the process, the very phrase “trigger warning” has been turned into a punchline, its original meaning and utility so badly distorted that I hesitated to use it, even in this context.

Why is this? Why is there a significant portion of our discourse about higher education that sees empathy and compassion as its fatal flaw? Part of the answer is the same explanation for why impoverished people are seen as having some inherent moral failing that’s made them poor, or why Black Americans are told to “just get over slavery,” As a society, we struggle to do the hard work of naming and confronting systems of inequality. It’s much easier to believe a poor person is too lazy to pull themselves up by their bootstraps than it is to acknowledge we live in historically unprecedented levels of economic inequality which make injunctions about bootstrapping nothing more than a cruel joke. It’s easier for a white person to think their black colleague has a victim complex than for them to admit even though one may not be a racist themselves, they live in a racist system which consistently advantages people who look like them. It’s an avoidance mechanism; acknowledging structural inequalities means we commit ourselves to either working against them or ignoring them, with all the consequences for others-acknowledged or not-that decision entails.

So it goes with higher education. It’s easier to mock purportedly “triggered” students as “snowflakes” than it is to honestly reckon with the structures of inequality that shaped them and within which we are asking them to function. In our neoliberal frame of reference, society is organized on market principles optimized to produce individual opportunity and efficiencies. Failures, deficits, struggles, or other similar features of students’ stories must be the fault of those students, then; why don’t they just work harder, or get more money, or choose a better school? Our prevailing cultural values tell us that success and failure are individual choices, not the mingling of individual actions with larger structures. To admit otherwise is to pull back the curtain on the neoliberal Oz.

But what if we were brave enough to take down that curtain?

What would we learn?

What would we do differently?

Maybe we’d stop rehearsing the same tired arguments against the same imaginary bogeymen and actually get down to the real work of education.

4 thoughts on “Pedagogy is not a Weapon: Defending Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces”

  1. Thank you for writing this. Yes, yes, yes. Ignoring the potential trauma that our course content can cause students is hiding ignorantly in a shell of privilege.

    Also, the only way we can ever have truly student-centered learning is to respectfully listen to our students. If we’re really listening, we care about the impact our message has.

  2. Having just recently read the “Anti-Intellectualism in American life” by Richard Hofstadter (1963) and danah boyd’s provocative keynote at SXSW-EDU earlier this year, I am struck by the author’s statement about Conservative attacks against higher ed, that “…trigger warnings and safe spaces exist in this debate only as thin caricatures, targets du jour for those who embrace an anti-student and anti-learning agenda.”

    I propose that what we are talking about here are two separate issues. First, anti-intellectualism, if we embrace Hofstadter’s historical context, has more to do with social constructs of power and the perceived legitimacy of it, such as the populist perception that a barely (formally) educated Davy Crockett was more suitable as an elected official than wealthy elites educated at Harvard. Being an intellectual elite was indistinguishable in the populist mindset from being college educated, which stigmatized educated individuals as being out of touch, and therefore an easy target of populist attacks.

    This leads to boyd’s challenge to the claim we make in higher education that the way we construct “legitimate knowledge” – through peer reviewed, scientifically tested methods – is the only way knowledge can be deemed validated. Conservatives (or at least, those who reject the reification of higher education) say that the higher education system itself is fundamentally “rigged” by liberal peers to self-validate whatever it produces which means that whatever knowledge we produce is biased, i.e. climate change, social justice, yadda yadda. boyd asks us to examine the epistemology of individuals who attain certainty in what they know by methods other than how we do it in higher education.

    I suggest that attacks on safe spaces and trigger warnings have less to do with objectively anti-student/anti-learning sentiments – everyone is a student and everyone learns. They are instead attacks on liberal privilege: that the institutions that confer credentials (and therefore personal advancement) will not validate knowledge constructed by any other means but reason and evidence. Populist and/or faith based epistemologies are clearly rejected by the Academy, though tens of millions of Americans have both relied on these methods and have tethered themselves culturally to its legitimacy.

    Whether this disparity can be resolved (or should be) is a battle in the larger culture war, which I suggest is a good thing for us to fight.

    1. I think you’re overgeneralizing about higher education and its epistemologies. There are plenty of folks in higher education who argue for a de-centering of the privileged epistemology you discuss here. Repeated admonitions to “de-colonize” the academy, to honor indigenous and folk ways of knowing, to pay attention to communal and community-based traditions of learning–“folk wisdom,” if you will–are all over the literature in a variety of fields. Boyd is calling for something that, in many ways, already exists outside of the Ivy-League, narrow “academe” context in which she seems to be operating.
      What’s striking is that none of the purportedly “anti-elite,” populist conservatives who are criticizing higher education seem to have any room for these trends; instead, they mock them as PC-run-amok or liberal snowflaky jargon. Yet these calls for decolonization, for embracing at folk wisdom and “traditional” ways of knowing seem to be exactly they want in a “non-privileged” academy. I wonder why that is….Indeed, what you term an elitist, narrow epistemology is the kind being most fiercely defended by self-styled conservative academics who want to uphold the canon and “rigor.”
      So, no, I don’t buy this point. It is not some vague bogeyman of “liberal privilege” that is the issue here.

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